At first glance, it looks like any other Valentine's Day pop-up shop. Piles of fuzzy teddy bears line pale pink shelves, red heart balloons bob toward the ceiling, and chocolate boxes wait to be taken home to your sweetheart.
But look a little closer and you'll see that none of these things are your typical V-Day gifts. Squeeze that teddy bear's tummy and it'll bark, "Where have you been?!" at you, and then immediately apologize. Rather than saying, "I love you," the writing scrawled across the balloons says, "You're just like my ex," or, "All you do is complain." And that chocolate box? It only has one piece of chocolate in it, with a note that says, "I love you. But maybe you should watch your weight."
Of course, this isn't a regular store — it's a Valentine's Day pop-up from the One Love Foundation, an organization dedicated to teaching young people the signs of domestic abuse. The store was set up in New York City last weekend to help people identify an unhealthy relationship and learn, as One Love's campaign puts it, to #LoveBetter.
As I walked around the store, it struck me how mundane some of the messages were. This is a campaign pointing out signs of emotional abuse, I thought, but I recognized many of the words I was reading. I've heard them from my parents, my aunts and uncles, my friends, and even myself.
One of the balloons made me stop wandering. "Let me check your texts," it said, and I flashed back to a night when my ex-girlfriend had fallen asleep with her computer still open beside her. I couldn't stop thinking how easy it would be to log onto her Facebook account and read the messages I knew she'd been sending back and forth to her ex. Before too long, I wasn't just thinking about it, but actually doing it.
Does that one wrong turn make me emotionally abusive? Of course not. And that's exactly the point One Love is trying to make with the #LoveBetter campaign.
"We've all done unhealthy things in relationships and we've all had unhealthy things done to us; it doesn't necessarily mean that we've been in unhealthy relationships," says Susan Hook, managing director of communications at the One Love Foundation. "Everyone can learn to love better."
The store and the #LoveBetter campaign hope to shock people into realizing that even behavior we commonly see in relationships — like jealousy — can be unhealthy if you don't deal with it appropriately, and they're asking everyone to sign a pledge to do better next time.
In disrupting our own unhealthy behaviors, One Love hopes that more friends and family will also be able to spot when a loved one actually is in an unhealthy relationship. So many of these little behaviors have become normalized, says One Love engagement coordinator Emily Lloyd, that it can be hard to see through the fog. "Maybe we're used to hearing [obsessive or controlling words] once a year or once a month," she says. "And then when it comes to once a day or once a week, that's actually abusive and it's really hard to draw the line."
That's why One Love is starting these conversations with young people, in particular. The foundation goes to middle schools, high schools, and colleges to talk to students and give them the tools to recognize unhealthy behaviors in their own relationships, and help friends who they feel might have an abusive partner.
First, Lloyd says, it's important to check in with loved ones about their relationships — even if it seems like everything is going great. So instead of telling your friend that they make such a cute couple or their partner seems so amazing, actually ask how things are going. That gives your friend the opportunity to say something if the relationship isn't as happy behind closed doors.
"If you start checking in regularly when you think things are healthy, then when you see something off and you go to check in, it's not this huge defensive battle," Lloyd says.
To notice whether or not something is off, you'll need to know the signs of an unhealthy relationship, which include extreme jealousy, manipulation, isolation, belittling, and feeling like someone is obsessed with you. (One Love has a list of 10 signs to watch for here.)
But confronting a loved one about potential abuse can be tricky, so Lloyd says the way you phrase the conversation is important. Don't default to phrases like, "Your partner is such a jerk," or, "They're treating you like shit." While it might feel like you're coming from the right place, that's not helpful. "Your friend isn't going to break up with their partner just because you tell them to," Lloyd says. Instead, come at the conversation from your friend's point of view. That can mean saying something like, "I noticed the other day that your partner suggested you eat too much. That would make me feel uncomfortable, so I wanted to check in to see how you're feeling."
People are much more likely to be honest about what's happening in a relationship if their friends point out behaviors they've seen and ask how they feel, rather than if a friend speaks negatively about the abusive partner, according to Lloyd.
That's what makes campaigns like #LoveBetter so important. Because, sure, just about everyone is going to do something wrong in their relationship out of jealousy or insecurity every now and then. But if those behaviors continue to be brushed off as "not a big deal," then it's much more difficult to recognize when someone is seriously in trouble.
The One Love #LoveBetter store is open to the public until Valentine's Day. New Yorkers can check it out at 1 Prince Street at the corner of Prince Street and Bowery.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).