A friend recently posted in a group on Facebook asking for advice about her current relationship. She mentioned being worried about it, but unsure if the behavior really was unhealthy since she didn't have a history of healthy relationships to compare it to. Her post was full of red flags, however, and everyone who commented said as much in one way or another.
But it got me thinking. What about the individuals who don't have resources like that to reach out to? The more we discuss abuse and what it looks like, the more likely it will be for someone to escape from an abusive (or even potentially abusive) relationship pattern before they get in too deep.
A lot of people wonder why individuals stay in abusive relationships. There are multiple reasons, including the fact that isolation and the mind games played by an abuser make the victim question everything and lose confidence in their version of reality. Abusers often participate ingaslighting tactics, which can include trivialization or downright denial of the victim's experiences. Eventually, the victim can lose the ability to believe in their own self-assessment of reality.
There may also be ignorance of what “counts” as abuse. Especially if a victim doesn't have a history of healthy intimate relationships to compare this one to, and/or if the victim grew up in an abusive environment, which would normalize the behavior pattern. Furthermore, a lot of people think about physical assault when talking about abuse and domestic violence. “But (s)he never hit me,” is a common means of rationalizing the abusive behavior. It's important to remember that emotional abuse IS abuse, and it can be just as damaging to the psyche as bruises are to the body.
Caring Unlimited lists a lot of red flags on their website. It is important to note that some of the red flags listed on this site are behaviors which are often encouraged by the monogamous “soul mate” fairy tale narrative of our society, including “saying things like, 'I am all you need. You are all I need,'” “says you are the only one who can make him/her feel this way,” and “wanting to be with you constantly.”
Now, that isn't to say that everyone in the throes of new love who waxes poetic about love is a potential abuser. But it's good to be on the look-out for codependent behaviors like these in any relationship, especially if they are combined with guilt-trips, isolation, or other controlling behaviors. It's also worth noting when someone tells you they can't live without you one minute and then starts criticizing your behavior or appearance the next. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde behavior is typical of abuse because it's a way to keep the victim off-balance, unsure of whether the response from the abuser will be one of kindness or disgust. Another red flag is when you are made to feel to blame for everything wrong in your relationship. Someone who won't take accountability for their own flaws or mistakes isn't someone you want to be in a relationship with, even if they don't have any other abusive tendencies.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline supplies their own (shorter) list of red flags, and also brings up the good point that a relationship may not seem or feel abusive at the very start. But, if you find that your partner is starting to embarrass or put you down or attempt to control you, and when you bring up these behaviors they deny or shift the blame, it is time to start thinking of a way to get out of the relationship.
The Red Flag Campaign also adds a list of internal cues to their discussion of red flags. Especially since an abuser will attempt to make you distrust your gut, if you find yourself worried, stressed, afraid, depressed, or constantly obsessing about how to make or keep your partner happy, pay attention to that. If any relationship in your life isn't making you happier, more joyful, and fulfilled, it's worth a second look. All relationships have their ups and downs. But if there are significantly more downs than ups, even if your partner isn't abusive, it's worth thinking about ending the relationship.
Psychology Today has a list of “very early warning signs” for abusive relationships, including paying attention to not only how your partner treats you, but how they treat others or refer to their past partners. The site also includes a relationship checklist, which is worth taking the time to complete if you are having any concerns about your current relationship.
Finally, I want to talk about the cycle of abuse. Abusive relationships aren't negative 100% of the time. Through repeated use of the “honeymoon” phase, abusers are able to convince their partners that the abuse was a mistake and provide hope that the abuser is trying to change. Even if they are trying, it is never your responsibility to fix someone or to stay in a relationship which is harmful to you in any way. This is especially important because as the cycle repeats itself, it has a tendency to escalate. What starts as someone being overly critical or yelling or slamming the door can soon turn into breaking objects or physical violence.
If you're concerned you might be in an abusive relationship, don't blame yourself. Reach out in whatever ways you can, whether that is to friends, family, a church group, or a local organization like Safe Place or the Texas Advocacy Project. And remember: You are never alone.
This article was originally published by The Horn on 03/05/2015.