(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Gabby was a 13-year-old Catholic girl who dreamed of a “white wedding” when she met her first love. He was everything she had dreamed of: handsome, popular, a perfect gentleman.

But that puppy love turned into a nightmare several months after they began dating, when her boyfriend raped her in a bathtub.

Feeling helpless and alone, Gabby, who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used, stayed with her boyfriend. She said she didn’t tell her parents about the assault because her mom was working two jobs and her dad was deployed to Afghanistan with the Army. Besides, violence seemed to surround her, whether in her parents’ vicious fights or the Bronx neighborhood where they lived.

“I stayed with him because, what else was I supposed to do at that point? I felt like I had nobody, I had no other outlet, I had nothing,” Gabby said. She was also frightened of her boyfriend, after learning he was a gang member who carried weapons and used extreme violence on those who crossed him.

“I was scared for my life. … I was scared for my family,” Gabby, now 25, said of that traumatic time in her life.

In the two years she was with him, there were beatings, more rapes and emotional abuse. Afterward, he would apologize profusely and give her gifts, and everything would seem perfect again. When the beatings and rapes became too savage, she finally told her mom and a school administrator, who helped her work out a plan to avoid her boyfriend. But he continued to stalk her.

Gabby finally found peace and strength by advocating for other abused teens with Day One, a New York-based nonprofit organization that offers supportive and legal services for residents 24 and younger in abusive relationships, as well as leadership-building and community education on teen dating abuse.

Now living in a different state, Gabby is happily married with three children. Finding help early on, like Gabby did, could be key to avoiding future abusive relationships, according to domestic violence experts and studies.

A study in the February issue of Journal of Adolescent Health found heterosexual victims of teen dating violence were significantly more likely to be re-victimized five years later compared to their non-victim counterparts with other similar risk factors. Those who were victims again, by the five-year mark, were also more likely to be re-victimized by romantic partners 12 years later.

(The study used the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which asked 2,161 Americans whether their partners had hurt them emotionally or physically at 12- to 18-years-old and then five and 12 years later.)

Teen dating violence, which affects about 10 percent of high-schoolers, includes emotional, physical or sexual violence. Risk factors include depression, anxiety, drug abuse, early sex and violence at home or in the surrounding neighborhood and peer bullying, according to research.

Deinera Exner-Cortens, the researcher who led the study, said programs educating youth about healthy relationships and more screening for teen dating violence could help. “We want them to know they have a right to feel safe in their romantic and sexual relationships,” said Exner-Cortens, assistant professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. “Romantic relationships are not just fleeting unimportant encounters — they have a real implication for the health and well-being of adolescents.”

Supportive services for teen dating violence victims such as Amanda Graybill were virtually nonexistent in the 1970s, when she was a high school student whose boyfriend raped her. Her mother worked full time and her father was disabled and an alcoholic who mistreated her mom, so she didn’t feel comfortable telling them. “I was completely broken. … I was so ashamed,” said Graybill, now 61.

Right after high school, Graybill married a man she barely knew, not realizing he was addicted to pornography and would pressure her into having sex with him and other men. Graybill said she just kept trying to please her husband until she finally found help from a female pastor.

Graybill now runs a nonprofit group for victims, and volunteers for Break the Cycle, a national nonprofit group that offers dating abuse programs and help for 12- to 24-year-old survivors.

“I think the big thing is: You are so low that you just want somebody to love you for who you are, what’s inside,” said Graybill, who is now happily married to someone else in San Antonio, and has two sons and four grandchildren.

That type of vulnerability can expose people to more abuse, according to psychologists and social workers.

“The negative consequence of those experiences are in and of itself what makes you vulnerable to post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, substance abuse,” said Carlos Cuevas, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston. “So it’s both a consequence of being victimized in the first place that puts you at risk and perpetrators seeing these people as more vulnerable.”

Victims shouldn’t be blamed for the abuse, he added. “If you get hit by a car and you break your leg, then your ability to cross the street quickly and not get hit by a car again is impaired — essentially that’s what we’re talking about. At no point is it your fault to get hit by a car,” said Cuevas, who researches violence and victimization, and counsels survivors and perpetrators.

Abusers may even target individuals who they notice aren’t functioning well and might be easier to control. “Being victimized impairs your ability to sort of perceive danger cues the way other people do,” Cuevas said.

Cuevas said victims need assistance planning a safe exit strategy, finding a place to stay and then getting help from a therapist, support group or program for victims.

“It’s really, in practicality, a much more difficult thing than I think people perceive,” Cuevas said. “It’s not just pack up and go.”

Sometimes it also takes an act of faith and the belief that one deserves better, which was the case for Graybill.

“My faith in God helped me to understand my identity and self-worth,” she said. “I learned that God created me in his image and he doesn’t make junk.”

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