By Cindy Hoffman, Staff Writer
(Aug. 10, 2023) Bill Mitchell is on a mission to make people aware of the warning signs of dating violence after his daughter, Kristin, was killed by her boyfriend just a few weeks after she graduated from college.
He has written a book, “When Dating Hurts” and hosts a podcast, where he talks with domestic violence counselors, law enforcement professionals, parents of victims and actual survivors of abuse, both women and men. He also travels for speaking engagements.
“It’s pushed me emotionally over the years, but whatever is helpful needs to be heard,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell and his wife, Michele, live in Ellicott City and have a vacation home in Ocean Pines, a place they retreated to after burying their only daughter.
Mitchell has spent the last 17 years since Kristin’s murder educating himself and sharing what he has learned on the warning signs of abusive relationships.
He said there is a template for an abuser that he wants everyone to know.
The abuser starts out as a Prince Charming, he said. The victim feels like they are in a fairy tale romance, as she is treated with over-the-top gifts and courting gestures. He calls this the “Love Bomb.”
Then comes isolation, as he wants the victim all to himself. At first this seems nice. But at some point, the alone time turns to efforts to isolate the victim. He becomes jealous of the victim spending time with friends and family. He might interrupt her outings with constant texts and calls. He says he feels uncomfortable with her friends or parents. He also might try to talk the victim out of engaging in sports or other activities that don’t involve him.
Threats of violence are next, Mitchell said. She does something that makes him angry. He acts out. The victim’s goal is to get back to that fairy tale, so she is more cautious with him, trying not to upset him.
The next step is actual violence. Maybe he pushes the victim or slaps her. Then he apologizes. He makes excuses for his behavior and says it will never happen again. He goes over the top again and provides a romantic night out as an apology or buys her a nice gift. Now he has moved back to step one, the fairy tale romance.
The cycle will happen again and will become more dangerous until she gets out of the relationship, Mitchell said.
While Mitchell uses the pronouns “she/her,” he said the victim and the abuser can be male or female. More often than not, however, it is male-on-female violence, he said.
According to his findings, 33 percent of women, that’s one in three, suffer serious physical violence in an intimate partner relationship. Mitchell said this typically occurs between the ages of 16 and 24 years old, but it can happen at any age. He has heard stories from girls as young as 13 and women as old as 70.
“Even though you might think that something like this would never enter your life, if it does not touch you and your family, it will touch someone you know and their family,” Mitchell said.
He believes that parents can educate their children early if it is done gently. He has talked to domestic violence experts who have suggested the best way is to talk about the differences between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship.
Whether it is a romantic relationship or a friendship, there are key ingredients to a healthy relationship. In his book, Mitchell said healthy relationships “consist of respect, support, honesty and an overall sense of freedom of expression;” with open communication and shared decision making.
Signs of an unhealthy relationship include controlling and dominant behavior, extreme jealous, isolation, insulting comments and intrusive behavior such as checking the partner’s cell, email and texts without permission.
By educating both young boys and girls, Mitchell believes society can try to avoid creating abusers and teach people the signs of potential abusive relationships.
“If you play nicely in all your relationships, then you won’t turn into someone who wants to force their will on someone else,” Mitchell said.
He believes being an abuser is learned behavior.
“You might be born as someone with a need for power and control. But you pick up techniques along the way, from family, friends and the media. Most people who become part of the cycle are on the receiving end of abuse. They learn that if you don’t want to be abused you have to become the abuser.”
If a friend or family member is in a potentially abusive situation, it is important to act, but with caution, he said, making it clear that a victim will probably not respond well to a direct approach.
While he and his wife had a very close relationship with Kristin, he thinks he would have had to approach it as a generalized conversation on what can happen to innocent people.
“She would listen to that and probably apply it. If we had been specific about a person she was dating, I am not so sure we would get the desired result.”
He does believe the most important thing someone can do to support a person in an abusive relationship is to get them to talk about it.
“Maybe she will talk herself into the reality of what is going on. Continue to be there. Try not to judge,” Mitchell said.
Anyone who is in an abusive relationship needs to be prepared for the worst. While the key is to break up with the abuser, that can be dangerous. He advises anyone in this situation or anyone advising someone to get professional coaching at this point.
Contact National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800 799 SAFE (7233)
Some life-saving tips include: Don’t break up in person. Get out of town and don’t tell your abuser where you are.
“Any personal contact puts you in danger,” he said.
Mitchell said his daughter told her mother that her relationship was not perfect. Michele also told Bill she thought it was winding down, so they were surprised to see him at her graduation.
Mitchell remembers his immediate impression of the boyfriend: “ I would never want to tangle with this guy.”
Kristin graduated in the spring 2005. She had a sales associate position lined up with General Mills, a new apartment, and a company car. She was on track for a great start in her career and in life. But that life ended.
It’s been 18 years since Kristin’s death and Mitchell continues his crusade. This month he spoke to an audience of 2,000 people at the National Organization for Victim Assistance in New Orleans.
“I never wanted the memory of my daughter to fade away,” he said.
“When Dating Hurts” can be found on Amazon, and the “When Dating Hurts” podcast is on Spotify at https://open.spotify.com/episode/0NgdKVwawIF6EHpSNMR7YF?si=b6bc1cad33764f1f