Ningning (an alias) was hesitant before her wedding. The nurse, who works in Beijing, says her fiance, a tour guide, was generally kind and charming during the two years they dated, except for one thing: Occasionally he would become violent.
Ningning became alerted for the first time when the two were furnishing their newly bought apartment. One day an argument escalated into a violent confrontation. Her fiance suddenly shoved her to the ground. Feeling shocked and humiliated, Ningning ran away, crying all her way home.
That evening, her fiance apologized to her profusely, swearing to never do it again. Ningning, seeing regret in his eyes, forgave him.
So it began a cycle of violence followed by apologies.
Ningning was still in love with him, but she was not sure about marrying a man who gave her roses and bruises at the same time.
"Ningning was a victim of a kind of domestic violence, dating violence, which does not get as much public and media attention as date rape," says Sun Jue, executive director of Half The Sky Public Education, a Hong Kong-based commonweal organization.
One explanation is that people, especially those with limited dating experience, have very little knowledge of what constitutes healthy dating behavior, says Sun.
Wang Xiying, a sociologist with the Beijing Normal University, has studied dating violence among Beijing's young adults since 2004. She says the violence usually occurs when one partner tries to take control in the relationship through abuse.
"Sometimes, the violent behavior is small and subtle, but it may grow into bigger problems," Wang says. "When it takes place, a clear message of NO must be given."
Dating violence is often hidden. That does not necessarily have to involve physical abuse, according to experts. It can take various forms, such as verbal abuse or checking other person's cellphone or e-mail without permission. It may also be sexual: unwanted touching and kissing, or demanding sex.
Wang's study found that men and women both can be victims of dating violence. Women tend to use verbal aggression, whereas men are more prone to physical attacks.
Recent studies in the United States show that although adolescent males and females do not differ in overall frequency of violence in dating relationships, young women experience much higher levels of severe violence and are more physically and emotionally traumatized. Some are killed by their partners.
Official statistics on dating violence do not exist in China, although domestic violence figures are readily available. According to a survey conducted by All-China Women's Federation in 2011, one out of four married women in China has experienced family violence.
Wang notices that there is a tendency that Chinese people started dating at a younger age. Many young lovers don't really know how to handle their anger and anxieties so they use violence as an outlet for their negative emotions.
Ji Zeyang, an undergraduate at the Capital Normal University, witnessed a fight between two friends in love on the soccer field.
He recalls that day, "The girl was cheering for her boyfriend playing soccer. All of a sudden, they got into a furious quarrel which ended when he slapped her face. We were all shocked."
Later, Ji and his friends invited the couple to dinner. They wanted to help them fix their relationship. They asked the boy to apologize to the girl. The boy did. The girl seemed to feel better and accepted the apology.
But Ji noted that the boy was not ashamed of his behavior at all. "Then I became really confused. I had no idea what else I can do. Suggest they break up? Call the police? Those are both over the line if the two are still in love."
Dating violence has serious consequences, according to experts. The victim can become depressed, anxious, fearful, or even suicidal.
Once dating violence happens, there are a few sensible ways people can respond, says Huo Liqin, a psychologist with Peking University.
"It is imperative that two parties in the relationship to have a quality talk right after the first instance when they still have feelings for each other," says Huo.
A three-step communication method may help:
First, the two people involved should share their feelings, says Huo. "Tell your partner how shocked and heartbroken you are. If there are uncertainties about the relationship, you should tell your partner as well."
Second, it is important for the abuser to talk. The victim needs to be a good listener at this point and try to pinpoint what made their partner so angry, Huo says. For example, a quarrel may start over the furniture but the girl moves to say she is very disappointed with the boy's low-paid job. And that may be the straw leading to the outburst.
Third, the two should find a way to avoid escalating arguments and preventing abuse. For example, when the boy is very angry and on verge of explosion, he could make a gesture to the girl. The girl then, receiving the signal, should stop talking. Or, when the girl finds his boyfriend looks very angry and about to attack, leave the room. They can get back to discussion after calming down.
Huo pointed that those with violent tendencies are often poor communicators. "They can't convince their partner see things the way they do. They get angry and attack," she says. "It is important for the victim to listen, and help the abuser improve their communication skills. Otherwise, when they have children, he may be abusive to them."
When dating violence becomes a cycle, as in Ningning's case, getting professional help is vital, says Hou Zhiming, a psychologist at the Beijing Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center.
Ningning went to the center for help before the wedding. Hou recalls that deep in her heart, Ningning did not want to give up the relationship. What she wanted was a change in her fiance's attitude and behavior.
After investigating Ningning's case, Hou found that her fiance was often beaten by his father as a child, which may have been a factor in his own violent behavior. Now he is violent in the intimate relationship, but he is not violent at workplace, which means he could control himself, leaving possibility for changes.
Unfortunately, Ningning's fiance was reluctant to participate in the center's anti-abuse program, only showing up to the six-session program once. They continued dating for some time after the program, but eventually split up.
"Women should do more to learn about their boyfriends when dating," Hou says.
"If a man grows up in a family where parents hit each other and beat the children, and he himself always wants to tell his girlfriend what to do, this man is likely to have a violent tendency. In that case, leave him," says Hou.