Here's what an abusive relationship may look like

When Rachel's boyfriend, Gary, read a text message on her phone complimenting an outfit she wore, he got very angry. Gary accused her of flirting with other boys and demanded that she stay away from her friends, outside of class.

Gary had lost his temper with Rachel before, but this time it was different. He was enraged and started keeping tabs on her - checking her phone messages and emails, and tracking her on his phone.

"At first, I thought it was my fault. Maybe I did send mixed signals to other boys. Maybe I do dress inappropriately for college and invite attention.

"Then he started showing up in college and picking fights with my friends. I became uncomfortable. He also insisted on sending me to college and picking me up after class. My friends thought he was being a creep and urged me to break up with him.

"But it wasn't so easy … we'd been going out for six years and he was very caring, otherwise. Sometimes I think he cared too much because he'd want to do everything together and preferred us going out alone rather than in groups because he wanted me to himself," shares the 25-year-old business graduate.

However, when Gary hit her a week later for going out "without telling him", Rachel became afraid.

"He apologised almost immediately and explained that he needed to know that I was safe. But I didn't feel safe anymore. I was afraid of him," she recalls.

Control and social isolation, says Women's Aid Organisation executive director Sumitra Visvanathan, are among the hallmarks of abusive behaviour. They are an abuser's way of asserting power and often leaves victims of abuse unsupported and alone.

"When one partner starts asserting control over the other, that is a clear sign of an abusive relationship. Control manifests in many ways. It can start with questions about your whereabouts, who you are with, constant calls and messages to find out where you are and it can easily escalate and can end in physical violence," says Sumitra.

Young people have to be equipped with the skills needed to develope and maintain healthy romantic relationships. Posed by models.Photo: The Star/ANN

Control isn't love

It isn't always a good thing if your partner wants you "all to himself" all the time, says WAO case manager, Charlene Murray.

"More than 90 per cent of of our clients who come to us for help do not have anyone they can turn to. These are not just women in abusive marriages but young girls in problematic relationships. It's not because they have no family or friends … they have been cut off from their support network by their abusers and feel that they cannot turn to them anymore," says Charlene.

Consultant clinical psychologist Loheswary Arumugam is concerned about the high number of teens in abusive relationships that she has encountered. Many of these cases go unreported and therefore, unchecked.

"About two-thirds of my young patients are grappling with symptoms that stem from problematic relationships. They suffer depression, eating disorders, inflict self harm and some display suicidal tendencies. And when we probe further, it points to an abusive relationship," she says.

And they start young, says Loheswary, citing a 12-year-old patient who has depression because her 13-year-old boyfriend was constantly putting her down and fat-shaming her.

Among teens, the most common forms of abuse are psychological, emotional and sexual abuse.

"Many of these teens and young adults see the abuse as 'accepted behaviour', which they have to put up with. They are not able to navigate these relationships and often have a very low sense of self esteem," says Loheswary.

Not knowing what healthy relationships should be like, many young people find it hard to deal with problematic and misogynistic relationships, that can escalate to abuse.

A report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education published in May suggests that young people struggle with developing healthy romantic relationships and receive little or no help in forming and maintaining fulfilling relationships or dealing with widespread misogyny and sexual harassment.

The report, based on several years of research that included surveys of over 3,000 young adults and high school students, also found that most adults appear to be doing very little to address these issues and are more concerned about the "hook-up" (casual sex) culture among the young.

"Teens and adults tend to greatly overestimate the size of the "hook-up" culture. Research indicates that young people are not hooking up frequently and that 85 per cent of them prefer other options to hooking up such as spending time with friends or being in a serious relationship.

"Large numbers of teens and young adults are unprepared for caring, lasting, romantic relationships but are anxious about developing them. Yet, parents, educators and other adults often provide little or no guidance in developing these relationships. The good news is that a high percentage of young people want this guidance," said the report titled, The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People's Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment.

Control in a relationship can manifest in many ways. It can start with questions about your whereabouts, who you are with, constant calls and messages to find out where you are and can escalate and can end in physical violence.Photo: The Star/ANN

Back to school

Families and schools need to take the lead in talking to young people about developing healthy relationships, says Sumitra.

"A healthy relationship is all about equality. Both partners must understand the need for equality and work to overcome gender stereotypes that are so pervasive in our society. That is why it is so important to include sex education in schools.

"We need to empower young people with information and teach them about integrity, respect and confidence. Many young people feel pressured to be in a relationship. Even when the relationship is problematic, the alternative - not being in a relationship - seems worse because of the expectation they feel," she says.

Girls, especially, need to know that they have the right to be happy, the right to safety, the right to say no and the right to be heard.

"They need to know that they can change their minds. They may have said yes once before or twenty times before but they are allowed to change their minds and say no. If we teach them young, they will carry this empowerment with them throughout their life," stresses Charlene.

Loheswary says that schools have to play a bigger role in helping boys and girls develop skills to form and maintain healthy relationships.

"At a young age, your whole world revolves around home and school. Where else are they going to learn about these things? Children are blank slates and if we don't feed them the right messages or empower them, how will they know?

"They end up learning about relationships from what they see around them, and from media messages that often lean heavily against women. Women are seen as having to put up with abusive behaviour. I hear from my young patients that they don't know what a healthy relationship is," says Lohes.

Failure to prepare young people to navigate relationships has emotional and social costs, such as teen pregnancies, abandoned babies, depression, suicide, high rates of divorce and domestic abuse.