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Abusive Relationships and How to Deal with Them

Recognize the signs of an abusive relationship, then learn what abuse victims and abusers can do to help themselves.

Relationship abuse occurs in epidemic proportions. Here are some recent statistics:

Although some relationships are mutually abusive, more frequently there is an imbalance of power in abusive relationships. While abuse may take the form of physical violence, abuse can also occur on an emotional and verbal level.

Signs of Abuse

  • Persistent put downs or statements that diminish one's worth or ability.
  • Controlling behavior.
  • Intense jealousy of friends, family, or other outside social contact.
  • Yelling, shouting, and intimidation.
  • Interrogating one's partner about time spent apart from the relationship.
  • Feeling threatened and intensifying the abuse when one's partner begins to move toward autonomy or independence, e.g., getting a better job, going back to school, making new friends, seeking counseling.
  • Demanding or coercing sex when one's partner is not interested.
  • Borrowing money without repaying it or taking things without asking and not returning them.
  • Physical abuse or the threat of physical harm.

Individuals who abuse their partners sometimes abuse substances as well or display other addictive behavior.


 

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While appearing to be powerful, abusive individuals are often very dependent upon their partners for their sense of self-esteem. Sometimes they expect their partners to take care of day-to-day tasks which most adults handle for themselves. Abusive partners often feel powerless in the larger world; the relationship may be the only place where they feel a sense of power. Attacking their partner's abilities or worth is one way that abusive individuals maintain a sense of power, esteem, and control. At a deep emotional level, abusers often feel that they are not good enough and fear abandonment. By keeping their partners in a diminished, fearful, or dependent state, they attempt to ensure that their partners will not leave them.

Steps for Abusers

If you have abused your partner physically or emotionally, the following steps may help you begin to change this pattern:

  • When you start to feel angry, take a deep breath, focus on your body, and walk away from your partner. You can return once you've cooled down.
  • Recognize that anger is usually a secondary emotion masking more vulnerable feelings. Try to recognize the fear and hurt that lie beneath the anger.
  • Reflect upon the fact that your angry outbursts, while exerting a sense of control in the short term, may ultimately drive your partner away.
  • Redirect your anger in a way that does not hurt other people, such as engaging in intense physical activity.
  • Start keeping a journal. When you become angry, sit down with your journal and write down your thoughts and feelings.
  • Allow yourself to question your assumptions and expectations of your partner. For instance, when you feel hurt, this may reflect your own vulnerabilities, rather than any attempt by your partner to hurt you.
  • Recognize the need for help and seek it out. Talk to friends and others who can support your effort to change.
  • Work with a counselor to learn how to express your feelings without hurting or belittling your partner.
  • Join an anger management workshop or group.
  • Partners of abusive people often engage in "enabling" behavior. In essence, enabling behavior consists of taking care of the abusive partner, making excuses for him or her, and otherwise going along with the pattern of abuse. Enabling behavior may include the following:
  • Denying that a problem exists or convincing oneself that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, things will get better.
  • Maintaining a "front" to the outside world that everything is fine.
  • Cleaning up after the abusive partner's messes or outbursts, e.g., intervening for them at work, apologizing for starting the fight, fixing broken doors and windows, putting on make-up to cover the bruises.
  • Smoothing over or tiptoeing around conflict areas in order to stay out of harm's way and to maintain a sense of peace.

Taking over everyday tasks that most adults do for themselves.

Enabling behavior is often a symptom of poor self-esteem. By taking care of one's partner physically or emotionally, one can feel needed or even loved. At a deeper level, a person who enables an abusive partner may feel that no one could love them for who they are, but only for what they can provide to others. This is why abusers often try to convince their partners that "no one else would want them." Enabling behavior not only traps one in an unhealthy, unsupportive relationship, but keeps one's abusive partner in a dependent position as well. The point here is not to blame oneself, but to understand one's relationship patterns.

Positive Steps for Coping with An Abusive Relationship

  • Maintain outside relationships and avoid isolation.
  • Seek "reality checks" by talking to others if you suspect that your partner has been abusive.
  • Learn about resources available to people in abusive relationships.
  • Identify a "safe place" you can go to in an emergency if your partner becomes threatening or violent.
  • Read self-help books about healthy and unhealthy relationships.
  • Seek professional counseling or talk to someone you trust to help you sort through the issues that may be keeping you in an abusive relationship.
  • Begin to develop a support system, so that if you choose to leave the relationship, you will not be alone.

Rather then dwelling on blaming yourself for what you've done in the past, focus on how you want to live from this day forward and then take steps to make this happen.

next: How to resolve conflicts and prevent violence

Last Updated: 25 March 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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