Are you in a relationship with an abuser?
Abuse is not something that typically comes up in casual conversation. In fact, most people go to great lengths to keep it private. However, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner (1). In addition, nearly half of all women and men in the United States have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime (2). These alarming statistics are clear indications that this is an issue that needs to be discussed.
Aside from the early warning signs of an abuser, there are some questions to ask yourself if you suspect you might be in an abusive and/or controlling relationship. There are some common patterns in any type of abusive relationship, and taking a few minutes to ask yourself some basic questions may be an important step in identifying whether or not there is an unhealthy pattern in your relationship. Being in an emotionally, verbally, or physically abusive relationship can be confusing and isolating. Remember that if something doesn’t feel right intuitively or if you constantly feel hurt by your partner’s actions, it means something is wrong. Pay attention.
Are the words consistent with the actions? Focus on the actions, not the words. Abusers are good with words. They are often charming, winning, and very good at twisting things around so that they are never to blame. Most of us mean what we say. Our actions are consistent with our words. This is not true of an abuser. It is easy to be led astray when you focus solely on the words and believe them to be true. The real issue at hand will not be addressed, and you will be left feeling confused and in the wrong. If you are able, try tuning out the words, and instead, focus your attention solely on your partner’s actions. What do his/her behaviors tell you? Someone may apologize all day long, but if they seem cavalier and like they don’t care that you are hurting, or they continue to behave in the same hurtful way after you’ve told them how it makes you feel, there is a problem. Their words are not consistent with their actions.
Is your partner empathetic? If your partner seems completely unconcerned by your suffering, it means that he/she does not have enough empathy for you, and likely, anyone else. A lack of empathy is common in almost all abusers, otherwise they wouldn’t abuse! If an abuser had empathy for their partner, they would feel badly about inflicting pain, and would stop the behavior that was causing it. Most of us have an innate aversion to inflicting pain on others. In the absence of empathy, an abuser does not.
Does your partner take responsibility for himself/herself? None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes, say the wrong things, and act insensitively at times. What counts is the way in which we conduct ourselves after we’ve behaved poorly. An abuser does not own up to his/her wrongdoings unless he/she is completely backed into a corner. An abuser gets defensive and will work hard to twist the facts, making their partner to blame. An abuser wants you to feel guilty so that he/she is “off the hook.” Often the abuser claims to be the victim when their partner brings up an issue, which can make it all the more confusing. In a healthy relationship, the goal is to ultimately resolve the issue, and ideally reach a conclusion where both parties are satisfied. If you walk away from discussions or conflict confused and feeling bad about yourself, take a closer look. Distance yourself from this issue at hand and focus on the strategy in the conflict. An abuser rigs the game so that they will always win, and you will always lose.
Is the relationship based on mutual respect for one another? If you have to question whether your partner is respectful of you, there is a problem. If your partner puts you down, is overly critical, humiliates, calls you names, pressures you, or physically touches you in a way that hurts you or makes you uncomfortable, he/she is not respecting you. If your partner makes fun of you or gets angry when your thoughts or opinions differ from his/hers, there is a problem. If a behavior continues after you’ve asked your partner to stop, he/she is not respecting you. If your partner deliberately does something he/she knows you do not like, he/she is not behaving respectfully toward you.
Do you trust your partner not to put you in a compromised position? Does your partner engage in any illegal/unethical activities or does he/she constantly do things that make you feel morally uncomfortable? If the answer is yes, pay attention. Abusers are far more likely to push the envelope when it comes to risky behavior because of their lack of empathy or regard for others, combined with their sense of entitlement. Put simply, the rules just don’t apply to them. I am always shocked at the situations I hear my clients have been put into from their abusive partners. You should not feel like you have to hide things from your friends or family members to protect your partner. You should not have to fear that your partner might put you in a position that could compromise you or your children’s well being, physically, financially, emotionally, or socially.
Does your partner support your other relationships? If your partner seems to always be pointing out your friends’ or family’s member’s flaws or is constantly putting them down or behaving in a derogatory manner toward them or behind their backs, there is a problem. Having opinions about others and their decisions is normal, as is discussing it. There is a big difference between talking about problems that arise with other people and relationships, and behaving disrespectfully toward or about your loved ones.
Does your partner try to intimidate or hurt you physically? If the answer to this question is yes, then you have likely already identified that you are in an abusive relationship. Any type of behavior with the intention to threaten, intimidate, or inflict bodily harm on another person is abusive. Monitoring, recording, or any type of stalking behavior is designed to intimidate you and is abusive. Punishing you by threatening harm to you or your children (or threatening to take custody of the children to intimidate you into acquiescing) is abusive behavior. Trying to intimidate by threatening financial harm if you leave, is abusive. Calling you or your loved ones derogatory names or putting you down verbally, is abuse. Preventing you from leaving, punching a hole in the wall, or throwing something even if it is not directly aimed at you, is abusive behavior. Hitting, choking, pinning down, kicking, shoving, pushing, punching, and slapping are all physically abusive behaviors and must be taken very seriously. Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs is not an excuse for physical violence. Abuse is not acceptable, under any circumstances.
In a healthy relationship, both people are free to speak up and voice their opinions and feelings, without fearing punishment. The relationship is based on mutual respect and support for one another. Both people are comfortable communicating their needs knowing that they will be heard and not criticized, put down, or hurt. Each person is allowed to be an individual, is encouraged in their successes, and is supported in their other relationships.