Abuse lurks behind closed doors
Subtle aspects of unhealthy relationships
January 8, 2019
Reflecting on her personal experience with relationship abuse, senior Rachel Mattson said it may have been difficult for others to recognize her situation. She said although there was no physical evidence of abuse, mental and emotional damage still affected her daily life.
“It was a lot of making me feel like I was the one that caused all of the mess and it was always my fault, and it was those little things thrown around that when you’re outside, you’re not going to see it. There were no bruises,” Mattson said.
More than skin deep
Young people are most at risk for abuse, according to Sarah Bigler, an engagement coordinator for One Love. Bigler said One Love is an organization that aims to bring awareness to unhealthy relationships as well as to educate and empower young people.
“One in three women and one in four men will experience an abusive or unhealthy relationship at some point in their lifetime, but it’s young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are most affected by this issue,” Bigler said.
According to health teacher Amy Pieper-Berchem, there are many aspects of abuse besides physical.
“If it affects them mentally, socially or physically, I think that can be considered abuse. There’s many aspects to it other than just physical, that’s why I think it’s important that we talk about this,” Pieper-Berchem said.
Senior Erica Dudley, co-president of Park’s Sexual Health Education Club (SHEC), said abuse manifests because of a lack of respect for one’s partner.
“Generally (abuse is) any relationship without mutual respect and understanding of the other person’s wishes, and disrespect of not only their person but their boundaries,” Dudley said.
Mattson said she defines abuse as an imbalance of power in a relationship. She said asking a significant other to change for personal benefit is abusive.
“(When) one person has more control over the other, it leads to a lot of problems in a relationship which is why it’s abuse. You need that equality within both people for it to be healthy,” Mattson said.
Owning the issue
Pieper-Berchem said she frequently sees and hears direct abuse as well as stories from students about witnessing or experiencing abuse within Park’s walls.
“I can walk down the hall and see it,” Pieper-Berchem said. “I’ve walked down the hall and heard it. I have kids in class giving anecdotal evidence of this, so for me to deny that it’s happening here would just be so wrong.”
Mattson said she believes the health curriculum at Park does a good job of covering how to recognize overt physical and verbal abuse, but should go into more depth about the more subtle forms such as emotional abuse.
“I don’t think that people know the scale of what abuse actually is, they just know the top 50 percent of it,” Mattson said.
Pieper-Berchem said the health curriculum helps students recognize what abusive tendencies may look like, and educates on the warning signs of abuse.
“We talk about some of the warning signs and what you look for because we point out some of the things that we consider abusive and the kids are like, ‘What? I didn’t even know that was abusive,’” Pieper-Berchem said.
According to Mattson, students who don’t yet understand the serious nature of abusive relationships can unknowingly offend those who have been affected.
“I feel like since people might not have as much awareness, especially since we’re in high school, there’s immaturity,” Mattson said. “People throw things out there not knowing that the person sitting next to them have personally dealt with that and it can be extremely triggering.”
Pieper-Berchem said it is crucial for students to learn how to employ healthy practices in relationships.
“I don’t know if this is talked about in other classes. I think it’s really imperative that this is something that we do, and talk about and take it pretty seriously,” Pieper-Berchem said.
According to Dudley, who is also a member of the youth advisory board at myHealth Clinic, there are nuances between abuse in straight relationships and LGBTQ relationships.
“There’s a lot of power dynamics that people don’t realize because they think people in same-sex relationships, there wouldn’t be a power dynamic because there’s not a male who’s on top,” Dudley said.
Tyler Osterhaus, the school-based services coordinator for the domestic violence agency Cornerstone, said it is imperative to the wellbeing of victims to have a safe place to go and people they can talk to.
“It’s not the victim’s fault, and one of the best things that we can do is to believe them, and support them and empower them,” Osterhaus said.
Pieper-Berchem said although it is difficult to recognize personal abusive tendencies, it is important to do so in order to stop unhealthy cycles.
“Often times people perpetuate what they learned at home,” Pieper-Berchem said. “(If) that pattern continues, maybe they don’t have a skill set to be another way and that could be really scary revelation.”
Mattson said students should be aware of their friends’ relationships in case there were to be unhealthy habits affecting their well-being.
“When you see that balance shift or you see that it’s unbalanced in a relationship, that’s when you take notice,” Mattson said. “It’s hard to bring it up because the person in the relationship may not even notice that they’re being abused.”
Bigler said a big step in recovering from an unhealthy relationship is addressing the topic and use your resources to ask for help.
“All of us need help at some point in our lifetimes and asking for us doesn’t make us shameful, it doesn’t make us weak. It makes us strong,” Bigler said. “The best way to deal with that trauma is to talk about it and only by talking about it can you heal.”
Mattson said she felt talking about her experience was crucial to her recovery.
“I got a therapist afterwards because it was too much for me to personally handle, and so to work through all of that,” Mattson said. “Nothing can be done to them because it’s all mental, and it’s all within their body so you can’t just go into surgery and pull that out.”
Osterhaus said help is available for victims as well as perpetrators of abuse.
“It’s learned behavior. We can unlearn it,” Osterhaus said. “We can learn new behavior, so first it’s reflecting on how you’re treating other people, that you do recognize the signs knowing that change is possible.”