Editor’s note: The names of victims have been changed to protect their identities.
When “Renae” was 17, she fell in love.
She met her boyfriend at work, and at first he treated her like a queen. He was very protective of her, which she said boosted her self esteem.
“I couldn’t talk to anyone of the opposite sex, or else he would get mad and try and fight that person,” said Renae. “But it made me feel good. He wanted me so much, he didn’t want anyone else to look at me.”
Soon, Renae said the couple was inseparable, doing everything together, which included committing crimes. It started with shoplifting and got worse.
“When he was 20, and I was 18, he wanted to buy alcohol,” Renae said. “He said, ‘I do it all the time. Just go in and pick out what you want.’ So I did … and there was an undercover cop inside the store. He got both of us.”
After that, Renae said, the emotional and verbal abuse increased, as did her boyfriend’s need to control her.
“He was so possessive,” she said. “Whenever we had a family reunion, he’d get mad. He’d call back to back to back. He wanted me to see him instead of them … I couldn’t go anywhere without his permission. I couldn’t even go to my church. He said ‘because he was the man,’ we had to go to his church.”
Harmony House Executive Director Michele Bedingfield said a person becoming extremely possessive and controlling over their partner is a red flag something’s not right in the relationship.
“They want control of what they wear, who they’re friends with, where they can go. It’s isolation, and it’s done very softly and gently to begin with,” she explained. “They may also text constantly. When you get a text 30 to 40 times a day, wanting to know where you are and what you’re doing, that’s a control issue. It’s not healthy.”
Harmony House is a state-certified shelter in Troup County that serves victims of domestic violence 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That includes providing emergency shelter, crisis intervention and advocacy on behalf of the victims. Bedingfield said they also offer a class on teen dating violence prevention.
Family and friends recognized Renae was in an unhealthy relationship and warned her to stay away from him.
“At first everyone thought he was so sweet and such a gentleman. My mom loved him,” Renae said. “But then she saw his true colors and wanted me to leave him, but I said no, because I loved him. He even cussed out my mom, and I still wouldn’t leave.”
Renae eventually dropped out of school to spend more time with him. When she was 19, she became pregnant and had a child with her boyfriend. A baby girl named “Nicole.”
According to the dating abuse prevention website Love is Respect, nearly 1.5 million teenagers will experience some sort of abuse from a partner this year. That means one in three adolescents in the United States is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.
According to Love is Respect, those number exceed the rates of other types of youth violence. The website also said only 33 percent of teens who were in a violent relationship told anyone about it.
Dr. Mark Stracks, a psychiatrist with the West Georgia Psychiatric Center in LaGrange, said it’s not uncommon for teens or adults to keep details to themselves.
“It’s difficult and embarrassing to talk about,” he said. “Some may have been victims of abuse early in life and/or some may suffer from depression, and/or self esteem issues as well.”
Stracks has been with the West Georgia Psychiatric Center for five years and said he’s seen dozens of kids in relationships like Renae’s. Both he and Bedingfield said the problem of teen dating violence is growing.
“The more I see kids, the more I see that,” explained Stracks. “Some of the violence is significant … some of it is very extreme … my sense is life for teens is getting complicated. There’s more pressure on kids and teens and the Internet has brought in new ways to do that.”
“Teens are so connected through social groups,” said Bedingfield. “Breaking up is tough. It becomes a social issue and it’s embarrassing for them too.”
For Renae, the verbal and emotional abuse got worse when she finally left her boyfriend in January 2013.
“Once he finally realized I meant it, he started following me around town, showed up at my friend’s house, called me at all hours of the night cussing me out. He’d call me a whore, slut and a prostitute and tell me I wasn’t a good mom,” she said.
For the first time in their four-year relationship, he also physically abused her as she was picking up Nicole from his house, throwing items that hit her in the head and arm and pushing her up against the car door. Renae said she filed a police report, but didn’t press charges.
Bedingfield said this is a typical pattern in a violent relationship. She said the abuser puts their partner on a pedestal to build their self esteem. Then they convince that person they can’t live without them, and remain in constant contact with their partner.
Bedingfield said the abuser then starts to manipulate the other person, blaming them for their own insecurities and usually will abuse their significant other verbally, emotionally, physically and/or sexually. After that, Bedingfield said, the abuser will apologize to the victim, only to repeat the pattern again.
“Love is not abuse,” said Bedingfield. “Love should not hurt, and it won’t change you. It may help you grow, but not change a person.”
“I would let someone you trust know what’s going on,” she added. “Try to avoid being alone with that partner. They can contact us (Harmony House), we make safety plans for teenagers.”
Since filing the police report, Renae said she has not seen her boyfriend, although he has visited with their child. She went back to school, and is now a nurse. She is standing on her own two feet and providing for her daughter, but admits the emotional journey has been tough.
“It’s been very difficult,” said Renae. “I wish I didn’t have anything to do with him. And I dislike him, but I would never keep him from Nicole.”
Renae hopes her story will help other teens and adults in similar situations to find strength and courage to leave their abusers, like she did.
“The abuse isn’t your fault,” she said. “It happens to the best of us. You just have to know your worth … you should love yourself not to be treated that way. … Enjoy being single. Find out who you really are before you get into a deep relationship with someone.”
For more information on the Harmony House’s teen dating violence prevention classes or if you would like help with an abusive relationship, contact them at 706-885-1526 or 706-822-4173.