A startling number of high school and college students - both female and male -- are being battered, sexually abused or stalked by their dates, according to a Kansas State University professor.
"Approximately 30 percent of college students have been in relationships that involve physical aggression. Even more have been in relationships that are emotionally abusive," said Sandra Stith, director of the marriage and family therapy program at K-State and a nationally recognized expert in domestic violence.
Likewise, approximately 25 percent of high school students who are in relationships are subjected to abuse, according to Stith.
Research points to many complex triggers, said Stith, who also is a pioneer in couples treatment for domestic violence.
Stress and the inability to control anger are common ones. Another is the intensity of the relationship. Stith said studies show that the more serious the liaison, the more likely it is to be violent.
Too many students think they don't deserve better treatment, she said.
Some think hitting and abusive language are acceptable. "It is never OK to be emotionally abusive or physically violent," Stith said. "We need to send a clear message that abuse in any form is not normal, not acceptable and not OK."
Research clearly indicates that both male and female students are victims of physical and emotional abuse. "We cannot minimize violence against women," she said. "Male violence is more likely to cause serious injury and death."
However, just like female victims, male victims often accept blame for the abuse, saying things like "it's my fault because I am not listening to her," Stith said.
She said abuse in young relationships takes other forms: attempting to control the partner's behavior, extreme jealousy, constant belittling and trying to frighten a partner with activities such as driving recklessly.
Stith lists several red flags that indicate abuse or potential violence:
- Does your partner make you feel bad about yourself? "Insults and humiliation, forms of emotional abuse, lead to a feeling of worthlessness," Stith said. An example is the boyfriend or girlfriend who continually says, "Without me you are nothing."
- Does your partner try to control your life? Do you think he won't let you go out with your friend because he loves you so much and doesn't want to lose you? Wrong, Stith said. Being overly controlling is a form of abuse and can quickly escalate to violence.
- Is your partner binge drinking? Research links binge drinking with violence.
- Is your partner involved in heavy alcohol or drug use? "We used to think that violence and substance abuse were two separate phenomena. However, increasingly we are finding that in many couples violence and substance abuse are strongly linked," Stith said.
It is important, Stith said, to ask this question: "Do I feel better or worse about myself when I am in this relationship?" A healthy relationship makes you feel proud of yourself, she said. It makes you feel that "you are a beautiful person."
Stith's advice to those who face dating violence: Get help or get out. Stith is director of Kansas State University's marriage and family therapy program and a nationally recognized expert in domestic violence.
"Admittedly, it is hard to get out of a relationship alone ... and students shouldn't have to," Stith said. "Studies indicate that many victims want help but don't know where to turn."
For students who believe a friend may be abused, Stith urges them to speak up. Silence adds to the problem, she said.
Ask about the black eye, the bruised arms, the constant tears, Stith said. Say "I'm worried about you," Or tell a teacher, parent or counselor.
"You want peace of mind. You want to know that you did all you could," Stith said.
Campuses and communities offer a myriad of counseling and support resources.