Taking control: One student’s story of overcoming abuse
Growing up, senior Bekah Bowers was witness to multiple physically abusive relationships within her immediate family.
“My family life was not the most healthy,” Bekah said. “And as a result of that, I had very low self-esteem.”
The National Center for Injury Prevention Control states individuals who see or are a victim of violence as a child have increased risk factors for engaging in Intimate Partner Violence (h).
Due to her childhood history with abuse, Bekah was already at higher risk for participating in an unhealthy relationship. Unhealthy tendencies began to show up in her romantic relationships in her teenage years.
According to Bekah, a series of poor decisions, especially surrounding her relationships with men, led her to move from her home in Alaska to Colorado, where she planned to start her life over.
Shortly after her move, Bekah began a relationship that would eventually turn abusive. While at first this relationship seemed healthy and her partner seemed to be the ideal boyfriend, things began to change.
“This change was very gradual, so gradual that it took me a long time to notice it,” Bekah said. “However, when I thought about it there was a correlation between how he treated me and when we started being intimate with each other; he was much nicer before we became intimate.”
Bekah explained her partner’s behaviors went from praising her beauty and personality to hinting there were things she should change about herself and her appearance and even blatantly calling her ugly.
“At first he supported my goals and dreams, then he started hinting that he had other plans for me,” Bekah recalled. “Then he would say that things were going to be this way.”
These behaviors permeated into every aspect of Bekah’s relationship, even spilling into finances and religion.
After learning of her partner’s infidelity, Bekah began to experience negative physical effects, including developing an eating disorder. She began to seriously assess her relationship and decided to let her partner know she was considering ending things.
“He begged and pleaded me to stay and insisted that he would change,” Bekah said. “I gave in and stayed with him. He did change for a short time, but it did not last long.”
Bekah soon found a way out. She moved to Idaho to attend college at Boise State, and while she did not initially break up with her partner, she had created distance between them. Bekah still made frequent visits to Colorado to see him.
“While I was gone, he would say that me coming back is the only reason he had to keep going, that he had cleaned up his life for me and needed me,” Bekah said. “It got to a point where I was really afraid he would hurt himself.”
When Bekah came to terms with the fact that her relationship was both abusive and unhealthy, and felt safe enough to address the situation, she ended the relationship.
“The outcome was getting myself back; the girl I had known before this relationship,” Bekah said. “The girl with hopes and dreams and who began to not feel afraid to be herself.”
Unhealthy relationships: Recognizing the signs and getting help
What Bekah experienced is classified as not only an unhealthy relationship, but an abusive one. Unhealthy relationships range from physical and emotional abuse, sexual violence, isolation and coercion, to harassment, intimidation and self-destructive behavior.
“Anytime someone feels like they are compromising a piece of who they are, and the other partner isn’t doing the same, that is unhealthy,” said Adrianne Bang, violence prevention and support coordinator of The Women’s Center. “There is give and take in healthy relationships. If there is not equity and if one person is constantly chipping away at who they are, that is unhealthy.”
According to the 2011 College Dating Violence and Abuse Poll created by Knowledge Networks, 43 percent of dating college women (ages 18-29 enrolled in a four-year college) report experiencing violent and abusive dating behaviors. Nearly one in three college women say they have been in an abusive dating relationship.
The demographic most at risk of dating violence are women ages 16 to 24, according to data collected by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.
“We know these kinds of crimes are super under reported,” Bang said.
Emma Galego, Women’s Center healthy relationships peer advisor, , explained how signs of abuse can vary based on the type of abuse taking place.
“Emotional abuse is often times a little harder to detect because of the fact you are using words or emotions to limit a partner,” Galego said. “Some of the things that is going to look like with physical abuse is hitting, slapping, choking, pushing, punching, beating or anytime a person does not feel physically safe around another individual.”
Verbal and emotional abuse can take many forms, from constant criticism and humiliation to isolation, coercion, threats and intimidation.
While statistics point to more reports of women being abused by men in unhealthy relationships, Galego said she believes other demographics are also experiencing abuse and unhealthy relations.
“People of all identities can experience these issues or these crimes and also can be perpetrators,” Galego explained. “It’s really that male to female violence is most reported, it’s suspected that violence among other types of couples, or in other situations, is just severely under reported but could be just as prevalent.”
Bang and Galego both advised victims of abuse or people experiencing unhealthy relationships to take steps toward improving or leaving the relationship after first ensuring their safety.
“Sometimes if a partner knows they are coming here (The Women’s Center) that can be dangerous,” Bang said.
Bang listed a number of resources for help available on campus and off, ranging from The Women’s Center and Housing Services to The Dean of Students and the CARE team.
“We will never say you should do this or that, but getting information is sometimes low risk for people,” Bang said.
If someone is concerned their friend, family member or acquaintance is in an unhealthy relationship, it is recommended they offer support, ask questions and seek information rather than insist or force the party at risk to seek help.
After identifying and leaving or repairing an unhealthy relationship, the next step is recovery. Victims’ reactions to unhealthy and abusive relationships vary immensely from one person to the next.
“It’s not uncommon for people who have these kinds of experiences to have a trauma response and to really benefit from ongoing counseling,” Bang said.
Often the results of an abusive relationship leave victims struggling with self-esteem issues. Victims faced with damaging emotional messaging from a partner must relearn behaviors such as confidence and self-worth.
“I think in the long run it’s really important to build your self-esteem,” Bekah said. “Reflecting upon this past relationship of mine, I think to myself, ‘how could I have expected him to love me and take care of me, when I did not, could not and would not love and take care of myself?’ Being confident and healthy will attract those who are also confident and healthy.”
Looking forward: Combating unhealthy relationships
New discussions surrounding support and prevention of unhealthy and abusive intimate partner relationships are focusing on combating the unhealthy behaviors by educating the community about healthy behaviors.
“We are really interested in sparking conversation, like what does it mean to you to be in a healthy relationship; what does it feel like to be in a healthy relationship; what kinds of things constitute a healthy relationship,” Galego said.
Bang highlighted the importance of moving the conversation from a tone of “why does this person stay” to instead “why is this person being hurt, what are the systems in place that keep a person in this situation, and how do we, as a community, add these things; how do we, as loved ones, offer support.”
Bang also pointed to the larger cultural aspect of equity and the importance of creating a community where people feel of equal importance and worth.
“If we can come to treat and see other people as equals, these issues of violence in our eyes become less prevalent,” Bang explained.