“The most surprising thing was to see how young some of the girls who had experienced violence were. Some of them were just teenagers.”
Anne Iversen is associate professor at Department of Psychology at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Labour research is her primary field. But when master student Kristin Rymoen showed her some stories from the reader’s queries accessible online she immediately became interested. They have written an article together, in which they discuss young women’s experiences with violent partner relations.
Struggle to understand
“He twisted my arms and legs … and held me down really hard so I couldn’t move, squeezed my jaw in really hard … and pushed me so that he hurt me (…) I’ve never been so scared in my entire life, I thought I would be killed.”
«Marte» experienced something that made her fear for her life, which she is struggling to put into words and to understand. She therefore writes to an online reader’s query in order to articulate her experiences and perhaps get some advice.
“Our material consists of fifteen queries written by young women, from websites such as psykologen.no, ung.no and klaraklok.no. In addition, we have collected material from a few anonymous blogs. At some of the reader’s queries, professionals respond, but other readers may also comment. Others are based on dialogue with likeminded women. They are all written by women, although we do not know whether young men are also victims of such violence or not,” Iversen emphasises.
It is not always easy to determine how old the women are, but the researchers assume that they are all teenagers or in their early twenties. For instance, several of them still live at home with their parents.
“We wanted to look at what happens in relationships where the couple doesn’t have children (yet) or common financial responsibilities, driven by the assumption that such relationships are easier to get out of.”
Fierce rather than violent
“I have a boyfriend who becomes really fierce when he gets angry.” («Trine»)
“The girls rarely use the term ‘violence’ to describe their experiences. But at the same time they write about incidents that they find problematic. We see that they try to find other words to describe their experiences, such as ‘fierce’ instead of ‘violent.’”
“He’s not using violence anymore. But it still happens that he violates my trust.”
Moreover, words such as ‘fierce’ may also give associations to both intensity and passion, the researchers write in their article. These terms may yield positive descriptions of a love relationship.
“Another thing that surprised us when we worked with this material was the degree to which the girls romanticise monogamy. The partner is “the only man” of their life, they are so in love, and they will never love anyone else the way they love him. All these elements make them look for reasons to remain in the relationship. And we’re talking about very young women,” says Iversen.
“He’s not using violence anymore. But it still happens that he violates my trust. I’ve been called whore, fat, and slut, and he breaks up every second day. I’ve heard that he can find another girl ten times better than me, and that he’s going to cheat on me.” («Alexandra»)
“We also see that the girls don’t characterise psychological abuse as violence. Instead, they describe this in terms that their partner is not always “kind”. It is only in cases of physical experiences that the girls may begin to discuss whether they’ve experienced ‘violence’ or just something ‘fierce.’”
And as «Marte» in the example above later emphasises: “He didn’t hit”.
“«Marte» once had to see a doctor because she was afraid her arm was broken after she had been held down and beaten. At the same time, it is important for her to emphasise that she hasn’t ‘been beaten’. Apparently she doesn’t think she’s been beaten before he hits her in the face.”
The girls who write often emphasise that there is a limit to what they can accept,” says Anne Iversen.
“Each and every girl writes about her own limit. But at the same time our material shows that these limits seem to be pushed in accordance with each new experience. First they’re pushed into the wall, but they’re not beaten, since the hit wasn’t directed towards their face. Then they’re talking about a new limit, where being hit with a flat hand is less serious than being beaten with the fist.”
Within research and the support system, the characterisation of violence is quite clear in terms of what is included in and excluded from the term.
“But such classification systems are in many ways “poor” descriptions of actions. We see how the girls experience an extended story, and they don’t recognise their own experience within the dichotomy beaten/not beaten.”
“This only happens when he’s drunk, and he’s always extremely sorry for what he has done the next day.”
The girls’ insistence of nuances becomes a boundary marker for what the researchers interpret as the girls’ understanding of a stereotypical victim of violent abuse. They know that partner violence occurs, but they don’t want to characterise their own experiences as just that.
“They experience being different, that their partner is different, that the violence they’re exposed to is different, and that their story is different form the classical script. When theory is realised and interpreted in relation to one’s own experiences it is not that simple.”
“This only happens when he’s drunk, and he’s always extremely sorry for what he has done the next day. We always become good friends again. I probably feel even worse than him for making him so angry that he can’t help beating me up.” («Sanna»)
Another issue that the girls write about is who is responsible for what happens.
“They problematise the responsibility. Research on intimate partner violence shows that this is common for people with these kinds of experiences. The person experiencing violence often takes responsibility for it. But we also see that when the girls can blame other things than their partner, such as alcohol, they do that. Apparently they think it is better if the violence happens when their partner is intoxicated than if he is sober.”
Careful with the results
“(…) his mother has told me that he has had anger management issues since he was little, but he has never hit a girl before. Just me … and I’ve been hit by all my boyfriends … what am I doing wrong?” («Silje»)
“To what extent do the girls reflect upon representations of gender and gender roles?”
“We don’t know, and this is a weakness in our material. Reflections on gender and gender roles are rarely mentioned at all by the girls.”
In the national surveys directed towards youth there are few or no such descriptions of intimate partner violence as those that Iversen and Rymoen have found in these girls’ stories.
“We therefore find ourselves to be on slightly shaky ground, and our results should therefore be handled with some care. For instance, we can’t say anything for sure about the extent of such experiences. But the stories are there. And the girls’ experiences are clearly within what we define as violence, even if we’re talking about relatively volatile relationships which may seem easy for the girls to get out of for someone on the outside.”
“Different circumstances for young people”
Iversen and Rymoen’s results are nevertheless familiar to other researchers who have worked with intimate partner violence, such as Per Moum Hellevik. He is a PhD candidate at The Norwegian Center for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies, NKVTS. He researches violence in intimate teenage relationships, in particular the (psychological) violence that takes place through digital media, such as extortion of pictures, online harassment, or threatening messages. His PhD project is part of the European project STIR - Safeguarding Teenage Intimate Relationships.
“This might be the first intimate relationship the teenager has. It often feels very unique.”
“As Iversen and Rymoen note, much research emphasise structural circumstances such as common finances, common household and children as an explanation to why adult people ‘endure’ violent relationships. But we believe it is important to realise that there are also structural circumstances for young people. The circumstances are just different,” says Hellevik.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the power of teenage relationships. For young people it may be important to show friends that you have a boyfriend or girlfriend. If everyone else has a partner you might feel that you have to have one too, and then it might be difficult to end the relationship.”
He also emphasises that lack of experience from other relationships can make it difficult to interpret what is happening to you.
“This might be the first intimate relationship the teenager has. It often feels very unique. You can’t imagine that you’ll ever experience anything like it ever again, or you can’t see that what you’re feeling is not as unique as you may think. And when you are inexperienced in a relationship it may be difficult to detect potential risk signals. For instance, we see in our research that intense jealousy or control is easily understood as a confirmation of love, and thus something positive.”
“Must take the nuances seriously”
According to Anne Iversen, their findings demonstrate how important it is to take the girls’ nuancing seriously.
“As outsiders we have a very categorical understanding of violence. Either you’re beaten or you’re not. And if you’re beaten you have to leave. This is also the message we convey to young girls. And we shouldn’t under any circumstances accept any kind of violence,” she says.
“But these defined understandings of violence are perhaps not as recognisable to the girls. They can’t identify with it. They are often very clear on the fact that they don’t see themselves as victims, and we should take them seriously as actors without giving them any responsibility for what happens. On the one hand, labelling your experiences may be liberating. Yes, what you’re experiencing is violence. But on the other hand, it may create resistance, if you can’t identify with what other people define on your behalf.”