Equal Partners

Austin teenagers learn to expect respect in dating relationships

by Mary M. Harrison

When 13-year-old Aimee first began dating, she expected great things: "I'd have someone I could always count on, and everyone -- all the girls -- would look up to me because I had a boyfriend," Aimee explains. What she didn't expect were her boyfriend's constant phone calls to check up on her, the restrictions he placed on her activities, the yelling and, eventually, the threats.

"It's getting worse," Aimee reports in a soft voice. (Names of students and parents have been changed.) "The other day he grabbed my arm and squeezed it real hard." Aimee, a 7th grade student at Covington Middle School in Austin , Texas , is beginning to share her story with a group of girls who, like herself, are exposed to an often hidden danger of adolescence: dating violence.

According to recent classroom surveys in Austin , one out of every three teenagers will experience physical abuse in a dating relationship -- a statistic that echoes national trends. Other studies indicate that dating violence cuts across racial and economic lines in cities, suburbs and towns across the country.

What sets Austin apart is its response to the problem. With support from the Austin public schools, the Center for Battered Women has developed the Teen Dating Violence Project (TDVP), an innovative 24-week therapeutic program that offers single-sex peer support groups for young men and women who have been or are currently involved in violent relationships. The program also reaches out to students who have witnessed spousal abuse at home, since studies indicate that they are more likely to be involved in violent relationships.

The support groups for young women were introduced in 1988 in response to concern among high school counselors that some girls' boyfriends were battering them. Three years later, in 1991, TDVP extended its programs to boys as well. Since then, the project has grown to include 18 peer groups in seven high schools and four middle schools in Austin . With the help of grant money, the Center for Battered Women has provided counselors for the groups at no cost to the schools.

On this Thursday morning at Covington , it's first period business as usual throughout most of the school. But Aimee and five other girls from diverse backgrounds have gathered in a secluded sports utility room to talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships. Although counselors point out that most middle school students don't "date" in the traditional sense, young adolescents may still become involved in dangerous relationships.

Today, Aimee describes her unsuccessful attempt to break up with her boyfriend. "He put a big guilt trip on me," she says. "He got a real sorry look on his face like he would cry." Aimee adds that her boyfriend yells at her on the phone but gets angry if she raises her voice.

"When you go to a show, do you both decide what to see, or does he make all the decisions?" asks Sarah, another student.

"He makes the decisions," Aimee answers.

"It sounds like he's in control," Sarah says. The other girls agree.

Dana Bartels, the counselor leading today's meeting, jumps into the discussion. "The group is picking up that there is inequality in the relationship," she points out. "It's hard to think about breaking up, but keep in mind that you have to put safety first. You may need safety plans and some adults to get involved."

After the session wraps up, Bartels explains that she frequently reviews all the options, including legal ones, available to young women for their protection. "There's no way to predict which abuser will reach the level of being dangerous," she says. Bartels points out that abuse comes in many forms: verbal, physical, sexual. Domination and control, berating remarks, intense jealousy and possessiveness are all forms of mental and emotional abuse that can escalate into violence.

Most, but not all, violence in dating relationships is perpetrated by males against females, according to Barri Rosenbluth, a social worker and coordinator of the TDVP. Gays and lesbians may also experience abuse in their relationships. During the course of the program, counselors lead young men and women through role-plays and other activities to help them recognize the signs and cycles of abuse, as well as what constitutes a healthy relationship.

But, as the dialogue at Covington suggests, the group meetings center on peer interaction. Rosenbluth explains that counselors take the role of facilitator, allowing teens to discover their own answers. "There are very few times when we say, 'This is the way it is,'" says Rosenbluth. "But there is one message that the whole program is about, and we put that message out there: A healthy relationship is based on respect and equality, and an abusive relationship is based on power and control."

A Lesson in Respect
The concepts of respect and equality form the basis of the TDVP curriculum, Expect Respect, which Rosenbluth has been refining for years. Both title and contents reflect an experience she had in the program's early years, when she was a counselor for a young women's group.

It was late in the school year, and the girls had attended regularly. Rosenbluth was sure they knew everything she had taught them about the cycle of violence and the warning signs of a batterer. But many of the girls remained in abusive relationships.

"Every week their stories got worse," Rosenbluth recalls. "One girl's boyfriend threatened her with a knife. She talked about giving up her plans to go to college because he didn't want her to go. I was at a loss. I kept asking myself, 'Why are these girls still with these guys?'"

At one of the last group meetings, Rosenbluth says, she decided to take a survey. She asked the group to raise their hands if they thought that all men were abusive. Every hand went up.

"It was one of those 'light bulb' experiences," Rosenbluth says. "It made sense: If you think all men are the same, you're going to stay with the one you're committed to."

Rosenbluth says this eye-opening incident brought the program's objectives more clearly into focus. "Up to that point, my goal had been to make the girls more knowledgeable about abuse," Rosenbluth says. "We started adding a lot more about what a healthy relationship is. We focused more on what to look for and expect than on what to avoid."

Counselors point out that teenagers in the program typically can identify many forms of abuse but struggle to come up with examples of respectful behavior, such as listening to and supporting their partners. TDVP staff hope that guided exercises in the program will help students develop a repertoire of respectful habits that they can draw on, as well as expect from the dating partners they choose. They also hope these skills will carry over to students' adult relationships and help prevent domestic violence.

Putting a positive spin on TDVP's function also encourages participation. Teenagers are reluctant to join a group for victims or abusers, Rosenbluth explains. "We don't promote either group that way," she says. "We promote it as a men's group or a women's group for people who want to improve their dating relationships."

Flyers for the program are hung around the school at the beginning of the year, and students join voluntarily. Some are referred by counselors or friends. To encourage participation, sessions are held at school during class hours, one period a week.

Re-Envisioned Roles
Learning to build equitable and respectful relationships often requires unlearning gender stereotypes. Society sends teenagers many messages about how men and women should behave: Women should be submissive and willing to please; men should be strong and in control. Through structured activities and dialogue, TDVP participants explore how these stereotypes can box them into narrowly defined roles and create a power imbalance in relationships.

"It's unrealistic for human beings to fit into those boxes," says Rosenbluth. "Boys are not powerful and in control all the time, and girls do have a need to exert their own power. So they get into situations they're not equipped to handle. If a girl feels in danger, she doesn't have the skills to set limits or protect herself. If a boy is feeling insecure or in some way disempowered, he doesn't know how to handle that in a nonviolent way."

These gender stereotypes are a double-edged sword, Rosenbluth adds. "Not only are boys learning they're to be in control, but girls are learning that boys are supposed to be in control. So girls are looking for boys who are in control. There is teamwork going on. People think the boys are the bad guys, and it's not like that. We're all in this together."

On a Wednesday morning not far from Covington , a group of young men participating in a TDVP group session at Bowie High School are addressing these very issues, struggling in their own ways to reinterpret the maxim "Act like a man."

"Almost all of the guys have problems with violence and how to control their anger," says counselor Mark Viator.

At the root of these problems, Barri Rosenbluth believes, is the socialization of boys that typically equates the expression of feelings with weakness. "It starts with boys being afraid of older men who make fun of them. The little boy cries, and he's ridiculed by the older man. Or he gets into a fight and loses. He goes home and his father says, 'You're a wimp.' You have young men learning to treat each other in the same way," she says, adding that anger and violence become the only viable emotional outlets.

Viator explains that because perceptions of gender roles can be deeply ingrained, trying to curb boys' violent or controlling behaviors is often "one step forward and two steps back." One week, Bowie group members seem to understand what a healthy relationship is, he says, and the next time one guy might tell someone who's having trouble with his girlfriend, "You should have punched her."

That's when the peer response means everything, Viator adds. "If I say, 'You shouldn't do that,' they're not going to listen. But if a friend says, 'No, man, you can't do that,' that has a lot of weight."

Counselors cannot ignore the reality that sex is a part of many abusive relationships, Rosenbluth says. Many girls "are having forced sex, they're having unsafe sex, and they're somehow thinking they're bad for letting it happen to them," she says. The program's aim is to help both young women and young men take control of their sexuality and recognize that everyone has the right to say "no" to sex at any time.

In male and female groups alike, Rosenbluth says, discussions often reveal a consensus that forced sex is OK in certain circumstances: if the girl is considered a "slut" or if she has had sex with the boy before or if she is drunk. Counselors press students to justify their views.

In boys' groups, according to Rosenbluth, challenging students this way leads invariably to one person's saying, "I don't want to have sex with someone unless they want to have sex with me" or "That's rape, even if she's drunk." These responses stir up controversy and force group members to examine their attitudes about forced sex.

"That's why it's so important to open that dialogue and give them a chance to say what they really think without judging it," Rosenbluth says. "Otherwise, they'll never disclose their real feelings."

Across the Gap
A highlight of the peer groups -- the mixed gender discussion -- takes place near the end of the program. This is the students' chance to learn more about the views of the opposite sex and to practice the communication skills they've learned. To reduce concerns about confidentiality, the counselors bring together a male group and female group from different schools.

One sunny morning, the Bowie High women's group joins the men's group from Crockett High in a counselor workroom. The 12 teenagers gathered have loosened up over doughnuts and juice, but some still look a bit nervous. To get things started, counselor Dana Bartels asks the participants to introduce themselves and name a quality they bring to a dating relationship.

"Humor and trust," says James.

"Honesty," says Megan.

"I bring romance," says Lizette. "How's that?"

Everyone laughs and seems to relax. For the next 90 minutes, the young men and women alternate asking and answering questions they have prepared in their group sessions a week earlier: "Why do some guys get so jealous?" the girls want to know. "Why do some guys hit girls?" "What would you do if you got a girl pregnant, and why do some guys deny they're the father?"

The boys have other questions: "Why would a girl ignore you when she knows you care about her?" "Why would a girl be hung up on a guy who doesn't have a heart?" "If a guy cares for you, how do you like him to show it?"

The students listen closely to one another and seem surprised that they agree on many issues. The wrap-up pizza lunch has already arrived when Laura poses the final question: "I want to know why some guys are so controlling," she blurts out. "My boyfriend didn't want me to come here today because other guys would be here."

"He's overprotective," Julius says. "He shouldn't be like a guardian to you."

"When he doesn't want you to do something, do you talk it out?" asks James. "Do you ever put your foot down?"

Laura clutches a sofa pillow and looks down. "I'm the real sensitive type," she says. "He knocks me down and I'm like, 'I'm sorry.'"

"People will walk all over you if you let them," Julius says gently. "You shouldn't let that happen."

For TDVP counselors, Julius' and James' ability to recognize the imbalance of power in Laura's relationship, and their instinct to offer support, signal a measure of success: Attitudes can change; respectful behaviors can be learned.

Altered Expectations
Such breakthroughs take time, counselors say. Most students need one to three years in group counseling to recover from painful experiences and to convert changes in thinking to changes in behavior, Rosenbluth notes. That doesn't mean that every girl in the program gets out of an abusive relationship or that every boy stops abusive behavior. "Some boys already seem to be hardcore perpetrators [of violence]," Rosenbluth says, "and we may not get through to them."

But many boys in the program seem to be "on the fence" about aggressive acts such as yelling at or hitting girls, she says. The behaviors may seem normal to them because they have seen their fathers abuse their mothers, or they have heard their friends brag about slapping girlfriends around, but they may also feel confusion about such aggression.

With these boys, Rosenbluth says, the group dynamic can effect dramatic changes in attitude and behavior. "A main developmental goal for boys at that age is to be strong," she says. "If one guy in the group starts to equate violence with weakness rather than with strength, then it becomes easy to stop violence."

Robert, a sophomore who has participated in the program for a year, sees himself as an example of the program's positive impact. He recalls the way he used to threaten his girlfriend when he thought she was flirting with another guy. "I'd say, 'I'm going to mess that guy up, then come back to you.' I was being rough. I'd get a stick and hit the ground with it."

Now, Robert says he has different ideas about how to handle problems with a girlfriend. "If there's a problem in your relationship, you should talk to the person and get their story and cool down. Once you start being rough, they don't feel secure any more."

After the joint Crockett-Bowie session, several girls talk about how "group," as they call it, has changed their lives. Lizette, a Bowie junior, describes the physical fights she had with her former boyfriend, including a time when he choked her. "He always blamed me for getting him angry. I hadn't dated anyone else so I didn't know that was wrong. I agreed with it," she says.

But, in group, Lizette learned to adjust her attitudes. "It's a whole different perspective that I see relationships from now," she says. "It's not just my job to make the guy happy. Now I know I can have happiness, too."

Aimee, from Covington , credits TDVP with finally giving her the courage to end the destructive relationship with her boyfriend of two years. Now, she looks at that experience with the awareness that a healthy relationship does not include abuse. "He said he loved me, but I don't think that was love," she says.

The program equipped Aimee with a new set of expectations for relationships. "I want a guy who respects me and trusts me and cares for me. I want someone who likes me for what I am," Aimee says. "I know what I want. If it's not going to happen, I break up."

"If it had not been for this group, I don't know what we would have done," says Judy West, Aimee's mother. "[Aimee has] finally started to have inner peace, and it's giving her strength to say things like, 'I control my life.' She knows she deserves good things to happen to her."

Mary M. Harrison, a former teacher, is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis, Mo.

Tips for Intervention

Helping teenagers in abusive relationships can be difficult because the warning signs are not always easy to detect, according to Barrie Levy, a psychotherapist and author of three books on the topic. The most obvious indicator of abuse is the evidence of injuries that the victim cannot explain.

More subtle signs to watch for are possessive and controlling behavior. "If as soon as that bell rings, a boy is by the door and his girlfriend has to walk to her next class with him, and if he really glares at her if she stops to talk to a friend, that's a sign of trouble," says Levy. "Also, any kind of checking up on her, following her, restricting her -- jealous comments about her friends or anything that takes her attention away from him." Changes in a student's behavior -- for example, withdrawal from friends and extracurricular pursuits or sudden changes in mood, personality or appearance -- can also signal a problem.

An adult who suspects a teen relationship is abusive should approach each partner separately. And don't expect either partner to readily admit there's something wrong, Levy says. "In any kind of domestic violence situation, a victim is apt to be very protective and defensive about her boyfriend or her husband and the relationship."

Levy cautions adults not to challenge the relationship but to focus on the victim's safety. A teacher might say, "Maybe you love him, but I can see you're being hurt," then provide information on how and where to get help.

If teachers witness a boyfriend hitting or pushing his girlfriend on school grounds, they should create consequences for the behavior. "With no ambiguity, he needs to be confronted and told that what he's doing is not OK. You can't hit your girlfriend any more than you can hit anybody else in school," Levy says.

She suggests turning to the nearest domestic violence center to seek help for both the abuser and the victim. While the center may not have programs in place for teenagers, the staff should be able to provide crisis counseling and help find available resources for dealing with the problem.

Barri Rosenbluth, Austin 's TDVP coordinator, believes that perhaps the greatest contribution educators can make in preventing abuse is modeling respectful and equitable behavior in all their relationships. She feels that young men in particular need role models who demonstrate "the full range of masculine traits and don't just reinforce the ones associated with power and control."

Male coaches, principals and teachers can be powerful role models, Rosenbluth points out, but too often they remain silent on issues of abuse. "If more men would stand up and say 'Hitting girls is a sign of weakness,' that would help a lot," she says.

Teachers can begin laying the groundwork for healthy, respectful relationships even in elementary school, according to Rosenbluth. "When a boy is taunting a girl in some way, we say 'Boys will be boys' or 'He's just doing it because he likes you.'" But this sends the message that, if someone likes you, "they annoy you, treat you disrespectfully, harass you, pull your hair, whatever," Rosenbluth says, adding that teachers shouldn't ignore such harassment. "When it goes untreated, this behavior gets worse."