Abusive relationships aren’t love. That might seem obvious, but abusive, toxic people behave in convoluted, contradictory, and confusing ways. In toxic relationships, love isn’t as cut-and-dried as a neutral observer might expect it to be. For example, one might think that love, real love, doesn’t hurt. And it shouldn’t. Love should never hurt. Sometimes it does, though. Sometimes one partner in a relationship is toxic. The hurt is direct in the form of actions and words, and the hurt is indirect in the form of actions and words–actions and words that seem kind, caring, loving.
Recently, I spoke to 11th grade health classes about mental health. Students had many questions about a variety of topics. One topic that was raised more than once was that of relationships. High school juniors, both males and females, wondered about behaviors of their boy/girlfriends. Where is the line, they wondered, between love and control?
When people are caught in abusive relationships, that’s a line that is often hard to determine. Controlling behavior is typically masked by sweet talk and caring behavior. An abuser is masterful at making control look like love.
I don’t want you to be in a play, Elizabeth. We already don’t have enough time together. Now you want to do something else that will take away from us? (Losing Elizabeth*)
Effective ways of helping end the confusion between love and abuse include:
- having conversations, one-on-one, in small groups, and in larger discussions such as the ones I had in high school classrooms
- making books both fiction and non-fiction available in places where people go (schools, libraries, doctors offices, mental health centers/counseling offices, and more)
- creating small, business-card-sized cards with information and help lines and disseminating them in public places; this makes information accessible and discreet
I was shopping in a TJ Maxx store the other day, and I found such cards in their restroom:
These cards are underwritten by The TJX Companies, Inc, and are fantastic. They’re placed by the paper towels and are easy to grab and stick in a pocket, wallet, or purse. The front describes what love is and is not, and the back has a bulleted list of tips for staying safe. And it contains this hotline information:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Anonymous and Confidential Help 24/7
Abuse comes in many forms: emotional, verbal, physical, sexual. The types of abuse can occur on their own but often are combined.
Sharing knowledge is sharing power. And love.
*Losing Elizabeth is a novel about an emotionally abusive relationship written at the middle-grade level and appropriate for older adolescents and adults as well. The story, inspired by the high number of students I had when I was a high school teacher who became trapped in toxic relationships