If you ask most people on the street what an abusive relationship is, chances are you’d get a description of physical abuse – in fact, you’ll hear terms like ‘battered wife’.
In a nutshell, abuse refers to anytime someone exerts inappropriate control over another person.
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This can, of course, be physical. Or it can be control over the finances, emotional manipulation, verbal abuse, or sexual abuse. Not all types of abuse – in fact, not even the majority of abuse cases – come with visible bruises.
And the different types of abuse often overlap. For example, verbal and physical abuse often go hand in hand, but so too do emotional abuse and verbal abuse.
This is one of those topics that we don’t speak about nearly enough. Here in Canada (and the stats are similar or higher in the United States), there were 88,000 reported cases of domestic violence in 2013. In almost 70% of these reported cases, the victims were female. It’s important to realize, though, that Canadian police say only about 1/3 of domestic violence cases are reported. More importantly, these are the chargeable, obvious cases of domestic violence.
Reported domestic violence is like the visible part of the iceberg – it hides the unreported violence and the ‘hidden’ forms of relationship abuse.
Abuse occurs in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. It happens when the couple is young and when they are old. Rich and poor alike abuse their partners. And while women are more likely to experience domestic violence, men are certainly abused by their partners.
Most abusive relationships start with emotional abuse. The abuser will be insulting and demeaning, gradually chipping away at self-esteem and self-worth. In an emotionally abusive relationship, the victim begins to believe that they are lucky to be with someone who is willing to put up with anyone as worthless as they are.
This can happen to men or women.
This often lays the groundwork for other more violent forms of abuse and helps to explain why someone would ‘allow’ .
“You’re just faking being sick because you want attention. No one cares!”
Abuse can be control through intimidation or threats. It can also involve yelling and screaming.
“I’ll punch you in the face if you do that again.”
“Don’t make me mad. You won’t like it if you get me mad.”
“Leave me and I’ll make sure you never see those children again.”
This often goes hand in hand with emotional abuse. Both men and women can be emotionally and verbally abusive to their intimate partners.
Emotional abuse also includes gaslighting. The victim comes to doubt their sanity. An example that I have seen often is when the abuser will state that they will be home from work at a certain time but not to worry about a big meal. They then arrive home an hour earlier with “a very important business partner that I told you would be coming for dinner.”
Financial abuse shows up in a number of ways. When a partner in a relationship (usually, but of course not always, the female) is forced into a career choice – like staying at home or only working part-time – against their will, this is abusive. An abuser may track every penny their partner spends or force them to beg for everything. Another tactic is to sabotage his or her career or job, forcing them to be late, calling them constantly or doing other things that make it difficult to maintain a job.
“Five dollars to buy milk? You must be pouring it down the sink. I’m not giving you money to waste!”
“Don’t you question how I spend my money! You sit at home and do nothing and I earn the money. I’ll tell YOU what you can spend!”
“I don’t care if you’ll be late for work! Talk to me now!”
Sexual abuse doesn’t need to be violent, but if you’re coerced into doing things that you don’t want to do through threats or intimidation, that’s abuse. Refusal to practice safe sex and hiding birth control are also abusive behaviors that no one should have to tolerate.
It was only recently that unwanted or forced sex within a marriage was deemed assault.
This one seems like it should be obvious. It means bruises, right? The irony is that people do get black eyes for completely innocent reasons while bruises and cuts from abuse are often masked by clothing.
Most physically abusive people do not wish to get caught and are therefore good at causing damage where it cannot be seen.
One tactic used by abusers, which is extremely effective at terrorizing the victim, is to insist on driving at very high speeds while the passenger pleads with them to slow down. I’ve known two abusive men who both did this.
This is a new one for most people, and hard for many to understand. Today, keyloggers and other tracking software make it extremely easy for a tech-savvy abuser to keep a record of everyone you speak with, what you say to them, and where you go.
Digital abuse can leave someone feeling paranoid and confused, since the abuser will know things that they should not know. With this illicit information, they can manipulate the victim’s sense of reality and destroy relationships that they need to escape.
“You’ve been telling your brother that I’m some kind of evil monster. Well, he TOLD me. What makes you think he’d trust a stupid liar like you?”
“Let’s go to the bank and close out that account you’ve been hiding money in. What – you thought the bank wouldn’t tell me?”
Because there are so many different types of abuse and because the majority of abuse categories don’t come with bruises, it can be difficult to recognize abuse in your own relationships and in those of the people you love and care for.
There are some signs that abuse is part of the relationship. The signs are generally related to negative emotions like fear and shame. For example, if you feel afraid around your partner or constantly worried that you’re going to make them mad or set them off, then that should set off red flags.
Being afraid of your intimate partner is never okay.
Perhaps your partner is jealous, accusatory or always checking that you are where you said you’d be. These are not normal behaviours in a healthy relationship. Healthy people do not check the car’s mileage regularly or install a tracking device to know where their partner is.
A healthy partner does not yell and scream or make you feel inadequate, crazy or stupid.
In a healthy relationship, both partners have freedom with and knowledge of the finances, and can make decisions for themselves about jobs and activities. It is normal and healthy to discuss and come to a mutual agreement. It is not normal and healthy for one partner to dictate rigid terms to the other.
It is very important for people to realize that the subtle signs of abuse often increase over time. Emotional and mental abuse becomes violent over time.
And lest anyone read this and justify their partner’s wrong behavior by saying that they don’t mean it, let me make this very clear – abusers know what they are doing. They are not manipulative and violent to their boss at work, after all. They do not install keyloggers on their mother’s phone. They don’t scream at the muscle-bound weightlifter at the gym that he’s worthless and no one will ever love him. And let’s be honest – that person who is tracking your email and leaving bruises on your upper arm didn’t do this on your first date, either.
If you recognize the signs of abuse in your relationship, it is time to take steps to take control of your life back.
Your well-being and safety matter.