Jenny* dated for the first time at 16. Her boyfriend, Tom, was smart, outgoing, sweet, and caring. He often called or messaged to say he missed her but became furious when she did not answer immediately. He professed his “love” for Jenny, blamed her for making him worry, and demanded that she respond instantly in the future. Ridden with guilt, Jenny agreed. Tom was always there for Jenny, and overtime convinced her that her family and friends did not care for her as he did. Tom also became increasingly jealous and began imposing restrictions on what Jenny wore, reasoning that they belonged to each other. Jenny constantly tiptoed around Tom, yet despite her best effort, he always found reasons out of “love” to blow up or even physically hurt Jenny. Bruised and wounded, Jenny wondered, “If this is love, why doesn’t it feel loving? Why does it hurt so much?”
Sadly, the answer to Jenny’s question is that this is not love but is instead abuse disguised as love. As universal as love is, it can be hard to define. While it may take a lifetime to discover what love is, it is much easier to learn what love isn’t, and love is most certainly not abuse.
What is Relationship Abuse?
Relationship abuse, also known as intimate partner violence, refers to a pattern of behaviors used over a period of time, to exert power and control over a partner, within an intimate relationship (National Domestic Violence Hotline, n.d.). Relationship abuse can take on many shapes or forms and does not necessarily involve physical violence. Abusive behaviors include any actions that cause actual or threatened physical, sexual, or psychological harm to a partner, such as:
Physical aggression: the use of physical force to hurt or attempt to hurt a partner, e.g., pushing, shoving, slapping, hitting, kicking, choking
Sexual violence: any sexual activity obtained or attempted by force or coercion, e.g., rape, degrading sexual activity, forced unprotected sex
Emotional/psychological abuse: the use of verbal or non-verbal communication to undermine a partner’s sense of self-worth, self-respect, and safety, e.g., insults, belittling, name-calling, false accusations, humiliation, intimidation, threats of harm or death, physical confinement, gaslighting, infidelity, stonewalling
Controlling behaviors: actions to limit a partner’s personal freedom or to increase dependency, e.g., isolation from family and friends, stalking, restricting access to financial resources, employment, education or medical care
Behind closed doors, relationship abuse is, sadly, all too common and is a significant public health issue worldwide. According to The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report (Black et al., 2011), more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime. Most reported relationship abuse occurred in heterosexual relationships, initiated by men against women. Despite so, intimate partner violence can happen to individuals of any age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, culture, socioeconomic standing, and education level within any intimate relationship, be it same-sex or opposite-sex relationships, dating, cohabitation, or marriage.
Effects of Relationship Abuse
Intimate partner violence can cause serious harm to their victims. Physical abuse and sexual violence, for instance, can lead to injuries, and in some cases, even death. Poor physical health, such as having frequent headaches or chronic pain, can also result from relationship abuse. The psychological consequences, however, can be even more severe and longer lasting. Intimate partner violence often leaves victims with tarnished self-worth, guilt, shame, anger, helplessness, inability to trust, and fear of intimacy. Victims may blame or isolate themselves, and the emotional turmoil can further lead to various mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, suicidal or self-destructive behaviors, and sleep disturbances.
Relationship abuse can manifest in subtle ways and is not always apparent to its victims and outsiders, especially when physical violence is not involved. In fact, abusive relationships often have ordinary beginnings, with controlling behaviors or emotional abuse developing over time, evolving into threats, verbal assault, and violence in some cases. Abusive acts may also be followed by seemingly sincere apologies along with promises for change, making it all the more confusing and emotional for victims. Despite so, studies have shown that more often than not, abusive behaviors only escalate with time; thus, early detection is critical.
One of the biggest red flags of an unhealthy or even abusive relationship is when you find yourself walking on eggshells, fearful of your partner. More warning signs of relationship abuse include a partner who:
- Shows unreasonable jealousy or possessiveness
- Has explosive temper or extreme moodiness
- Always calls or texts to harass you
- Checks your phone or monitors your social media accounts
- Controls who you see, what you do, where you go, what you wear, or what you eat
- Takes control of your finances and limits your access to money
- Isolates you or discourages you from seeing family and friends
- Guilt trips you, makes everything your fault
- Often accuses you of being unfaithful
- Constantly insults or criticizes your intelligence, financial status, or physical appearance
- Belittles, demeans, or shames you
- Looks at you or acts in ways that scare you
- Destroys your property, threatens suicide or threatens to harm or take away your children or pets
- Pressures you into sexual activities that you are not comfortable with
- Intentionally inflicts pain on you
Deciding to Leave
Even when you recognize the abuse, it can be hard to leave for many reasons. You may be in love with your partner or perhaps hopeful that things will change. You may be afraid of retaliation or simply don’t have the resources to leave. You may not want to be alone or even believe that this is the best you can do. It may be your first serious relationship, or you may be married to your partner with kids. It is understandable; ending any relationship can be hard, especially when you have been made to feel fearful, dependent, worthless, or guilty.
It is essential, however, to realize that you are not alone; there are many like you with similar experiences. Love is not and should not be abusive. You deserve better regardless of what your partner made you believe. Change will not happen so long as you tolerate the abuse. It is possible to love and trust again, but you will only have the opportunity to find out when you choose to leave.
The Next Step
If you suspect that you may be in an abusive relationship and want to get out, here are some steps you can take to embark on your road to recovery but remember to do so safely:
- Confide in those you can trust to get some support
- Work with a mental health professional to help you get out of your situation safely
- Engage the services of domestic abuse hotlines and shelters
*Jenny is a fictitious character created from clinical experiences
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American Addiction Centers. (n.d.). Physically and emotionally abusive relationships: The signs and effects on mental health. San Diego, CA: Author. Retrieved Oct 9, 2019 from https://www.mentalhelp.net/aware/physically-and-emotionally-abusive-relationships/
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Intimate partner violence: Facts & resources. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved Oct 9, 2019 from https://www.apa.org/topics/violence/intimate-partner-violence.pdf
Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M.R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
National Domestic Violence Hotline (n.d.). Abuse defined. Austin, TX: Author. Retrieved Oct 9, 2019 from https://www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/abuse-defined/
Orzeck, T. L., Rokach, A., & Chin, J. (2010). The effects of traumatic and abusive relationships. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 15, 167-192. doi: 10.1080/15325020903375792
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