Premium

'It's not infatuation, it's controlling': The shocking truth about why so many millennial women are in abusive relationships

Girls in their teens and  twenties are more likely to suffer abuse at the hands of a current or former partner (posed by model)
Girls in their teens and  twenties are more likely to suffer abuse at the hands of a current or former partner (posed by model) Credit: David Cheskin /PA

“It took three days of being blanked, a piercing silence broken occasionally by slammed doors, a book taken from my hands and thrown across our bedroom, and instructions to not tell my family before I walked out of my first proper relationship,” recalls Emma*.

Her crime? Attending a yoga class with some colleagues after work. A week before, it had been staying at her office for an extra half an hour. Three weeks earlier, it was his anger at a film not buffering on their TV.

“To my increasingly distanced friends and family, things looked like they were going well. On rare dinners out or at parties, the tension would disappear. He’d sit close by me, arm round my shoulders, charming the room with his stories," adds Emma. "It was difficult, at times like that, for 21-year-old me to disassociate Jekyll from Hyde.”

Emma's story might be familiar to many - an estimated 28.9 per cent (4.8 million) of women aged 16 to 59 in Britain have experienced some form of domestic abuse. But what isn't talked about is its prevalence among young women. We often hear the harrowing stories of women trapped in abusive marriages, with children, and agonising tales of the family courts. But, for many - as has been the case with friends of mine - abusive relationships can start after school and at university.

The Government's landmark Domestic Abuse Bill - which receives its first reading in the House of Commons today - will take this into account. The draft, published earlier this year, contained a section titled "Educating young people", with a commitment to provide high quality relationships education in schools, that includes learning about abuse and supporting teachers to do so.

And while the Bill has come under fire from many organisations for not going far enough - failing to adequately provide for migrant women, long-term housing, safe child contact and family court reform - this pledge to help young women surely can't come soon enough. 

According to a report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which examined data from the Crime Survey of England and Wales covering a three-year period to March 2017 girls in their late teens and early twenties are significantly more likely to suffer abuse at the hands of a current or former partner than those in older age groups.

A recent Women’s Aid survey found almost a third of young women have experienced an abusive relationship. And, worryingly, over two-thirds of young women who said they hadn’t suffered from domestic abuse had experienced one of more ‘red flag’ behaviours of abuse. 

“Sometimes it was just lovely, he could be really sweet," says Caitlin*, who was 22 at the time of experiencing abuse at the hands of her partner.

"We lived together, too. But I told him that the shouting and nasty comments about how I looked or acted had to stop. He went mad and trashed the house - everything in our kitchen was thrown about; he smashed the TV to pieces.”

Signs may not appear until months or years into a relationship, and are often sugar-coated as affection or whims of love (think of all those men who, in the media, are excused as having acted out in a "moment of passion"). 

Actions may start small, such as checking a partner’s phone or telling them what to wear, making it hard for them to pinpoint the problem or describe it to their friends and family. 

"Our culture often portrays controlling behaviour as a sign of being desired or loved, when in fact coercive and controlling behaviour is at the heart of domestic abuse," a Women's Aid spokesperson tells me. 

"This can make it more difficult for younger women, who may be entering into their first relationship, to identify abusive behaviours or question them. As a result they may not speak out about the abuse, or know that domestic abuse services can help them.”

At my school, a 17-year-old classmate ended her first relationship; the ex-boyfriend followed her home each day, waited outside her house in the evenings and called her, persistently, until she answered.

Another friend’s boyfriend told her it was time to leave a birthday party immediately after they arrived, later explaining that he didn’t like her talking to other men. These actions were brushed off as "infatuation" by young girls still being fed a narrative of "romantic" behaviour from films, books and TV (in Twilight, Edward obsessively stalks Bella and we teenagers swooned).

But an abusive partner disempowers; chipping away at their significant other’s confidence until low-self esteem conquers. They might ignore their partner for days on end to gain the upper hand. They might drive a wedge between the victim and their family or friends, perhaps by making snide remarks, or by reacting negatively when the person has been with them.

Appearance, personality or intelligence might be criticised little by little. There might be violent, physical or sexual abuse, too - but just because there aren't any bruises, it doesn't mean the relationship isn't abusive. Indeed, the Government Bill is due to recognise economic abuse for the first time - whereby the perpetrator might take control of their victim's bank accounts, monitor what they are spending and restrict access to funds.

Many people don’t realise they’re in such a relationship until after it’s ended. 

In 2017, National domestic violence charity Refuge’s research found that more than half of young people have experienced controlling behaviour in their romantic relationships, and nearly a third found that they struggled to "define the line" between caring and controlling behaviour.

Some schools are already stepping up, with children between the ages of 5 and 16 taking lessons on what an abusive relationship looks like – although this isn’t yet part of the national curriculum. Refuge said: “Education needs to start for children as young as five – one in five children will be witnessing domestic abuse at home and many young people will be experiencing intimate partner violence".

Women’s Aid added: “The Government’s commitment to introduce compulsory relationships and sex education in schools from 2019 is a welcome first step. It must be delivered as part of a ‘whole school’ approach to tackling sexism and sexual harassment within the school setting, with a clear focus on domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls to teach all young people what a healthy relationship looks like and prevent domestic abuse from being normalised in the first place.”

Signs of an emotionally controlling relationship:

  • Being belittled or put down

  • Being blamed for the abuse or the arguments

  • Being accused of flirting or having affairs

  • Being told what to wear, who to see, where to go

  • Having control of finances

  • Preventing someone from socialising with friends or family, or going to work

  • Logging into their partner’s phone or social media accounts without permission

  • Pressure to do anything sexual

  • Reading over emails, texts or letters

*Some names have been changed

For more information and support, visit Women's Aid's website or call the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid in partnership with Refuge, on 0808 2000 247.