It's difficult to fathom the full atrocity of what happened to Yeardley Love. In May 2010, Love, a star lacrosse player at the University of Virginia, was killed by her ex-boyfriend, George Huguely V, just weeks before graduation. She was found facedown in a bloody pillow after Huguely allegedly broke into her bedroom, shook her, and wrestled with her after a long day of drinking. Love was only 22 years old. In an instant, her potential, her promise, her future—all gone.
"Yeardley was extremely kind to everyone. She was caring, she was so much fun, and she lit up the room when she came in," says her mother, Sharon Love, who lives in Baltimore. "If she had lived, she would have blossomed and done so much good in the world. But she never got the opportunity."
It's perhaps the most high-profile example of young love gone wrong since 2009, when pop star Chris Brown attacked his then-girlfriend Rihanna while en route to the Grammys. Photos emerged showing Rihanna's battered face: heavy welts above her eyes, scratch marks around her mouth and on her cheeks, a bruised lip. The incident changed both of their lives, personally and professionally.
Love's and Rihanna's are just two of countless stories; millions of others go untold. One in every three women will experience relationship violence at some point in her life, and one in every five college females will be abused while pursuing a degree. About 4.8 million women are victimized by their partners every year, with 18-to-24-year-olds reporting the highest rates of abuse. "It's very striking," says Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor with the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing who has studied domestic violence for more than 20 years. "Young people are just starting to figure out how to have an intimate relationship, and there's lots of turmoil in the adolescent years. We're trying to feel connected and have relationships, but at the same time, we're not exactly sure how to do that." Though college drinking may fuel the fire, it doesn't cause people to be violent; treatment for a substance abuse problem, for example, won't resolve violence issues.
Campbell is on the advisory committee of the One Love Foundation, established by Sharon Love and Yeardley's sister, Lexie, 28. The women began speaking out on the tragedy in August, after Huguely, 25, was sentenced to 23 years in prison. (Last week, his attorneys announced they would be appealing his second-degree murder conviction.) "We knew we had to do something in Yeardley's memory, to prevent this from happening to another family," Sharon says. "Lexie and I felt like the attitude toward domestic violence was somewhat nonchalant, and we wanted to address that. When we first found out about Yeardley, so much focus was put on signs the parents and friends should look for, and absolutely no attention was on the perpetrator. It was like he didn't even exist. We'd like to turn the focus back on him—if you can stop him, it'll stop domestic violence." She likens it to a drunk driver who swerves all over the road; yet, everyone focuses on telling nearby drivers how to avoid him, rather than addressing the drunk person himself. "That's how things are right now with relationship violence," says Sharon. "The burden is on the person who is abused to handle it, not on stopping the abuser himself."
While Sharon is throwing herself into her advocacy work, she acknowledges that it's challenging at times. Thinking and talking about abusive relationships on a daily basis is a constant reminder of the tragic way she lost her youngest daughter. "At times it's hard to be immersed in it," she says. "But on the other hand, I'm doing it for Yeardley. It's something I cannot not do."
Awareness, she says, is the first step toward helping others avoid her daughter's fate—and she drives home that "one in every three" very well could mean you. "Stats don't always have much of an impact, because you think you're not going to be one of them," says Sharon. "But at the trial, one out of every three people in jury selection had been touched by relationship violence in some way. And there could have been others who didn't admit it. It was shocking. It's still an underground process, and we want to bring it into the light."
Last week, the Foundation unveiled its new Be 1 for Change campaign, which targets 16-to-24-year-olds with a smartphone app and public service announcement designed to help recognize dating violence. The app, called the One Love DA (Danger Assessment) Application, poses 20 questions, such as: Is he an alcoholic or problem drinker? Does he ever try to choke you? Do you feel owned and controlled? Has the physical violence increased in severity or frequency over the past year? Women who get a high score, which indicates a higher degree of danger, are urged to seek immediate professional help and are supplied with a list of phone numbers and resources. "You might already know that this isn't a good situation, but think that things are going to change," Sharon says. "If you take the test, you'll be able to see how much danger you're in, and it will probably persuade someone to go for help who wouldn't have actually done it before."
Such tools are particularly important, experts say, because people often aren't sure whether or not they're in an abusive relationship. No one says "I'm going to hit you in six months" on the first date, and as feelings grow and evolve, it can be easy to dismiss the warning signs or find a way to justify them. Dating violence is defined as any type of abusive or aggressive behavior to gain power or control, and includes verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as stalking.
Recognizing abuse is often challenging, especially since such relationships aren't always bad all the time. Be alert for these red flags: A partner who checks your cell phone or E-mail without permission, constantly belittles you, or is extremely jealous or insecure. Someone with an explosive temper who isolates you from your family and friends, while making false accusations. Mood swings, physical harm, possessiveness, and controlling or bossy behavior. "Notice whether a friend has general anxiety about needing to get back to her partner, or even small changes in the way she dresses," says Whitney Laas, 24, a peer advocate with the National Dating Abuse Helpline, which is based in Austin, Texas. "She might start dressing more conservatively, because her boyfriend doesn't want her dressing up for other people."
In a nod to our tech-savvy world, experts are also warning against "textual harassment," or abuse via text message. Making threats over text is serious—not just a form of angry venting. "Sometimes it's easier to text something nasty than it is to say it," Campbell says. "It escalates into abuse when it's constant, when it becomes scary, and when it won't stop even though you clearly told the other person that enough was enough." Textual harassment can also include demands for inappropriate pictures or constant monitoring of someone's whereabouts.
Though attention tends to focus on women who are abused by their boyfriends, men aren't always the perpetrators. They can be victims, too. The difference typically lies in the type and severity of abuse. Women usually initiate acts of aggression like slapping and pinching, while men are more likely to punch or sexually assault their victim.
If someone you care about is being abused, offer your friendship and support—often, that's all you can do. "A lot of people think, 'It's not my business,' but it definitely is," Laas says. "Whether it's a girlfriend you see crying a lot or who's really anxious about her relationship, or a guy friend who's being harsh to his partner, speak up and say, 'That's not OK.'"Let your friend know it isn't her fault, and encourage her to build a support network. But don't make any demands or force her into something she's not comfortable with: She has to handle the situation on her own timeline. Rather, let her know you'll listen at any time, without judgment, and offer to sit with her as she calls the crisis hotline or logs onto an online help site. "It can be really frustrating to stick by your friend when you see her being hurt or upset or depressed," Laas says. "But it takes time to get out of an abusive relationship. Be patient, and be there for her when she's ready to get help."
If you're in an abusive situation, the idea of leaving is likely scary—and could even be dangerous. Talk to someone you trust and plan ahead for your safety. Experts can direct you to support groups and crisis hotlines, and can help you find safe places and ways to cope with your feelings. Preparing for a breakup is important, since you'll probably feel lonely and even miss your partner after the split. Experts suggest writing down the reasons why you want to end the relationship, and keeping them as a reminder when you're struggling with the aftermath.
It's important to remember that ending an abusive relationship isn't the same as ending a healthy one. Your partner might not accept it, and could resort to guilt trips, threats, insults, or physical violence. If you don't feel safe, don't break up in person; and if you do meet face-to-face, do it in a public place with a friend nearby. Afterwards, avoid isolated areas and talk to school counselors about changing your schedule so your paths don't cross. Memorize the number to the National Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474. Or log onto loveisrespect.org to live-chat with a peer advocate.
"If you feel that something's not right, something's not right. Please, please don't ignore it," says Sharon. "It's probably going to get worse. We used to carry our children around on our shoulders like they were princesses, and violence was so far off our radar—you just never think something like this will ever happen. I want to tell other people that it can happen, and to please do everything you can to prevent it, because it just devastates you and your family."
Angela Haupt is a health reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.