Early in her professional career, Carol Klose Smith worked at a victim support center, often counseling women who had been abused or raped. From there, she took what, at least on the surface, appeared to be a distinct turn in her career path, becoming a college counselor at a private medical school in Missouri.

But in some ways, that career turn wasn’t as sharp as she originally thought. “I was surprised when I made the move to a college campus that I was handling some of the same problems,” Smith says. Specifically, the problem of intimate partner violence.

Statistics on the prevalence of dating violence on college campuses vary widely. According to Smith, an assistant professor in the counselor education program at Winona State University in Minnesota, some of the most recent research indicates that between 30 and 60 percent of U.S. college students have experienced at least low-level violence (such as pushing) in a dating relationship. Between 3 and 10 percent self-report having experienced more extreme forms of physical violence, which may include beatings, being hit with hard objects or being assaulted with a weapon.

Kerrie Kardatzke, a National Certified Counselor and third-year doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has likewise conducted research on dating violence on college campuses, much of it in conjunction with UNCG Assistant Professor Christine Murray. According to Kardatzke, on average, 29 percent of college students report physical violence toward a dating partner within the last year. In addition, she says, approximately 33 percent of female college students and 10 percent of male students report being victims of sexual dating violence.

“Dating violence on college campuses is more common than you’d ever imagine,” says Kardatzke, a member of the American Counseling Association. “I’ve just been astounded at the statistics.” Even so, she says the reported rates should be considered underestimates, in part because of the “shame” factor involved in dating violence. “It’s easier to say to friends, ‘Oh, he’s being mean’ or ‘He’s just jealous,’ than ‘He hits me,’” Kardatzke says.

Smith agrees and says male students are even less likely to report when they are victims of dating violence. “I think it’s important not to engender this issue. Some women do engage in violence in their relationships,” says Smith, a Licensed Professional Counselor and a member of both ACA and the American College Counseling Association. On more than one occasion, she says, a male student came to her and exclaimed, “My parents taught me not to hit women, so how do I stop my partner from hitting me?”

In addition, Smith says, it’s important for counselors to be aware that intimate partner violence on college campuses is often reciprocal, straying from the typical victim-perpetrator model. She cites statistics indicating that women who have been recipients of violence from a dating partner are 108 times more likely to perpetrate violence themselves.

Kardatzke confirms that point. “It’s very common for people to be on both sides of the situation, as both the victim and the perpetrator,” she says. “However, women and men tend to give different reasons for becoming violent. Women are more likely to use violence in self-defense, whereas men are more likely to use violence out of anger to intimidate or control their partners. They may get into a pattern with one another and get into a mind-set of thinking, ‘This is OK. This is an acceptable way to resolve our conflict.’”

Students often begin determining “who they are” in college, and the relationship models they are exposed to during these years can influence the patterns that will play out in their future relationships. For that reason alone, it is critical for college counselors to take steps to ensure that relationship violence doesn’t become “normalized” for students.

“Unfortunately, I do think that violence is one of those things that tends to build,” Kardatzke says. “If people have found that violence ‘works’ for them in one relationship, they’re more likely to use it in future relationships. It’s a long-term concern.”

Smith says that, based on her clinical experience, the same statement holds true for victims of violent relationships as well, as the relationship dynamics tend to be repeated.

Raising the curtain on the problem

Moving beyond the statistics showing the prevalence of dating violence on college campuses, one of the more eye-opening aspects of the problems is that many students subjected to abuse don’t recognize that they are in a troubled relationship. “One of the myths is that if I’m not physically hurt, then the relationship isn’t violent,” Smith says, pointing out that some students don’t consider so-called low-level violence, in which the threat of permanent or harmful injury is unlikely, as abusive.

According to statistics presented by Kardatzke, of those college students who experienced dating violence, only about 50 percent decided to tell anyone, and only 6 percent of those who told reported it to a counselor. Statistics also indicate that victims of dating violence are more than eight times more likely to disclose to a friend than to a counselor, but Kardatzke believes another reason partially accounts for the low report rate.

“It goes back to their beliefs and attitudes about what is acceptable in a relationship,” she says. “Relationship violence doesn’t necessarily jump out at (some students) as something they need to get help for. And sometimes they distort what’s happening and excuse the violence — ‘I’m not giving up on this relationship like my parents did on their marriage.’”

Numerous factors put individuals at greater risk of ongoing involvement in a violent relationship (either as a victim or a perpetrator). Some of these factors also distort their ability to perceive a relationship as violent. For example, Kardatzke says, individuals who witnessed violence between their parents or experienced child abuse sometimes become desensitized to the violence. “They may not be quite as shocked to find themselves in this type of relationship,” she says.

“Peer relationships can also send the message that (violence) is OK,” she continues. “Often, if you’re a victim yourself, you might have other friends who are also victims.” Other factors, such as low self-esteem and alcohol use/abuse, can also mask the seriousness of the situation, she says.

College counselors can play an especially important role, Kardatzke and Smith say, by educating students — many of whom will be entering into their first serious “adult” relationships — about what a healthy relationship is and how it should look.

Educational efforts should also cover psychological dating violence, which includes such things as dominating behaviors, verbal denigration and social isolation and is often a precursor to physical or sexual violence, according to Kardatzke. Perhaps because it is viewed as more “acceptable,” psychological dating violence is more common than either physical or sexual dating violence. Depending on the study, 75 to 88 percent of college students report having experienced psychological dating violence.

While the outward signs of abuse may not be as evident, the psychological effects of violence “often far outweigh the immediate effect of physical violence,” Kardatzke says. “It takes a lot more time in therapy to heal from emotional wounds.” Psychological violence can have negative long-term effects on self-esteem and general mental health, she says, and victims of this type of violence often form irrational beliefs both about themselves and about relationships. For example, they are more likely to place the blame for various types of violence in their relationships on themselves rather than on the perpetrators. “They’re more likely to say things such as ‘I should have been able to stop it’ or “I shouldn’t have made him that angry,’” she says.

Kardatzke believes one of the most effective ways to spread the message about all forms of dating violence on college campuses is to target leaders in various student-led organizations and invite them to training workshops. Counselors can then provide resources to student leaders so they can implement awareness campaigns in their respective organizations to reach a wider audience. As Kardatzke points out, “This information often comes across better when delivered by peers than by ‘old fuddy-duddies.’” She stresses that gender-neutral program materials should be used in educating students about dating violence so that male victims, in particular, won’t feel even more ashamed. Counselors can also indirectly address dating violence with larger student audiences by providing programs on self-esteem, power and control issues in relationships and alcohol-related issues, she says. Alcohol is involved in as many as one-half of all physical dating violence incidents and in more than 80 percent of unwanted sexual activity, she adds.

In addition to educating students, these programs can help to change the campus culture so it’s less accepting of dating violence, Kardatzke says. “If we can create a space for dialogue about this issue and show that people don’t want physical, sexual or psychological violence in their relationships, then that message will spread,” she says. “What we’re really talking about is our peer influences and changing what’s tolerated.”

Smith is also a proponent of counselors getting out of the office to perform outreach and talk with students about healthy relationships. As a college counselor, she gave presentations on the topic in residence halls, at fraternities and sororities, and to student service organizations. This had the added benefit of encouraging more students to seek her out for counseling services. “It’s amazing after you do an outreach and hand out your cards how many clients will show up at your office,” she says.

Smith says violence intervention efforts focused on couples seem especially valuable on campus. She ran groups for college couples who wanted to have healthy relationships. “College students are very interested in that part of their lives naturally,” she says, “and a lot of them were at the point of trying to figure out if this person was their life mate or not.” Smith took a wellness approach with the groups but also discussed warning signs of potentially violent relationships, the reciprocal nature of violence within relationships and conflict-resolution strategies.

Looking for clues

While outreach and education are essential in confronting the issue of dating violence on college campuses, say Smith and Kardatzke, college counselors can also be more proactive in identifying the problem with student clients.

Smith says that process begins with college counselors simply being aware that any student they see — male or female — could potentially be in a relationship that involves intimate partner violence. Unless a student self-reports, Smith says, counselors should automatically listen for clues in the course of normal conversation that dating violence may be taking place. “The power levels in a relationship are really an indicator that interpersonal violence may be happening,” she says.

Among the “red flags” for Smith:

  • Students who indicate they have a boyfriend/girlfriend who is extremely jealous, possessive or wants to know where they are at all times
  • Students who mention that their boyfriend/girlfriend doesn’t “allow” them to do something
  • Students who talk about their partner’s alcohol use/abuse
  • Students who say they have disagreements over sexual intimacy with their partner
  • Students who indicate they are enduring verbal abuse from their partner
  • Students who indicate they have withdrawn or feel isolated from family, friends and activities because of the relationship with their boyfriend/
  • girlfriend
  • Students who say they have a feeling of walking on eggshells around their partner

“These can be the first signs of the cycle of interpersonal violence beginning,” Smith says. “It usually starts small and escalates. … A lot of times when I’ve run across (dating violence), it has not been the presenting problem with clients. And many times, the students themselves don’t recognize that they’re in an unhealthy relationship.”

Kardatzke concurs, saying students exposed to dating violence may initially come to the counseling center for help with other issues, including unhealthy eating behaviors, anxiety, low self-esteem, hopelessness or even poor grades. “Clients don’t always connect the dots,” she says. “Sometimes it takes awhile to get to relationship violence as one of their issues.”

Given its prevalence and the likelihood that it may be overshadowed by a client’s other presenting problems, Kardatzke thinks college counseling centers should consider assessing for dating violence with every intake, much as they do for suicidality. “We may be able to get to the heart of it quicker that way,” she says.

She suggests including questions on the intake form pertaining to violence, such as “Has your partner ever done anything to hurt you physically, emotionally or sexually?” In addition, she says, college counselors shouldn’t hesitate to ask clients if they ever feel fearful or intimidated in a relationship. “You don’t have to be blunt,” Kardatzke advises. “You can say, ‘A lot of people who have been hurt in a relationship struggle in other areas. Have you ever felt that way?’ It validates their feelings to couch it in a supportive way — ‘Sometimes this happens’ — rather than just pointing a finger at them.”

If a student discloses dating violence, Kardatzke says, counselors should affirm their resilience and pursue treatment strategies that:

  • Validate the courage to disclose
  • Mobilize client resources
  • Empower clients to make decisions
  • Develop self-esteem

In addition to discussing the risk factors and warning signs, she advises counselors to focus on power and control issues within the client’s relationship and suggests using the “Power and Control Wheel” developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minn. The wheel illustrates the pattern of abusive and violent behaviors used to establish control over a partner. “The student can look at the wheel and ask themselves, ‘Does my relationship fit these characteristics, and is that what I want?’” Kardatzke says.

Anger management strategies are the key focus area for counselors working with perpetrators of dating violence, she says. Counselors should also work with perpetrators to accept personal responsibility for their actions. Perpetrators, like victims of dating violence, can also benefit from treatment strategies that develop self-esteem, Kardatzke says.

For both victims and perpetrators, Smith adds, it’s about “learning how to handle their feelings and insecurities in a different way.”