Why don’t they just leave? It’s the question many people ask when learning someone is involved in an abusive relationship, but it’s oftentimes never that simple. Ending a significant relationship is never easy but can be even harder when the person is being controlled, isolated, psychologically worn down, and repeatedly threatened. It’s important to know that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and to have a safe and happy life. We recently spoke with a few psychologists about this complex issue — keep reading to understand the warning signs of an abusive relationship and tips for what to do if you — or someone you care about — may be involved in one.
What is an abusive relationship?
Dr. Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, speaker, and author of Date Smart, explains that in general, abusive relationships involve dynamics that are verbally, emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, financially, or sexually harmful, many of which co-occur. Although most abusive relationships involve ongoing patterns of toxic attitudes and behaviors, abuse can assuredly occur intermittently or on a singular occasion. “Additionally, although both partners can be mutually abusive, one partner is often the more aggressive abuser (perpetrator) while the other is the victim — the abuser often gains an enormous sense of power and control by abusing the partner; this tends to cause a deterioration in the abused person’s sense of self-worth and well-being,” Dr. Manly says.
Unfortunately, many times the abused individual often feels deeply ashamed and may tend to hide the abuse to protect the relationship and the abuser. Dr. Manly notes that sadly, the negative dynamics tend to become hardwired which makes it difficult for the abused person to leave the abusive relationship. While this article primarily discusses unhealthy and abusive relationships in the context of romantic relationships, Dr. Alice Shepard, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Mirielle Therapy Practice in NYC, makes a meaningful point which is that one can face rejection, fear, humiliation, and intimidation with friends, family, or while in workplace settings.
What does a healthy relationship look like?
Alternatively, what makes for a healthy relationship? “A healthy relationship is a relationship where both partners feel valued by each other and offer a level of mutual respect, trust, kindness, and are supportive of each other’s personal growth,” says Dr. Jenna Flowers, Psy.D., MFT, marriage and family therapist and clinical director at Mainspring Family Wellness Center in Newport Beach, California. “There is also an awareness of the importance of an independent life outside of the relationship as well as valuing friends and family.”
Moreover, as Dr. Manly highlights in her new book, Date Smart, healthy relationships are built when both partners work at creating a strong, loving friendship. She explains: “When we look at romantic relationships through this lens — the critical importance of having a solid friendship at the heart of the partnership — it becomes easy to differentiate between authentic, loving relationships and unhealthy ones.” She notes that mutual respect — which provides a basic foundation for healthy relationships — is often ignored as a relationship essential and that abusive patterns tend to set in when this respect is not present.
What are the signs of an abusive relationship?
Here our experts help us to outline some of the warning signs of an abusive relationship:
Physically abusive relationships are, unfortunately, fairly common and women aged 18 to 24 and 25 to 34 generally experience the highest rates of intimate partner violence. Dr. Manly says that a physically abusive partner may throw items, or hit, bite, pinch, or punch the victim — many abusers confine the physical assaults to areas that will be hidden by clothing.
Doesn’t take responsibility and blames
Another flag is if your spouse or partner simply doesn’t take responsibility for their actions and instead turns to blame. Dr. Flowers provides an example of an abusive spouse who feels justified in hitting their partner. They may say things like, “You provoke me,” or “You made me do it.”
Demonstrates controlling behaviors and aims to isolate
Controlling behaviors are a very common and dangerous sign of an abusive relationship. “When controlling patterns are at work, the abuser subtly or overtly strives to control the speech, thoughts, actions, food, dress, finances, or daily living patterns of the partner,” says Dr. Manly. Controlling partners tend to have very poor boundaries and continually invade a partner’s sense of personal privacy and autonomy like subtly or overtly restricting their friendships and other social contacts.
If you notice your partner is continuously lying or being dishonest, these are big red flags that shouldn’t be ignored. “Dr. Cloud and Townsend write in their book, Safe People, that ‘we are all deceivers,’ however, the difference between safe and unsafe ‘liars’ is that safe people own their lies and see them as a problem to change as they become aware of their deception.” Alternatively, an emotionally unhealthy person will continue to deceive until they are discovered and then continue to try to cover up the lie.
Dr. Flowers points out that the term “gaslighting” is overused and often misused but is when one person is telling the other that what they perceive is made up or not at all what is really going on. “The reality of the abuser is impressed upon the other person as what is true — over time, individuals in this kind of dynamic really start to doubt themselves, their feelings, and perceptions because how they think and feel is chronically dismissed,” she explains. It can literally make you feel crazy and disoriented. “This is why having supportive friends and family to help validate or offer different perspectives from the outside is so important.”
Inflicts emotional and psychological harm
An emotionally abusive relationship may be difficult to spot in public and often leave the abused person feeling “crazy” and confused. “If the abuser is very adept at being subtly abusive, he or she may be emotionally withholding or engage in passive-aggressive behaviors such as being ‘kindly’ critical or ‘jokingly’ sarcastic,” notes Dr. Manly. “This type of emotional abuse generally affects the other person in subtle ways that leave the abused feeling off-kilter and wondering why the interactions seem so difficult and painful.” She adds that whether using subtle or overt tactics, the abuser often purposefully triggers the abused person’s innermost fears, such as a fear of being abandoned, unloved, or rejected.
Dr. Manly points out that the mentally abusive relationship often co-occurs with emotional abuse. “In mentally abusive situations, the abuser often erodes the abused individual’s sense of self over time — by wearing down self-esteem and self-worth, the abused individual may be subject to chronic self-doubt, anxiety, and depression. In more subtle cases, the individual’s character or abilities may be the target of occasional negative commentary, and in more overt cases, the abuser will be highly vocal in plying the abused person with criticisms, disparaging comments, and ongoing verbal assaults.”
Again, this kind of emotional and mental abuse can be challenging to identify and Dr. Shepard notes the relationship might not have begun that way and the abuse may not be evident to others. “In many ways, you will need to rely on yourself to make that determination — being tuned into your feelings is an excellent way to judge,” she says. “Because abusive relationships can sometimes be cyclical, keeping a journal or calendar is a reliable method for tracking the difficulties, and doing so will help you become more aware of what is occurring, how often it is happening, and how you feel about it.”
An emotionally abusive relationship may be difficult to spot in public and often leave the abused person feeling “crazy” and confused.
Doesn’t respect consent
Consent is absolutely necessary for any relationship. “Mutual consent is a key element of healthy sexual connection and sexual abuse occurs when one partner is the victim of forced, unwanted sexual advances,” says Dr. Manly. She adds that being forced to engage in sex of any sort — whether sexual touching, vaginal sex, anal sex, or oral sex — is a sure sign of sexual abuse. “And, of course, a perpetrator’s use of drugs or alcohol to ‘facilitate’ or ‘force’ consent is also a sign of abuse.”
What are some steps for leaving and healing from an abusive relationship?
If you suspect you are in an abusive relationship, know that you are never to blame for how the abusive person treats you, and Dr. Manly says you’ll want to seek support immediately from caring friends, family, or outside agencies that can help your transition to a new life. “Although it’s common to feel ashamed, fragile, and fearful, trust that you are not alone,” she shares. “Many people have left — and healed from — abusive relationships, so trust that you can move forward; you are not broken, damaged, or unworthy.”
Dr. Flowers adds that it’s also a good idea to seek counseling to aid in the process of leaving and healing. “We are living in a time where the stigma of seeing a therapist no longer exists — you are a person of worth and you deserve respect. If you don’t wake up every morning feeling this way and you have people in your life telling you differently through their words and actions, then be brave and seek out the help you need through a support group, private therapist, or faith community.”
If you fear violence as a result of leaving, it’s necessary to have a plan in place and Dr. Manly says these steps may include things like having a “go bag” at the ready with essential items and documents, putting cash in a separate account whenever possible, becoming familiar with “safe homes” in your area such as those offered by the YWCA, and making friends or family members aware of your plan who can safely support you physically and/or psychologically. You should also store the National Domestic Violence Hotline phone number in your phone or go bag which is (800)799-SAFE (7233). You are not alone and there are people waiting to help.
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