are you in an abusive relationship?
You might’ve done a double take reading this title. The reality is, our health is intimately connected to the relationships we’re part of. The people we surround ourselves with inform what we think and how we feel about ourselves, so it’s critical to be choosy about who we’re vulnerable with. It’s important to shine a spotlight on abusive relationships especially because they aren’t as obvious as one would think they are. It’s hard to recognize abusive behaviors when we’re on the receiving end because emotions are involved, because “it’s not all bad,” or because people are complicated. Hear me: people aren’t black and white. It sounds as obvious as “the sky is blue,” but it’s critical to absorb this fact in our dealings with loved ones. We conceptualize abusers as clearly evil, but often, they aren’t so, and that’s how the lines get blurred. Lesson one: one can be kind, vulnerable, charming, and funny, and still be an abuser. One can express remorse for their behavior and still be an abuser.
The following are questions you should ask yourself if you are concerned that you may be in an abusive relationship. I’ve adapted them from Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? which I think should be required reading for women who are beginning to seek relationships. If you would like to do more reading after you peruse this piece, I strongly recommend purchasing Bancroft’s book.
Finally, a note: just because someone has angry, controlling behaviors, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re an abuser. However, no violence (including emotional violence) is acceptable in a romantic relationship. If you find that your partner is exhibiting abusive behaviors, I urge you to take note of their response when you point it out and demand to be treated better. A truly healthy relationship is one in which both parties care about instituting long-term solutions to their issues, and value each other’s emotions and sense of safety. If someone’s bad behavior persists, it’s a clear sign that you should exit. Holding out hope and staying in the relationship causes more and more damage to you in the long run, and it gets psychologically (and even physically) harder to leave. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been together! Cut your losses and move on. Aim to be as safe as possible when doing so if you’re under the threat of violence.
arguments are about winning
Conflict should be about coming to mutually beneficial solutions and understanding each other better. Arguments are stressful, and when you’re hurt it can be difficult to navigate each other’s emotions. However, the core focus should be a negotiation centered on everyone’s needs. It should not be about dominating, talking the most, controlling the decision-making, or pressuring your partner into submission. It’s a red flag when during a contentious argument, your partner isn’t genuinely interested in resolution or your feelings.
In a healthy relationship, both parties should be willing to admit their errors. There are subtleties to this, of course, and it won’t always be the case that each person has a wrong to admit. Manufacturing a conflict and then demanding that everyone share responsibility is a manipulative and controlling tactic, and it’s important to distinguish between instances when an apology is or isn’t truly warranted. However, everyone has flaws, and arguments are an opportunity to come to a better understanding of yourself and your partner’s needs. Both individuals should approach conflict this way. Be cautious if arguments in your relationship are about winning.
you’re always wrong
If your partner never treats your perspective as accurate or disparages your ideas, that’s cause for concern. This is dangerous for two reasons: one, a relationship cannot be healthy and mutually beneficial if one person’s experience is completely dismissed. Two, each instance of dismissal and belittling slowly chips at your self-esteem. You may come to chronically doubt your own viewpoints or disproportionately accept blame. You may find yourself shouldering the burden for keeping the peace. If your partner doesn’t extend a genuine listening ear and interact meaningfully with you based on your perspective, you may have an abuser on your hands.
control tactics during conflict
Control comes in many forms - financial, emotional, sexual, and physical. This section specifically details control tactics an abuser uses during conflict. For a full list, see Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That?
Distorting what happened or what you say
Not listening, not responding
Playing the victim or provoking guilt
Prioritizing personal grievances
Threatening to leave you
Remember: the threat of violence is violence. The goal of an abuser’s control tactics are to discredit and silence you in order to impose his will and maintain his current behaviors/attitudes. When an abuser succeeds at controlling you, he runs the relationship on his terms.
the abuser gets his way
As a natural consequence of all of the above, an abuser gets what he wants, be it the satisfaction of power, the final say about day-to-day decisions, a punching bag, emotional and physical labor, financial control, attention, public status, or exemption from consequences. If you find that conflict results in submission to your partner’s desires every time, that you’re made to feel stupid, scared, or unimportant, and that you’re never truly heard, it’s time to exit the relationship.
This is just a small sampling of the intricate layers of an abusive relationship. Don’t wait until a later time to leave. Anger management classes and therapy are not effective rehabilitation tools. The reality is, abuse is not about a painful childhood, a bad temper, or a lack of communication. Abuse is a matter of values. Say it with me. Abuse is a matter of values. An abuser engages in such harmful behaviors because they have certain expectations about what should be afforded them in a relationship. They have an exaggerated sense of self-importance and are extremely entitled. They have learned throughout life that there are no consequences for their actions. They drown out their conscience and assign blame to their victims.
Though a victim should never be blamed, it’s important to examine the roles that our culture and personal histories play in our choice of partners. You may gravitate towards a certain kind of partner due to your formative experiences, standards, or expectations. The music we listen to and movies we watch glamorize volatile relationships. Recently, in a coffee shop, Selena Gomez’s “Back to You” came on, and I felt disgust when I heard ‘you could break my heart in two, but when it heals, it beats for you’. You may think, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a song.” But these ubiquitous messages normalize abuse and even make it seem romantic and desirable. That’s why it’s important to be alert and aware.
An entire piece could be written about the influence of culture on abuse, but the purpose of this piece was to help you identify if your relationship is abusive. If you are in an unsafe situation, use the National Domestic Violence Hotline. It bears repeating: people aren’t black and white. Fun, exciting times do not make up for abusive behaviors, and abusers are often incredibly charming - how else could they rope their victim into the relationship?