Abusive relationships come in many forms and can affect men and women alike. They are much more common than we might think, but often we can miss signs of abuse towards ourselves or others, as they are not always obvious at first.
While every relationship goes through rough patches where we might argue with one another, feel hurt or act selfishly, an abusive relationship is distinctly different. Your partner does not always have to physically harm you to abuse you – they can abuse you in many other ways, such as talking down to you, taking your choices away from you or isolating you. In order for us to be able to protect ourselves and our loved ones, we must understand what the signs of an abusive relationship are so that we can spot them sooner rather than later.
If you spot signs of abuse, seek help and support as soon as you can. Abuse can have a significant impact on someone’s day-to-day life and the impact can continue into their future, even after leaving the relationship. Sometimes abuse can even lead to people experiencing low confidence, depression, anxiety or PTSD. Below, we discuss the signs that indicate an abusive relationship.
You will see below that there are many different types of abuse and ways to abuse someone. However, it is important to note that this list is not exhaustive, and even if you can relate to one or two of the items on the list, this doesn’t always indicate abuse. Take into account whether the particular situation you are thinking of was down to a miscommunication, whether it was extreme enough (even as a lone situation) to trigger concern, and whether that situation has occurred more than once and in conjunction with some of the other signs on the list.
Most importantly, try to think about yourself first. Consider how you are made to feel and the impact that the situation is having on your life. You can always discuss this with a professional, in complete confidence. A private therapy session will be a safe space for you to be your complete self, without being judged. A therapist can help you understand abuse better and support you with your decision about what you would like to do. They can also help you to rebuild your confidence and make a plan to keep yourself safe.
One of the most common signs of an abusive relationship is a possessive perpetrator. A possessive perpetrator might excessively check on you to see where you are and who you are with. They may also try to control where you go, who you see and what you wear, giving you little opportunity to make your own choices.
A perpetrator may isolate you from your friends and family. There are many ways they can do this and it can often be quite subtle. They may make excuses for why you shouldn’t be meeting with friends and family, and might suggest why you should cut some of those people off. They may also ask you to move away from your family, or threaten to leave you if you contact your friends and family and convince you that only they are good for you. By isolating the victim in this way, they are increasing their vulnerability – if someone is isolated, it is less likely that others will point out signs of abuse or encourage them to leave. In this situation, the victim can feel they have nowhere else to go, causing them to remain in the abusive relationship for longer.
Being criticised, insulted and humiliated is a sign of abuse. This form of abuse can severely impact the victim’s self-esteem as it is often unrelenting and disproportionate. Like some other types of abuse, it may not be immediately noticeable as it doesn’t always involve shouting or blatant name calling. It can also include sarcasm, “joking” about something that has some truth in it, putting down your interests and choices, being dismissive and invalidating, patronising or using derogatory pet names. They may also deliberately try and annoy you, insult your appearance or embarrass you. This form of abuse can trigger many difficulties for the victim, including low self-esteem, anxiety, body dysmorphia and more.
Gaslighting involves manipulating the victim into questioning their judgments, decisions and reality. This is a form of emotional abuse that can occur very subtly, but nonetheless leaves the victim second-guessing themselves. When someone is gaslighting a person, they may lie, deny that an agreement or conversation even took place, minimise their feelings, or tell them they are blowing things out of proportion or being too sensitive. They may also discredit you and call you crazy, tell you that you are seeing things and so on.
Taking control of someone’s finances is also a sign of abuse, which we call financial abuse. This might involve your wages going into their account, you having to ask for an allowance, them preventing you from working, deliberately placing you in debt or making you feel guilty about spending money on yourself. The perpetrator can use financial abuse to control their victim and make them vulnerable and reliant on them. If you need support to build your confidence again you can seek help from a therapist and even seek individual relationship counselling to help keep you safe in future relationships..
Using someone else’s device now and again with permission is very common. However, demanding access to someone’s personal device and checking through their communications and other personal information regularly, is a form of abuse. This intrusive behaviour can make the victim feel they can’t communicate honestly with friends and family, and can lead them to feeling more isolated and in danger. Everyone has a right to privacy, and this privacy is not something we are obliged to give up because we have entered a relationship. Trust can be built and maintained without engaging in abusive and controlling behaviours.
Abuse doesn’t always have to mean physical abuse, but can also involve a threat of physical abuse. The threat doesn’t always have to be overt – for example, your partner may tell you that you are so annoying that you make them want to hurt you. They might simply begin to keep a baseball bat near them. Physical abuse usually means physical body contact between two people, but it can also include someone throwing things at you, spitting at you or restraining you.
Reach out for help as soon as you suspect abuse. This can be any form of help that you feel ready and safe to access, such as simply telling a neighbour, a friend, family member or a member of staff at your children’s school. Of course, you can always call 101 or 999 for emergencies. You can also call a 24-hour Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0208 2000 247.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to leave an abusive relationship, and sometimes the victim needs some support to help them get to that point. You can access this type of support in therapy. The therapist will also help you to make a plan to keep you and your family safe. If you have left an abusive relationship, you can seek relationship counselling on an individual basis to discuss your relationship experiences and to learn how to avoid similar relationships in the future.
Therapy can provide you with a lifeline to get yourself out of an abusive relationship, but there are a couple of things you can do to boost your mindset and help make your counselling as effective as possible.
Remember that we are all responsible for our own actions, and that is as far as our responsibility goes. We all have choices, and the choices we decide to make are the choices we are accountable for – and no one else. When an abuser chooses to respond to you with abuse, they made that choice. They had a choice to pick another behaviour, just like everyone else does. Therefore, you are not to blame. They continue to choose abuse, but you didn’t ask for it.
Be gentle with yourself and be patient. Leaving an abusive relationship doesn’t always mean you will suddenly feel okay. Often, your memories will go with you. It can take time to work through this; to process the distressing emotions that come with those memories and finally move on. Acknowledge your emotional pain and show yourself some kindness and compassion, just like you would with someone else.
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