The domestic violence landscape in New Jersey has broadened significantly throughout the years with an emphasis geared towards expanding the rights of victims who have endured acts of abuse and are in need of protection.  One area in which domestic violence law has recently seen tremendous change is in protecting those victims who are in dating relationships. What exactly constitutes a “dating” relationship in the digital age is a question recently decided by the New Jersey Appellate Court.

In the case of C.C. v. J.A.H., the parties met at a gym where the victim was employed and the defendant was a member.  They flirted in person at the gym before exchanging phone numbers.  During a period of five weeks, the parties exchanged over 1,300 text messages during all hours of the day and night which were intimate and sexually explicit in nature.  The parties continued to engage in flirtatious behavior when they spent time at the gym but they never went on a traditional date or engaged in a physical relationship.  After a period of time, the victim made clear to the defendant that she was not interested in a romantic relationship. Thereafter, the defendant’s text messages to the victim became aggressive and threatening.  As a result of the defendant’s actions, the victim obtained a temporary restraining order against the defendant.

At trial, the defendant argued against entry of a final restraining order claiming that the domestic violence law did not apply in this case because the parties did not have a dating relationship. In rejecting the defendant’s argument, the court found both the frequency and suggestive content of the text messages exchanged between the parties constituted a dating relationship. In arriving at this decision, the court considered the following factors: (1) Was there social interpersonal bonding that went beyond mere casualization; (2) How long did the alleged dating activities continue prior to the alleged act of domestic violence; (3) What were the parties’ ongoing expectations with regard to the relationship; and (4) Did the parties demonstrate an affirmation of their relationship before others by statement or conduct.

The court found that because the text messages between the parties were so excessive and intimate, they ultimately transformed the parties’ interactions into a dating relationship, albeit extremely unusual and unconventional.  While the interactions between these parties may not bear any semblance to “dating” in the eyes of those holding a more traditional view of what it means to date, for the victim in C.C. v. J.A.H. (who was only 22 years old) these interactions are typical of dating life for the millennial generation and in the 21st century.  The decision by the appellate court breaks away from antiquated notions and societal norms as to what qualifies as a dating relationship especially with the emergence of many online and virtual platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram.

Not only may dating relationships be developed through text message such as in the C.C. v. J.A.H. case, but many people now form relationships online by frequent messaging on dating websites such as Tinder, OkCupid, and Bumble.  This has become even more prevalent since the coronavirus pandemic where in-person socializing and meetups have been limited and people are forced to communicate remotely. After the decision in C.C. v. J.A.H., it is now clear that a dating relationship can be formed where partners have communicated by text message and have not gone out on a single date or engaged in a physical relationship.

If you have been exclusively communicating with a romantic interest online in which you have been exposed to abuse, you should explore the possibility of contacting an experienced family law attorney who can advise you as to whether your relationship qualifies as a dating relationship under New Jersey’s domestic violence law and whether you may be entitled to protection by way of a restraining order.

By: John P. Paone, Jr., Esq. and John P. Paone, III, Esq.*

*John P. Paone, Jr., Esq. and John P. Paone, III, Esq. are divorce and family law attorneys with the Law Offices of Paone, Zaleski & Murphy, with offices in Red Bank and Woodbridge.