Am I in an Unhealthy or Abusive Relationship?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on April 01, 2022
4 min read

Sometimes, an unhealthy or abusive relationship is pretty easy to spot. Consider this example:

Tina's parents were watching television as Tina (not her real name) burst through the front door without closing it, and ran into her bedroom. Her parents went to Tina's room to investigate. As they approached their daughter's bedroom, they could hear her crying hysterically. They asked if they could come in. Tina said yes.

Once they were in the bedroom, Tina turned to look at them, and they saw a bright red mark on the side of her face.

"He slapped me ... Brad hit me," Tina screamed. "We were sitting in his car outside of our house talking, and we got into an argument about his friends. I just don't like hanging around some of them. Well, Brad got so mad that he slapped me in the face. I've seen him lose his temper before, but I never thought it would be like this."

Tina's parents were frightened for their daughter and knew they had an extremely serious situation on their hands.

Tina's situation is far more common than you might imagine. A United States Department of Justice survey showed the following eye-opening facts:

  • 1 out of 3 teenagers has experienced violence in a dating relationship.
  • 50% to 80% of teens have reported knowing others who were involved in violent relationships.
  • 15% of teen girls and boys have reported being victims of severe dating violence (defined as being hit, thrown down, or attacked with a weapon).
  • 8% of eighth- and ninth-grade teens have reported being victims of sexual dating violence.
  • Young women, aged 16 to 24 years, experience the highest rates of relationship violence.

According to a 2014 Centers for Disease Control survey:

  • Approximately 9% of high school students report being hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the 12 months before surveyed.
  • Among adult victims of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, 22% of women and 15% of men first experienced some form of partner violence between ages 11 and 17.

While all of these situations are serious and require drastic action, a relationship does not have to involve physical violence to be unhealthy. Here are some additional warning signs your relationship is in trouble:

  • Controlling behaviors, such as not letting you hang out with your friends, telling you what to wear, having to be with you all the time, or calling or texting you frequently to "check up" on you.
  • Verbal and emotional abuse that involves calling you names, jealousy, cutting you down, and threatening to hurt you or a family member if you don't do what they want.
  • Sexual abuse that includes unwanted touching and kissing, forcing you to have sex, or forcing you to do other sexual things.

Some teens involved in unhealthy or abusive relationships think it's their fault. They may feel helpless to stop the abuse, or feel threatened or humiliated. You must understand that nothing you say or do gives anyone the right to abuse, intimidate, or hurt you.

Trust your gut feelings. If something feels uncomfortable or wrong with the relationship, then it is not healthy. You must end the relationship, even though it's difficult to leave someone you care about. And because it may be difficult to leave, you will need help. Here are some tips for ending an unhealthy or abusive relationship:

  • Get help immediately. Don't keep your concerns to yourself.
  • Break the silence. Talk to someone you trust, such as a parent, teacher, or a school counselor or nurse. Tell them what the other person has done to you and how they treat you.
  • The law mandates that certain adults (teachers, counselors, doctors, social workers, and coaches or social activity leaders) report neglect or abuse to the police or to government protective services. If you'd like to talk to an adult anonymously, call a crisis help line in your area or call the National Center for Victims of Crime help line at 1-800-FYI-CALL.

While teens can find themselves in an unhealthy or abusive relationship through no fault of their own, it's important to avoid letting these relationships become a pattern. Try these suggestions to ensure that all of your relationships are healthy and beneficial:

  • Build a healthy self-image. Teens with high self-esteem and a positive self-image are less likely to become involved in unhealthy or abusive relationships. Work on being confident, satisfied, and secure within yourself.
  • Don't let a relationship become a burden. Again, trust your gut feeling. If you feel that a relationship is too intense or burdensome, or that the other person needs too much from you, step back from the relationship or break it off altogether.
  • Trust your support system. Have a close relationship with your support system (family, therapists, teachers, coaches, doctors, etc) that will help you in all of your relationships.
  • Be informed. Learn as much as you can about abuse, dating violence, and healthy relationships, so you can help yourself -- and others, such as friends and younger siblings.

Relationships are an important part of life, and they should be special and fun. Know the warning signs of an unhealthy or abusive relationship. Avoid any relationship that doesn't feel right. Most important, learn to feel good about yourself to increase the chances of positive and healthy relationships.