“ Emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse can build slowly in a relationship... ”

How to Tell if You're in an Abusive Relationship
Brandy Parris, MA, LMHC

Being in an abusive relationship is incredibly confusing, and multiple myths about abuse can make it difficult to identify when it happens to you.

For many people, the word "abuse" evokes images of physical violence and the visible marks it leaves. However, abuse comes in many forms, some of which are more subtle and harder to pinpoint. Emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse can build slowly in a relationship, and you may become accustomed to giving away little bits of your will and desire until eventually you've given all your power over to your partner.

What can also be confusing is that abusers don't all fit the stereotype of the straight, sexist, aggressive male. Abusers can be brilliant, sensitive, and charming. Abusers can be smaller or weaker than you physically. Abusers can be queer. Abusers can be female, trans, or non-binary. Abusers don't even have to be your partner. Abusers can be your parent, your friend, your boss.

Similarly, abusers are not always cold and calculating in their behavior. Abusers have developed abusive strategies for coping with their own fears, wounds, and insecurities. Often, they have no idea they are being abusive. In fact, abusers will generally slip into a cycle of abuse with three clear stages: 1) tension builds and the abuser may be controlling or irritable; 2) the abuser can no longer tolerate the tension and lashes out in some way; 3) they express remorse and/or woo you back with attention and gifts or promises never to misbehave again. This "honeymoon" stage can last for long periods of time, but eventually conflict arises, tensions build, and the cycle repeats.

This lack of awareness also shows up in abusers' inability to take responsibility for their behavior. They will often blame external factors. They may fault drugs or alcohol, a demanding boss or difficult co-worker, financial stress or unemployment. Abusers tend to feel entitled and justified in everything they do, including their mistreatment of others. So, typically, they will accuse you of provoking them, of deserving it, of imagining things, of making too big a deal out of it. They are often charming and delightful to others and may paint you as difficult, hypersensitive, or crazy and enlist others to take their side. This can be the most confusing of all.

It's important, then, to check in with your own experience in the relationship:

  • Do you feel hopeless or helpless?
  • Do you feel like you're "walking on eggshells" around your partner?
  • Do you feel compelled to give in to your partner's wishes?
  • Do you feel responsible for everything that goes wrong?
  • Do you feel you can't do anything right?
  • Are you depressed?
  • Are you alienated from family and friends because your partner doesn't like them or otherwise disrupts those relationships?
  • Are you suffering from low self-esteem or feeling like you're not good enough?
  • Are you preoccupied or confused about the relationship and how to "fix it"?

You might also take a good look at your partner's behaviors to see if they fit a pattern of abuse. Not all of the items on the list below must be in place for the relationship to be abusive. It's the recurrence of the following types of behavior that indicates abuse:

  • Is s/he/they undermining? Does your partner: belittle you, your accomplishments and goals, or your needs and feelings? look at you or speak to you in a disapproving manner? share private or sensitive personal information about you without your permission? humiliate you in front of others? hinder your professional growth or financial independence by taking control of aspects of these areas in order to "help" you? interfere with your work, schooling, or relationships?
  • Is s/he/they critical? Does your partner: question your abilities? regularly point out your shortcomings? find fault with everything you do, even minor tasks? frequently correct you?
  • Is s/he/they demeaning? Does your partner: demean your opinions, beliefs, and ideas? disregard your suggestions, desires, or needs? "tease" you about things you already feel insecure about? use sarcasm or make mean jokes about you? use name-calling to "put you in your place"? pick apart or insult your friends and family?
  • Is s/he/they controlling? Does your partner: insist everything be done their way? insist there is only one right way (theirs)? control how you spend money? take charge of the bills and major financial decisions? repeatedly disregard your boundaries and your requests? decide how you spend your free time or who you spend time with? threaten you with punishment or suicide if you challenge them or plan to leave them?
  • Is s/he/they defensive? Does your partner: have difficulty laughing at themselves and get angry when others laugh at them? see disagreement or feedback as a sign of disrespect? blame external factors or other people for their moods or behavior? blame you for their problems, emotions, or behavior?
  • Is s/he/they jealous? Does your partner: call or text frequently when you are apart or out with others? make you feel guilty about spending time with your friends and family or doing things on your own? check up on you frequently? become jealous or enraged when you speak with someone else at a party?
  • Is s/he/they withholding? Does your partner: give you the "silent treatment"? leave in the middle of an argument without telling you where they're going or when they'll return? withhold sex or physical affection when they don't get their way? disengage emotionally for extended periods of time?
  • Is s/he/they coercive? Does your partner: make subtle threats to frighten or control you? damage or destroy things you care about? threaten to hurt you, your family, your children, or pets? make you have sex in ways or at times that are uncomfortable to you? touch you in ways that hurt or scare you?

If any of these things happen to you, know that help is available. There are a number of agencies that provide various types of assistance. Most services are free, and often interpreters are available if English is not your first language. More important, the programs serve people who are still involved in an abusive relationship as well as those who have already left. Advocates won't tell you what to do. Instead, one-on-one support and advocacy helps individuals create and work toward their own goals regarding their relationships. The goal is to empower you to understand the situation and the options available to you. Some programs also offer parenting classes, support groups, referrals, and legal advocacy as well as emergency housing.

Perhaps the most harmful myth about abuse is that it's easy to leave an abusive situation. From that standpoint, anyone who stays might be considered weak, foolish, or dependent, so many people feel ashamed or blame themselves when they discover they're in an abusive relationship. But, the reality is anyone can end up in an abusive relationship. Most abusers are quite charming and very skilled at justifying their behavior. What's more, the abuse generally comes on slowly and in waves, which makes it harder to notice, easier to dismiss. The best thing you can do for yourself is become more informed.

All of the agencies below can provide further information and offer a range of services in King County.

New Beginnings [Seattle & Shoreline]: 206-522-9472 (24-hour help line)
DAWN [South King County]: 425-656-7867
NW Network [LGBTQ community in greater Seattle area]: 206-568-7777
Jewish Family Service [Seattle]: 206-861-3159

If you are outside of King County, this link lists organizations by county that provide services across the state.

If you need immediate help, please call the Washington State Domestic Violence 24-hour crisis Hotline: 1-800-562-6025.

Sources

Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. NY: Berkley Books, 2002.

Cory, Jill and Karen McAndless-Davis. When Love Hurts: A Woman's Guide to Understanding Abuse in Relationships. NY: Berkley Books, 2016.

King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Love Shouldn't Hurt, brochure.

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