‘The awful thing is, unfortunately, having an abusive boyfriend is normal’
Holly Bourne on The Places I’ve Cried in Public, a look at toxic teenage relationships
Holly Bourne: we live in a society that has a pattern of effectively grooming young girls into accepting abuse as a normal part of the growing-up process.
“You’ve got to kiss the frogs before you get to the prince.”
I remember hearing that phrase repeatedly growing up. The almost fairy tale quality girls would apply to one another’s broken hearts. How a terrible boyfriend was practically a rite of passage. An important lesson to learn as part of your journey. No one ever considered a toxic relationship as something to try and bypass completely.
Five years ago, I trained to be a relationship adviser for a leading youth charity, The Mix, where I’d spend two shifts a week answering teenagers’ questions about their love lives. Within my first shift, I was smacked with the horrifying reality of how many girls were being psychologically manipulated and violated by their partners who claimed to love them.
Twice a week, I’d take a deep breath, open the service inbox, and prepare myself for the devastating onslaught of desperate girls, writing in to ask if what was happening to them was normal. That was the hardest bit of each shift. “Is it normal?” these girls would type – again, and again – after describing emotional abuse, coercive control and rape.
The awful thing is, unfortunately, having an abusive boyfriend is normal. Research conducted by Women’s Aid found that a third of young people have been in an abusive relationship, and, when the other two thirds were further questioned, they answered yes to experiencing abusive behaviour – they just didn’t realise it was abuse. And why would they, when we have a societal obsession with turning relationship red flags into a bouquet of red roses?
During my training, I was horrified to realise just how many early abuse signallers are deemed as “romantic” in our popular love stories. Education around warning signs is so important as abusive relationships are like coastal erosion. They disintegrate you subtly and slowly, so gradually that victims can be fully ensnared by the time they realise they’ve given their heart to an abuser rather than a prince. However, when speaking to survivors, they’re able to reflect on the stop signs they ignored because society tells you to accept them. Red flags such as these:
The crazy ex
In films, the romantic leads often have to overcome the “obstacle” of a two-dimensional terrible existing partner before they can be together. In reality, however, a supposedly crazy ex is often a vital sign. You do wonder what made them so crazy? Of course many of us may feel sourly towards our previous partners – but beware of anyone with a sob story that casts them completely as the victim. Pay particular attention if they don’t refer to them by name – but by “the ex” and other derogatory terms such as “crazy”, “psycho” and “a bitch”. Maybe she isn’t a lying psycho...maybe, in time, after you’ve been destroyed too, you’ll become that lying psycho ex in their next relationship, if you dare suggest they didn’t treat you well.
Grand romantic gestures
So often a male lead meets a woman, falls instantly in love, and then pulls all the stops out to win her heart. If it’s not running through airports, then it’s organising flash mobs or standing outside her house in a field of daffodils – all with a side-order of a profound declaration of everlasting love. While a thoughtful gesture can be lovely, beware of overwhelming instances of “love-bombing”, a known manipulation tactic to ensnare you into the relationship. Being bombarded with compliments, love notes, and dream dates may feel good initially, but it can be a sign of the narcissist “idealize-devalue-discard” abuse cycle. Often victims are left chasing the “perfect” feeling of those early stages, which are used like a dangling carrot to keep them in the psychological spin cycle. Slow-burn love, where you take your time to get to know each other, may be less Hollywood, but it’s a lot healthier.
Not so blurred lines
Sadly, almost all abusive relationships include sexual violence, and one in three teenage girls have experienced sexual violence from a partner. I saw evidence of this every day whilst working for the youth charity, and a good shift at work would only have two rape victims needing support and guidance. However, as victims are often violated through coercive control, they struggle to relate the word “rape” to their situation.
Sexual violence often occurs early on where your boundaries are crossed in a confusing way. Common examples include: things moving too quickly, an irresponsibility about contraception eg pressurising you to do it without a condom, groping you in public, pressurising you to engage in risky sexual acts, and not really connecting with you when you do have sex – treating you like an appendage instead.
However, when movies normalise sexual violence, it’s no wonder it can take victims years to realise what really happened. A common dangerous movie trope is the “head-clutch” kiss where, usually during an argument, the male lead grabs the woman’s head to kiss her and shut her up. Rather than slapping him and calling the police, she often swoons into the kiss – perpetuating the idea that women all secretly want to be violated.
Other common red flag roses are:
Being brought a new dress or piece of jewellery – often, early on, abusers will subtly suggest some clothes choices, and gift you “approved” items dressed up in a compliment: “I just couldn’t resist” or “because you look so nice in blue”.
Turning up unannounced – “Isn’t that sweet?” they simper in films, when they show up on girls’ night to surprise them with something. No. Isn’t that controlling, and a blatant breaking of boundaries?
Excessive jealousy – because “they care so much”, the movies say. Or... because they’re controlling, insecure, and feel like they have ownership of you.
The feisty first fight – many romantic stories have been based on a couple who initially hates each other but fall in love through arguing. But you can learn a lot from your very first fight with someone you love. Early on, an abuser will find an opinion of yours they don’t agree with and will not let it go, eventually rail-roading you until you agree with them. Look out also for silent treatment, sulking without explanation, and aggressive body language, with a cold voice and puffed-up posturing.
It’s always worth pointing out that not all of these behaviours, in isolation, constitutes an abusive relationship. Abuse thrives in the confusion of grey areas, and the advice I always give is to look for a general pattern, rather than judging things entirely by a one-off event. But, with that being said, it’s impossible to ignore the glaring fact that we do live in a society that has a pattern of effectively grooming young girls into accepting abuse as a normal part of the growing up process.
I’ve seen first-hand the intense trauma and confusion that “kissing frogs” can create, and believe it’s so important to fight back against the notion it leads to a happily ever after. This is why I wrote my new novel for teenagers, The Places I’ve Cried in Public, which follows Amelie as she retraces all the places her ex-boyfriend made her cry, trying to understand why she has these extreme emotions, well beyond a “normal” breakup. By living Amelie’s experiences through my book, I want young women to notice these red flags so that they never have to experience it themselves.
If you or anyone you know has been affected by abuse, visit womensaid.ie, spunout.ie, loverespect.co.uk or womensaid.org.uk for support.
Holly Bourne will be at DeptCon in Dublin, Ireland’s biggest Young Adult book convention on October 11th, talking about The Places I’ve Cried in Public, which is out now. You can buy your tickets for DeptCon here