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How to save your kids from future abusive relationships

Published: Friday, July 18 2014 6:30 a.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, July 18 2014 2:37 p.m. MDT

Victim

Artem_Furman, Getty Images/iStockphoto

The young man is so attentive that his young partner blushes, equal parts embarrassed and pleased that he wants her to himself. "He's jealous," she giggles to a friend as they watch him glower at the boy she's been teamed with in 10th-grade science class.

His behavior will later be less adorable when he fusses if she wants to spend time with family or friends, or when she wants a burger but he wants her to have a salad.

Playing keep-away with her phone because she's ignoring him will be another step in a journey that moves from "playful" pinching if she doesn't do what he wants to twisting her arm or slapping her. He'll apologize and say he was joking. Later, she may not dare challenge him.

Domestic violence experts who describe scenes like this say the progression is predictable. The girl this young man claims to love should have already laced up her sneakers to run for her life, they say.

The number of abused women in the U.S. is startling: The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence during their lives. An estimated 1.3 million women are assaulted by an intimate partner each year.

Just how young partner violence starts, though, is shocking. One in 10 high school students surveyed said their boyfriend or girlfriend deliberately hurt them physically in the past year. And 14 percent of male and 20 percent of female abuse victims first experienced partner violence between ages 11 and 17, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Partner violence often begins in middle or high school. It's a problem so great that the CDC has given researchers at Wayne State University and Eastern Michigan University a large grant to see if they can determine why some kids are in violent relationships and others manage to avoid them — and what can be changed to prevent such abuse.

Partner abuse

Patricia Baronowski can come up with 25 signs of domestic violence without thinking too hard about it, because she experienced many of them. The New Yorker rattles them off: "When your partner wants to consume all of your time. When your partner starts to ... " Her list includes controlling access to transportation and money; ruining a partner's things; demeaning the partner; and questioning the propriety of friendships. She describes "acting one way in front of people and another when you are alone."

The threats Baronowski endured included harm to people, pets and kids she loved. Her abuser monitored where she was and recruited others to check on her. The final item? "When your partner tries to make you believe that you deserve to be hurt or mistreated."

It may start young, but "the challenge is that in young love, much is tolerated and less is reported," said David Simonsen, a family counselor in the Seattle area. The hardest thing to do, he added, is get the perpetrator to see the behavior as problematic.

The tendency is to give second — and fifth and 15th — chances.

"When women fight abusers over these behaviors, but repeatedly forgive them and give into demands, they teach the abuser that they are breaking down and releasing their own power," said Jennifer Kalita, a women's advocate in Washington, D.C. "By the time the first beating occurs, the victim is so deeply embedded in the controlling relationship that it's difficult to break free."

Alisa Ruby Bash, a marriage and family therapist in Beverly Hills, California, said sexual orientation, religion, race, gender, ethnic backgrounds and occupations have nothing to do with whether one is abused. Most abusers are male, so experts tend to use "he" when talking about partner violence. It's not a failure to recognize it can cut both ways. It's just demographic likelihood.

Signs

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