JCC addresses teen relationship abuse
The first time Erin Guberman’s last boyfriend hit her, they were in her dorm room at the University of Delaware.
She doesn’t even remember what they were arguing about. "He was just mad and needed to be in control," Guberman told The Jewish Standard. So, he threw her into a chair. That was just the first violent contact in what would become a seven-month spiral of punches, forced drug abuse, and isolation.
"I was hit by this person every day. I can’t remember a day he did not hit me. He would sometimes pull my hair and drag me across the floor. He’d throw things at me," recalled Guberman, who is now a junior at Delaware. "He would just get mad and angry, and then he would throw what I would call ‘hissy fits.’ He would go absolutely crazy."
Getting regularly beaten up by a boyfriend just isn’t the type of thing that you’d think would happen to a ‘1-year-old Jewish girl from a well-off family in Tenafly especially if that abusive boyfriend was also a supposedly nice Jewish boy from another well-off family in Tenafly. That is why the JCC on the Palisades will give a free workshop about how to prevent and deal with abusive teenage relationships for teens and parents at the Clinton Inn on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Guberman will be one of two young women to share her story. Then the audience will break up into two groups and one school counselor will talk to the teenagers there, and another to the parents, about how to avoid or deal with these relationships.
Guberman had no idea she was getting into a bad relationship though perhaps she could have. She met her abusive boyfriend during winter break two years ago. They had both graduated from Tenafly High School. She thought that he was handsome. He bought her a present during the first week of their dating. She knew that he had something going on with his ex-girlfriend, that there were some lawyers involved in something, but "he told me that she was just crazy." And Guberman believed him.
She didn’t know that the ex-girlfriend had slapped him with a restraining order and was filing charges against him for violent domestic abuse.
But she would soon find out. Shortly after they started dating, the boyfriend, who was not in college at the time, essentially moved in with her at Delaware. He also started feeding her drugs. First copious amounts of marijuana, then painkillers such as vicodin and sleeping pills, then cocaine.
"He would tell me that I needed to relax. I wouldn’t take them, he would hit me. So in order not to get hit, I would take this medicine," she said.
Guberman knew that there was something wrong with her relationship, but she didn’t know how dangerous a situation she was in, in part because she was becoming a drug addict. And even though she knew she was being hurt, she felt that she needed her boyfriend, who by the end of their relationship had essentially isolated both of them in a drug den hotel room off of her university’s campus.
"He was telling me that my friends hated me, that my family hated me, and I leaned on him. He was breaking me down," she said.
And that is how most abusive relationships start, according to Andrew Yeager, the student assistance counselor and psychologist at Park Ridge High School, who will speak with the parents at the JCC workshop.
Yeager, who has worked exclusively with adolescents for ‘6 years, said that he regularly sees students and clients in his private practice who are in abusive relationships.
The vast majority of those relationships are not physically violent. In most, one partner is manipulative or uses emotional blackmail and intimidation.
One partner may tell the other that he or she will commit suicide if they ever break up. Or one might threaten to spread rumors about the other if they don’t behave a certain way. Or one partner may become demanding or even obsessive.
Such relationships can be just as emotionally harmful as those that are violent.
"Kids get trapped into situations where they feel, ‘If I say something I might lose that person.’ But that emotional abuse can be frightening or dangerous, because when you give a kid that kind of emotional abuse, you reinforce it and it increases," said Yeager. "A profound sense of loss of control can lead to lack of self esteem, a lack of a sense of competence, and a lack of a sense of control in the rest of the world. Victims feel their needs don’t matter. They can get pushed around, and they allow others to push them around. It becomes, ‘I don’t matter.’ And that can have a profound effect on the rest of their lives if they get locked into that kind of thinking."
Yeager said that it can cause anxiety and a learned helplessness, and that can effect their ability to form relationships or even have career success for the rest of their lives.
Teenagers are particularly susceptible to these types of relationships, he said. Because of where they are in their neurological development, it is harder for them to control impulses, so if the initial impulse is to want to date the cute guy or the cute girl, they might follow that, regardless of whether that person is good for them.
These relationships can lead to actual violent relationships, said Kelly Ruta, a licensed clinical social worker and the student assistance counselor at Cresskill High School, who will speak with parents at the JCC workshop.
Ruta said that she does not see violent relationships as often as she sees students involved in other types of abusive relationships, but she does see these every year and more teens from across the entire socioeconomic spectrum are in bad relationships, she said.
Liz Claiborne Inc. recently released the findings of a study it commissioned into abusive teen relationships. The survey of 1,004 American teenagers between 13 and 18 years old, conducted by Teen Research Unlimited and published on Liz Claiborne’s Website, found that 47 percent of the teens surveyed who have been in a relationship have "done something that compromised their own values in order to please their partners." One in five have had a partner try to prevent them from seeing family or friends. And ‘0 percent of teens who have been in a serious relationship have been "hit, slapped, or pushed by a boyfriend or girlfriend," according to the study.
"There is a real gray area between emotional and physical abuse, and a lot of it has to do with coercion," said Ruta, who frequently sees "boys really coercing girls into sexual acts before they are ready or willing to do them. They do it through verbal pressure, saying, ‘If you really loved me you’d do this.’"
Ruta said that she tries to work with her clients on their self-esteem to make them feel stronger and more empowered to walk away from bad situations.
For Guberman, it took hitting rock bottom before she was able to walk out of her relationship 10 months ago.
She had been awake for several days on cocaine, and her boyfriend ended up in the emergency room after he hurt his foot.
"We came back to my apartment from the emergency room and my friends were scared of him. They told me that I looked like a zombie. I was slurring my words," she said. Guberman said that she left her boyfriend alone in her room to rest, and when she came back to check on him, he was livid at her for leaving him alone.
"He woke up, and said, ‘I hate you.’ And I just told him, ‘I hate you so much.’ I started breaking down. I couldn’t believe that he hated me, and I realized I hated him so much at this point. My friend saw me and asked if I needed help. I just gave her this look."
The friend called Guberman’s parents, who got the boy out of her apartment. Soon after, Guberman had her own restraining order against him.
It’s taken her months to clean up and to regain a sense of normality, and Guberman said that she is not looking back. But she feels it is important to share her experience so that other girls don’t get into the same situation.
"I didn’t think this could happen to me. Tenafly is a wealthy little area," she said. "I didn’t know much about [abusive relationships] before. I didn’t understand how someone could get involved in one."
What: Abusive teen relationships workshop
When: Thursday, June 8
Where: The Clinton Inn, Tenafly
How Much: Free
RSVP: Judith Davidsohn Nahary, (’01) 569-7900, ext. 369
Where to go for help
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, www.ncadv.org
National Sexual Assault Hotline, (800) 656- hope
Break the Cycle, www.Breakthecycle.org