A relationship can be abusive in many ways, but ultimately, abuse boils down to power and control. A relationship is abusive when one partner uses any type of violence, whether it is physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological, to influence or control the other partner. While it is more common for women to be the victims of relationship abuse, men can also experience abuse. Abuse occurs just as commonly in LGBTQ relationships as in heterosexual relationships. If you believe you are in an abusive relationship, seek immediate help, such as by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE. You can also learn how to identify the warning signs of an abusive relationship.
Recognizing an Abusive Personality
1Look for perfectionism. Abusive people often operate with extremely unrealistic expectations. They believe that things should always go in a certain way or conform to their particular standards. They have a strong sense of what is “fair” and “unfair,” and they are generally very inflexible. When things don’t meet their unrealistic expectations, abusive people may become resentful, angry and even violent.
- An abusive person usually holds other people to unrealistic and unfair standards as well, particularly romantic partners. The abuser may say things such as “You’re the only person I need in my life” and expect you to fulfill every single need.
- Abusive people often become unreasonably angry over even minor difficulties, such as a traffic jam or a child’s low grade on an exam.
2Consider whether the person displays “mood swings” or other signs of emotional disturbance. Everyone has mood swings sometimes, but abusive people often fluctuate between emotional extremes. It may feel like you are “walking on eggshells” around this person, or like s/he has a “hair trigger” that anything could set off.
- Abusive people may bottle up their emotions until they explode. Or, they may become passive-aggressive and try to make you feel guilty in some way. Explosiveness and hypersensitivity are both warning signs of an emotionally unhealthy person.
- In some cases, emotional instability may be caused by mental or behavioral disorders. If this is the case, your partner needs treatment and counseling. You should not stay with an abusive person simply because s/he needs help.
3Think about whether the person accepts responsibility. Abusive people generally refuse responsibility for their actions whenever possible. They blame others for their feelings and actions.
- For example, an abusive person might say something like, “You just make me so angry when you contradict me that I can’t control myself.” This type of statement shifts the blame for personal actions to another person.
- An abusive person might also blame others for the failure of past relationships. This can be difficult to see as a warning sign, especially if you seem to look good by comparison. For example, an abusive person might shift the blame for a past failed relationship by saying something like, “You’re so nice, not like the psycho I used to date.”
4Think about whether you feel acknowledged. An abusive person will often feel entitled, as though his/her needs and ideas are more important than anyone else’s. Even in a relationship where one partner “takes charge,” a healthy relationship will consider the ideas and needs of both partners. Abusive relationships are usually very one-sided.
- If you don’t feel like your partner listens to you or is interested in your ideas and needs, this is a warning sign that the relationship is not healthy.
- You should feel comfortable talking with your partner about difficult topics, even disagreeing with him/her. While compromise can be tough to achieve even in healthy relationships, both partners should feel like they are heard and respected.
- A person who is constantly invested in being “right” at all costs is unlikely to pay appropriate attention to your needs and desires
5Look for signs of jealousy. Jealousy can seem flattering at first, like the other person cares so much about you that s/he can’t bear for anyone else to be interested in you. However, even minor jealousy is a warning sign that future controlling behavior may develop.
- Jealousy is different from the other person caring about you. It is not a sign of love. Jealousy is a sign that your partner does not trust you.
6Watch how the other person interacts with others. Abusive people are often very self-absorbed. How they treat others can be a good indication of how they will eventually treat you.
- Abusive people may be unkind or disrespectful of others, especially those they perceive as “beneath” them. If your partner mistreats or belittles people in positions of less power, this is a warning sign that they will probably be comfortable mistreating you as well.
1Consider whether you feel free. Even in the most committed healthy relationships, each partner should feel the freedom to express themselves and make their own decisions. Abusive people intentionally strip their victims of power and freedom. They are generally jealous and controlling and may even attempt to make you feel guilty for trying to express your own needs. Consider whether you see any of the following:
- Your partner demands that you “check in” with him/her all the time
- Your partner tries to control what you wear, where you go, and who you spend time with
- Your internet, cellphone, or social media use is monitored, or your partner demands your account passwords
- You don’t have easy access to money or transportation
- Your partner isolates you from your friends and family
- Your partner forbids you to see other people unless s/he is with you, or expresses anger that you want to spend time with friends on your own
2Think about how you feel around your partner. Everyone has moments when they become irritated or even angry with their partner, or feel hurt by their partner’s words or actions. However, these experiences should be occasional and short-lived. If you feel consistently sad, hurt, humiliated, or frustrated with your partner, this is a sign that you are not in a healthy relationship. Consider the following:
- Do you feel like your partner “sucks the life” out of you? Is spending time with him/her emotionally or even physically exhausting?
- Do you feel bad about yourself when you’re around your partner?
- Does the other person try to make you feel responsible or guilty for his/her feelings and actions?
- Do you feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or belittled around your partner?
- Do you feel like there are different standards for your behavior vs. your partner’s?
3Listen to how your partner speaks to you. Healthy relationships do not involve belittling, humiliation, disrespect, or intimidation. It’s natural for partners to occasionally hurt the other person’s feelings, but this should never be intentional, and the person causing the hurt should acknowledge and apologize for it. Ask yourself the following to determine whether you may be in an abusive relationship:
- Does your partner constantly criticize or nitpick you?
- Does your partner call you names or use abusive language towards you?
- Are you told that you “deserve” abusive language or actions?
- Does your partner continue to do things after you have expressed that they hurt you?
- Do you feel ignored, dismissed, or disrespected?
- Does your partner scream or yell at you?
- Do you feel bad about yourself when your partner speaks to you?
4Consider whether you feel safe. Even the threat of violence is abuse. Threatening to hurt you or your loved ones if you do not do what they want is a common tactic by abusive people. You should feel safe and stable in your relationship. If it you do not, it’s a sign that you are not in a healthy relationship and need immediate help.
5Consider whether your sex life feels mutually fulfilling. Abusive people may use coercion, manipulation, or force to get what they want, and this extends to sexual activity. Healthy sexual relationships are consensual and mutual. If you don’t feel like your partner respects your wishes, or if you feel pressured or coerced into doing things you don’t want to do, this is a sign of sexual abuse.
- You can consent to certain sexual acts and refuse others. There is no relationship “contract” that means you must perform any sexual activity that you don’t want to do. Even if you have had and enjoyed sex with your partner many times before, you always have the right to say “no” and have that wish respected.
- Pressure or coercion is abuse, too. If your partner tries to manipulate you into sexual activities by saying things like, “If you really loved me, you’d do this” it is a sign that you are in an unhealthy relationship.
- You should also feel in control of your birth control and/or STI protection choices. Your partner should respect these choices and should not attempt to pressure or force you to perform sexual activity without your preferred protection.
Leaving an Abusive Relationship
1Know that abuse is never your fault. Unfortunately, it’s a common misconception that some people “deserve” abuse or were “asking for trouble.” This is completely untrue. No matter what you did or didn’t do, you deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness. Abuse is never the victim’s fault.
- This is true for all types of abuse. Each person is responsible for her/his own actions.
2Confide in someone you trust. It can be difficult and even dangerous to leave an abusive relationship. Don’t go through it alone. Find someone you trust to talk about your concerns with. This could be a friend, relative, counselor, authority figure, or someone from your religious tradition. Tell them what you’re going through and ask for their support.
- The more support you have, the more likely you are to be able to leave an abusive relationship and move on to a healthy, happy life.
3Contact a domestic violence hotline. These hotlines can help you even if you don’t have an emergency. They provide trained advocates to listen to you and help you brainstorm about your situation. They can help you figure out how to safely deal with your situation, provide referrals to local resources, and provide a compassionate person for you to talk to.
- In the US, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE for free, confidential help.
- Check out the HotPeachPages for an international directory of domestic violence agencies.
4Cut off your abuser. Abusive people will very often try to get back into your good graces by promising to change. This is part of the cycle of abuse and you should not trust it. Do not interact with the abusive person in any way.
- You may also feel pressured by your community, family, or traditions to “forgive” your abuser. Remember that true forgiveness is done for your sake, not the other person’s. You can choose to give up the burden of anger without allowing the abuse to continue.
- It is very hard to obtain closure unless you remove the abuser from your life.
5Seek professional help. Overcoming the effects of abuse can be incredibly difficult. Between 31-84% of survivors of domestic abuse develop symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Abuse can also trigger depression and anxiety. A mental health professional can help you work through the wounds left by abuse and live a healthy, happy life.
- Many domestic violence agencies, hospitals, doctors, and women’s shelters can refer you to trained counselors and therapists.
- Look for a therapist who uses “evidence-based” treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), cognitive processing therapy (CPT), prolonged exposure therapy (PE), or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR is a common treatment used with PTSD.
6Strengthen your support network. Victims of abuse may become conditioned to expect abuse from their relationships as “normal” or something they “deserve.” This conditioning increases the likelihood that future relationships will also be abusive. Surrounding yourself with people who treat you well, with care, love, and dignity, can help you recognize that you deserve to be treated this way.
- Make friends. It’s common for people in abusive relationships to feel isolated from their friends and family. Making new friends can help you feel stronger and more confident.
- Join a club or group. Associating with like-minded people or people with similar interests to yours can help you feel like you’re part of a larger community.
- Be open with people you trust. Some people may judge you, and this is wrong and unfair. However, many people are happy to simply be there for you. Talking about your experiences with people you trust can help you process and move on from them.
My boyfriend calls me names and grabs me. I’m five months pregnant and I get pain in my stomach from the stress. What do I do?
Your boyfriend is abusing you, and could physically hurt you if you stay around. Leave your boyfriend and stay with a friend or relative, or at a women’s shelter. Do it to stay safe and to keep your baby safe.
Each time I express how hurt I am, my boyfriend beats me, and later he apologizes and says I would have been able to avoid it. What can I do?
Please follow the advice in this article. You cannot avoid being hurt by an abuser, and he does not mean the apology if he tries to pin the blame on you. Don’t bother trying to express your feelings to someone like this. He clearly doesn’t care. Don’t listen to any of the manipulative things he tells you, and don’t let this relationship go on. If you live with him, pack your bags and leave – preferably when he’s not around to stop you.
My boyfriend is depressed and has adult ADHD, so it is difficult to be sure whether his angry, ignoring, hypersensitive, and double-standards behavior is due to his mental illnesses or whether he is being intentionally abusive. He does not try to control what I wear or who I see. How can I tell the difference?
Neither depression nor ADHD causes a person to be abusive. No mental illness worth any sympathy causes a person to be abusive, and you should never look for or accept an excuse for abusiveness. It is understandable (and may indeed be tied to his illnesses) if he is hypersensitive or irritable or even aloof sometimes, but he should care about you enough to try not to lash out at you and give you the benefit of the doubt on things, and should be remorseful if he fails to do so. Double standards are selfish, unfair and unrelated to mental illness, though they don’t necessarily constitute abuse. Talk to him calmly about whatever bothers you and explain that, while you sympathize with his troubles and want to help him, you need to feel cared about and respected in your relationship as well.
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- Remember that it is much better to be on your own than with the wrong partner and in the wrong relationship.
- You are always worth respect and dignity. Don’t put up with anyone who does not treat you this way.
- Abuse does not “get better.” In fact, it becomes steadily worse over time. Don’t stay because you hope you can “love” your partner into changing. The only person who can change your partner is him or her.
- If you are in an emergency, call 911 or your emergency services immediately.
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