In every relationship, partners occasionally mistreat, offend, or hurt one another. It feels normal, but at some point it crosses the line over to abuse and figuring that out is hard, especially if you're the victim.
Here's a glimpse of what happens when you're the victim:
Over time, your abuser gains your trust. You start relying on them for love, safety, money, or even a sense of what’s real. With the goal of controlling you, your abuser uses your trust in them to tear down your self-esteem, cause you to doubt yourself, but keep you thinking they are your source of truth. You start to feel even more vulnerable and reliant on their approval, which gets harder to achieve. You can experience feelings or beliefs that you're worthless and it will make you endlessly seek their validation.
All abuse will degrade your self-esteem over time, but it can be hard to link this feeling of worthlessness to your partner, since they seem to be the only one who’s willing to “put up with you”. If you felt better about yourself before the relationship started, or if you’re starting to believe that you actually deserve to be treated in disrespectful ways, that’s a sign that your self-esteem is being brought down through the relationship. This is needed for the abuser to continue control and will often become worse.
In this post, you’ll learn about the other red flags of abusive relationships, and what you can do if you think you may be in one.
Emotional abuse can be hard to recognize because abusers often blame their victims. When you feel upset, they might get angry at you instead of being compassionate. If you bring up issues in the relationship, they will often deny doing anything wrong, or say it’s your fault that this is happening to you. Emotional abuse often involves the abuser withholding love, affection, communication, or money from you as a way of getting you to behave how they want, to try and win it back.
If you have been in other relationships that treated you this way, it can be hard to see as abuse because it feels normal. Treatment like:
I had the feeling of noticing I was in a abusive relationship but I tried to deny it and think I was the problem since every time I spoke up and set boundaries it was reversed and I was told I’m the problem. I was manipulated and told I need to relax I need to dress better I need to think faster be smarter more understanding etc. Biggest challenge I faced was the confusion and realizing I lost myself, my confidence was fading too until I snapped out of it and fought back by planning my exit.
One form of emotional abuse is verbal. There are obvious signs of verbal abuse, like threats, name-calling, blaming, and criticizing. There are also more subtle forms that can be difficult to spot. Often times they can come across as quiet, joking, or passive aggressive. The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter if they tell you that you’re overreacting, you’re too sensitive, or they didn’t mean it. If you feel torn down by the things they say in a recurring way, that’s verbal abuse. One instance of name calling during a fight and then an immediate apology is something that can occur even in healthy relationships from time to time, but if this becomes a regular habit, even if they apologize every time, it’s abuse.
Can include: Humiliating or embarrassing you. Constant put-downs. Hypercriticism. Use of sarcasm and unpleasant tone of voice. Mean jokes or constantly making fun of you. Saying “I love you but…” Or saying “I love you” then degrading you right after. Saying things like “If you don’t , I will.” Making threats. Constant calling or texting when you are not with him/her. Threatening to commit suicide if you leave. A sense that they will ruin your reputation to others if you don’t behave how they want.
One of the biggest challenges which I am still facing is breaking what someone has since described to me as the ‘trauma bond’. My bond to him was such that I actually used to express gratitude for the times he didn’t unleash rage on me followed by the silent treatment if I ever confessed that I had been upset by something he had done. You can imagine it wasn’t like this in the beginning…
While this is the form of abuse we most commonly think of, it’s not always so cut and dry either. Physical abuse can involve pushing or shoving, holding you down, locking you in a room, house, car, closet, etc. cornering or detaining you in any way, throwing or smashing things, and physical violence like punching, stabbing, or choking. This can also look like destroying property (smashing a car window or Xbox), or hurting a pet or loved one. It can mean aggressive sex that causes you unwanted pain or makes you feel degraded. If it causes fear, a sense that you have to do exactly what they want “or else”, and if it leaves you physically or emotionally hurt, it’s abuse.
One thing to note is that oftentimes emotional and verbal abuse will come first, as the abuser “tests the waters” with you. Even if your partner is not physically abusive yet, as their need for more power and control increases, and as your reliance on them increases, so will the level of their abuse, which could lead toward physical abuse later, especially if they are showing signs of emotional or verbal abuse now.
One of the biggest challenges for me was recognising the signs of abuse. I had suspected it at various points but it wasn’t until I sought help from a therapist, which was actually to save my relationship initially, that I realised. On the very first call I was told that they would no longer be able to speak to me about it from that perspective (company policy) as they had deemed the relationship to be abusive. However, it took a few more sessions for me to properly recognise this and what it meant. Having been in a highly physically abusive relationship in the past, I just didn’t consider some of the physical incidents to actually be THAT abusive and I certainly didn’t see any of the other more covert signs of abuse. I am sad that in the end I let it get to the point that it did in order for me to fully see. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
One thing that can make any abusive relationship so confusing is that while your partner might sometimes do things listed above, they also have another side to them. They can be so sweet, affectionate, and loving. They can sing your praises, be extremely romantic, or buy you gifts. They can sincerely apologize and promise to change, to be better, to never do it again, and even seem like they have changed… for a short while. They can make you feel they are the only person in the world who will love you, and you are lucky to be with them.
It’s precisely these two sides that create a cycle of abuse. The abuser will flood you with the things that make you feel great, in order to catch you (this is sometimes called “love bombing”). They will make you feel loved, worthy, important, pretty, whatever is your hook. Especially at the beginning, they can seem perfect and life can feel like a fairy tale. Then once you’ve fallen for them, they will start to exhibit some of the behaviors above. This causes you to wonder what happened, and gives them the opportunity to start blaming you for things going south. In turn, you give more and more of yourself to try and get the fairytale back, which feeds their need for control and power. Their sweet side is unfortunately exactly part of the plan.
Abusers are often self-centered and may take on the victim role themselves. They can be impatient, have impossibly high or double standards, and switch moods very quickly with no warning. One of the biggest things they lack is the ability to empathize or have compassion for you, while also not being able to take responsibility for their own actions.
They may be suspicious of you or your friends/family, getting jealous when you spend time with anyone but them, accusing you of affairs, and trying to get you to stop spending time with the people you love “because they are toxic to your relationship”. It’s true that healthy, loving friends and family can often see abuse before the victim can, so in that sense, healthy connections who call out abusers are “toxic” to the abusive relationship because they are the ones who love you enough to help you see it for what it really is, and the abuser knows this. The less time you spend with people who are not under their control, the easier it is for them to keep controlling you.
Some common characteristics or experiences for victims in an abusive relationship:
You tend to be a giver. You’re always putting others needs before your own. It might be hard for you to ask for your own needs or even know what they are. It’s easier to help other people than to receive help.
You want to fix them. Abusers can hook you by being the victim when their behavior gets too bad, reminding you that they are broken, and even saying you are the only one who can fix them. The truth is, no one can “fix” anyone else but themselves. Meaning it is up to them to make changes and up to you not to get sucked into the fantasy that you can save them.
You have a hard time standing up for yourself. You may have real trouble saying no, setting boundaries, or advocating for yourself when someone is treating you unfairly. You often give others the benefit of the doubt because you’ve come to believe that standing up for yourself or saying no is “selfish”.
You try to communicate and nothing works. In healthy relationships, honesty, vulnerability, and compassion are things that help communication work, especially under stress. However, to an abuser, their goal is not effective communication or connection, their goal is control. Because of this, your attempts at healthy communication can have zero effect, or even make them react even more strongly against you, because they will thwart any possibility of compromise that would have them “lose power over you”. Unfortunately, even if you do everything “perfectly”, there aren’t really any techniques that work to get them to be more reasonable.
You have been in abusive relationships before or your parents were abusive or neglectful as a child. Most people play out the same coping strategies in adult relationships that they used as children. This means if you had an abusive past, being in these relationships now can feel normal, because you were conditioned to believe that this is what love feels like. It can be tempting to say “oh guys are just like this..” or “oh all women do that”. But familiarity doesn’t mean it’s the only possibility for you.
The bottom line: If you’re wondering if your relationship is abusive, it’s worth taking a second look. It can be hard to accept that your relationship isn’t what you thought you were signing up for. And it can be especially hard to believe that your partner would knowingly choose to control or hurt you. If your relationship is abusive, the truth is, it’s not your fault and nothing is wrong with you. However, you can work to heal yourself from the inside out in order to live a more empowered life with healthier relationships.
At Relationship Hero, we match you with coaches who have specific training and understanding in the areas you need, so when you come in for coaching, we’ll find you a coach who understands abusive relationships and can really help you work through the many layers it takes to find freedom and empowerment in yourself again. We will listen without judgement or shame, and focus on building action plans that rebuild your self-esteem, support network, awareness and compassion, so you can make the most empowered choices possible.
Giving yourself time with a therapist can also be helpful to understand your past and why the coping strategies you’re using now were necessary as a child. Therapists or Coaches who have a specialty in somatic trauma will be very helpful especially if you also have chronic physical pain, high anxiety, or twitches/shakes (they are related).
If you believe your relationship is abusive, please use this list of helpful links and hotlines to help you determine more about your specific situation and how to get the immediate support you need.