By Rosemary Dorsett > Senior > Journalism > University of Maryland, College Park
Butterflies, sweaty palms and racing thoughts encompass the symptoms of new love. But what if those distracting butterflies are masking important intuition about the relationship? “When I first met him, I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend,” Ariana Scott, a 21-year-old senior at Longwood University said about her first serious relationship. “But he kept being persistent so I thought I would give him a chance.”
At the time, Scott, a 16-year-old high school senior, had just uprooted her life to move in with her father and younger brother. Without any close friends, Scott quickly grew to rely on her relationship for emotional support. “He was the first guy to actually take me out on a real date,” the psychology major said, “He was there for me when I needed him to be. I didn’t feel like I had anyone else there.”
Over time, affection turned into suffocation. “He would get really jealous of me being with anybody. I couldn’t hang out with friends, I couldn’t hang out with family,” she said. “I just thought he loved me and wanted to be with me all the time.”
After Scott broke up with her boyfriend her first semester of college, he tailgated into her dorm room to confront her. The argument escalated quickly, “I thought, ‘Is he about to hit me?’ and he smacked me again, and again,” Scott recalled, “The look in his eyes was so cold, like nobody’s there. I just laid there and I cried.”
Scott eventually took her boyfriend back after he hit her. Federal prosecutor Allison Leotta identifies why victims are reluctant to leave their abusers: “This isn’t just some guy on the street that hurt them. This is someone they loved intimately. Also, right after the abusive incident is the time he’s the nicest to her,” the sex crimes specialist said.
The Isolation Factor
Controlling behavior is commonly misconstrued as a sign of protectiveness. “A person who is in a controlling relationship may not recognize how bad it is because around them, they see a lot of unhealthy relationships and come to assume that’s the way relationships are,” Dr. Elizabeth Miller, a professor at University of California Davis Children’s Hospital and leading dating violence expert said.
According to Dr. Miller, once this behavior is deemed acceptable, it’s hard to break off the relationship alone. “The abuser will oftentimes really try to isolate their partner from others. Everything focuses on keeping the partner happy. In that process a lot of social connections get disrupted,” Dr. Miller said. “The feeling of being completely disconnected is part of what makes it so difficult to intervene.”
Even friends who have an instinct things are amiss might not be able to help. In 2005, 21-year-old Kristin Mitchell, a Saint Joseph’s University graduate, was found dead in her Conshohocken, PA apartment. Her estranged boyfriend, Brian Landau, stabbed her to death over 50 times. “I think her friends had a feeling that this guy had extreme control issues and she needed to get some space,” her father, Bill Mitchell, said. According to her father, Mitchell argued on the phone with a close girlfriend about the state of her relationship the week before her slaying.
“I think that their inclinations were there, but I don’t think that they knew what to do and I don’t know if they would’ve been successful had they talked with her in terms of maybe putting some space there,” Bill said.
Like Scott’s family, the Mitchells knew there were problems but were unaware of Landau’s extreme behavior. According to a 2004 survey by the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center, 81 percent of parents believe dating violence is not an issue or admit to being unaware of its presence in the lives of their children.
“Overall, everybody needs to wake up to the fact that dating violence is a reality. The statistics are there, but nobody thinks it’s going to happen to them,” Bill said.
In hopes to put an end to dating violence, the Mitchells share Kristin’s story with organizations around the country and sponsor an annual 5k run/walk through Kristin’s Krusade.
A Way Out
It’s not uncommon for friends to have a hard time getting through to a victim. Dr. Miller advises friends to be persistent. “Let them know you want them to be in a respectful and healthy relation- ship,” Dr. Miller said. “If things start to feel unsafe, help connect them to places and experts who can help them.”
By Scott’s sophomore year, she ended it for the last time. “Just because I left him, doesn’t mean he wanted to leave me,” Scott said. According to a 2009 survey by the Department of Justice, 58 percent of young adults ages 18-24 experienced stalking behaviors, the highest rates in the study. The survey also showed almost 60 percent of stalking crimes against females go unreported.
When desperate phone calls turned into unexpected visits and violent threats, Scott refused to fall into those statistics. Instead of hitting the ignore button one January night, Scott picked up her cell phone and recorded his fatal threats and admissions to physical brutality. The court awarded Scott a restraining order last September and she hasn’t heard from her ex since.
“That’s very empowering to know I actually did something about it instead of being a victim. I never victimized myself, because that means he holds the power when he doesn’t. I’m a survivor,” she said.