10 Signs of an Abusive Relationship
By: Amber Loveshe, Masters Level Intern
When thinking about the term ‘abuse’, many individuals are quick to think of physical forms of abuse, such as an individual being badly bruised, or destroying an individual’s property.
Indeed, in the United States, abuse between individuals is typically only legally recognized if physical signs of the abuse are observed. If an individual is the subject of emotional, verbal, financial, or other forms of abusive behavior, their experience is often dismissed, and they are limited in the forms of protection or support they can obtain to combat this abuse. Because of these social attitudes about what qualifies as abuse, survivors of various forms of abuse often question their experience or feel helpless in their situation, sometimes even feeling that they somehow must deserve this treatment. Abuse is never okay, regardless of the form it comes in or who the target of the abuse is.
In ‘Stop Walking on Eggshells’, a classic psychology book authored by Paul T. Mason and Randi Kreger, they discuss various signs of abuse that can show up in relationships. The following signs mentioned in this article were selected from this book’s Appendix, which includes an assessment of levels of abuse an individual might be experiencing. If you are interested in viewing their complete list, I’d encourage you to refer to Mason and Kreger’s work.
- You feel afraid of this person most of the time
Feelings of fear make relaxation and vulnerability extremely difficult to experience. In healthy relationships, while there may be occasional moments where an individual is fearful, such as when preparing to talk with their partner about a sensitive topic, these moments are few and far between. Healthy relationships typically foster a sense of safety and calmness that allows for vulnerability, intimacy and connection.
- This person intimidates you by humiliating or criticizing you
An individual that engages in abusive behavior relies on the target of their abuse feeling weaker, less-than, and helpless. Without these feelings, an individual would potentially be more assertive about not tolerating abusive treatment or would even disconnect from a relationship if the behavior continues. To prevent this, an abuser will often repeatedly humiliate or criticize their partner in an attempt to lower their self-esteem and/or have the client question themselves and what treatment they deserve.
- They treat you badly in front of others
Similar to the last point, abusers may engage in humiliating and/or abusive behavior in front of other people. If this behavior is occurring, it may be the abusers attempt to force their target into submission or reinforce feelings of helplessness by the abuser boldly displaying this behavior when other people, who potentially might intervene for the survivor, do not get involved.
- Your opinions and/or accomplishments are ignored or dismissed
Healthy relationships are often characterized by an egalitarian, or equal relationship between parties to that relationship. Part of this includes individuals being able to share their opinions, regardless of whether or not others hold the same opinions, and that these will be heard and respected, though it is no guarantee that they will agree with or share these opinions. Similarly, accomplishments are typically something that an individual would share with their partner, with the partner potentially being the first person that this is shared with. However, abusive individuals may feel threatened by their partner’s accomplishments, consciously or subconsciously, and will often dismiss, ignore, or punish their partner when positive things are shared. This has to do with the abuser’s fragile sense of self that relies upon the abuser feeling ‘above’ or ‘better than’ others. That sense of self is also why an abusive partner may be intolerant of hearing the opinions of others, especially if they interpret differences of opinion as a threat to their importance or authority.
- This person blames you for their own inappropriate behavior
A very common manipulative tactic that can be present in unhealthy relationships is the tendency for an individual to avoid or distract from taking accountability for their actions by attempting to justify it as something that another person “made” or “provoked” them to do. The reality is that while we cannot control other people, each individual has the ability to control their actions and make their own choices. While it may be true that another person’s words may lead to another person feeling an intense reaction, they have the choice of whether or not they will respond in a productive or unproductive manner.
- You are afraid of them because they hurt you or threaten to hurt or kill you
If an individual has hurt you or is threatening to hurt or kill you, this is a serious sign of a dangerous relationship. If you feel comfortable, you are highly encouraged to contact local law enforcement to report these threats or receive protection. There may be a possibility of filing a restraining order against this person to provide an additional barrier of protection from them. If you do not feel ready to report this information, it may be helpful to begin keeping a log of when threats or instances of physical abuse occur, including any potential evidence of these occurrences (ex: text messages of threats, photos of physical and/or property harm). Having a record of the history of this information could be a very important asset if/when you do feel comfortable reporting this behavior, obtaining a restraining order, or would like to access intimate partner violence relief services.
- They threaten to commit suicide if you leave
This is another manipulation tactic that abusers or other unhealthy individuals may utilize to keep their target under their power. They are placing their target in an uncomfortable position, sometimes called a ‘double bind’, in which whether the client stays in the relationship or leaves the relationship, they will potentially experience very negative consequences. This is another way that the abuser tries to reinforce their target’s sense of helplessness.
- This person tells you where you can or can’t go, or what you can or can’t do
Unless you are a minor who is experiencing this sign with a parent or guardian, there is no justifiable reason for another person to dictate where you can go or what you can do. As discussed earlier, abusers thrive on their power over their targets, and by attempting to control where their target goes and what they do, they are trying to increase this power for themselves. After all, if their target refuses to comply with their rules, what power can the abuser have over that person? The abuser may also threaten to harm their target or take away certain privileges if they do not comply with limitations placed on them. However, there are also times when an abuser may use indirect reasons for why there are limitations on certain activities or places (i.e. stating there is not enough money to do certain things or go certain places when that is not true).
- They keep you from seeing your friends, family, or other important people
Another way that an abuser attempts to gain and maintain control over their target is by isolating them. The most obvious form of this is by limiting the time that their target has to talk to or spend time with important people in their life. If their target is isolated, there is less chance that they will be discussing abusive behavior with others or being influenced by them to leave the relationship. Outside of being kept from seeing important people, this form of abuse may also be present if the abusive person is discouraging or preventing an individual from obtaining employment or any type of activity that allows them to spend time away from their abuser.
- You are limited in your access to money, your phone, or the car
Yet another form of abuse that is typically dismissed or unrecognized is an individual not being allowed to access money or items that would allow them freedom to spend time away from their abuser or communicate with other people. If the abuser allows access to these things, they are at a higher risk of losing power over their target.
If any of these items resonated with your experience in a current relationship, it is a sign that there is abusive behavior occurring. The more items you resonated with, the more abusive and potentially dangerous, this relationship may be for your safety and wellness.
It is important to remember that regardless of what the person engaging in this behavior says, their abusive actions are a choice that they are responsible for.
If you feel you might benefit from additional support to discuss this behavior and process it, I’d encourage you to speak with a mental health professional or contact higher-level crisis resources.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-(800)-799-7233
To request a wellness check for yourself or someone else that may be experiencing abuse, you can also contact 9-1-1 or your local police department’s direct phone number.