Truly Madly, Deeply

Sweet de­vo­tion or creepy ob­ses­sion? How do you tell?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By S. INDRAMALAR star2@thes­tar.com.my

WHEN Rachel’s boyfriend, Gary, read a text mes­sage on her phone com­pli­ment­ing an out­fit she wore, he went bal­lis­tic. 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.

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% 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 “hookup” cul­ture. Re­search in­di­cates that young peo­ple are not hook­ing up fre­quently and that 85% 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”.

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.

Photo: SAM THAM/The Star

Posed by mod­els

Healthy re­la­tion­ships are based on equal­ity and re­spect. Un­healthy re­la­tion­ships are based on con­trol. — Photos: SAM THAM/The Star

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