Domestic violence is not always as evident as one might think, especially in the absence of physical abuse. An often-overlooked aspect of this mistreatment is emotional abuse, which can have a devastating impact on one's well-being and self-esteem. Just as every relationship is unique, so is an abusive one. Therefore, it can take time to realize if you are part of one, especially when the abuser does not meet the characteristics often known to popular culture (e.g., physical abuse). On the other hand, most abusers do tend to share common traits and have a similar influence on their partner. Some questions that might help you determine if you are in an abusive relationship are the following:
Does your partner always make you feel guilty and question your understanding of things?
Do you feel as though you are not doing anything right by him or her?
Do you find yourself thinking about your partner's needs even when not with him or her?
Are there topics in the relationship that are off-limits and need to be avoided?
Is your partner different (e.g., more pleasant) around other people?
Does he or she talk poorly about your friends and/or family or try to convince you to cut ties with some of them?
Has your partner broken things at home out of anger or frustration?
Are you afraid of his or her reactions, especially when he or she gets angry?
Has your partner ever threatened to hit you, or has he or she been physical with you in other ways (blocking your movement, shaking or pushing you, towering over you in anger, etc.)?
This article is primarily focused on abuse by male partners in heterosexual relationships. Still, it's important to emphasize that domestic violence can also be inflicted by women and can happen in same-sex partnerships. One common misconception is that abusers are uneducated and/or low functioning people. On the contrary, they can be very intelligent and successful and are, therefore, good manipulators. Domestic violence is not confined to one culture, race, gender, or socioeconomic status.
Abusers share similar beliefs, attitudes, and ways they think about their romantic partners. They tend to learn these values from their key role models (e.g., parents, peers, etc.), but there are also other influences such as movies, pornography, and/or religion. Some examples of their beliefs are:
Women are incompetent and inferior (e.g., "All these years of education has not changed you a bit, you're still an idiot")
Women are irrational (e.g., "Let's face it, you're just too emotional")
A woman's job is to obey and serve a man (e.g., "Why is my dinner not ready on time?")
The problem starts when a person with these underlying beliefs enters a romantic relationship and realizes that his partner does not fit (or is rejecting) the expected role and/or does not meet these (unrealistic) expectations.
Abusive relationships do not usually start that way, but they can evolve quickly. Abusers seldom show their abusive and controlling side at the beginning of a relationship. Conversely, abusers are usually very charming when they first begin dating their partners, often putting effort into making them feel special. They can seem overly confident when explaining their (rigid) views and understanding of things, which often makes them more attractive. Even if there are some red flags early on (e.g., him wanting to spend all his spare time with you, suggesting to move in too quickly, commenting negatively on your outfit or making 'strange' comments about your friends) it is easy to dismiss them in the "honeymoon" stage of the relationship. One might think that he's just different, and his jokes and comments are unique. His jealousy and desire to spend all of his time with his new lover can seem quite flattering at first.
Unfortunately, it usually does not take too long until the abuser begins to show his true colors. With time, he will start gaining power over his partner and manipulating his way into controlling their life. Abusers often need to become the center of attention (i.e., the relationship revolves around them and their needs). They weaken and belittle their partner by instilling doubt and isolating them from the outside world.
An abuser tends to "turn the tables" in a way that leaves his partner feeling guilty for being the reason a fight happened in the first place. As the relationship evolves, feelings of guilt and self-doubt become all-consuming, and the victim may begin to question her beliefs, understandings, and often even her sanity.
She is getting ready to go to her friend's birthday party while he is lying on the bed, complaining about how miserable his life is and how unhappy he is. He also mentions that the party that they are going to is lame, and that her friends are all fake. She then starts to feel bad about her friends and guilty for making him go. She tries to console him to make him feel better. His mood changes dramatically when the friends are nearby and ready to pick them up. He gets ready within minutes, and right before stepping out, he looks at her, asking, "What's wrong with you? Cheer up now!" Later, at the party, he will be at the center of attention, getting along with everyone and overall having a good time while she feels like she had yet another "slap in the face".
Abusers are known to be manipulative. They expect their partner to think about them and their needs at all times, even when apart. An abuser may make it seem reasonable that his partner has to meet his need while having no needs of her own. Unfortunately, abusive partners are not looking for an equal relationship; they think that it is their partner's job to follow their orders. For example, he might want her to check in with him every hour when she goes out with her friends to ensure that he is still on her mind and with that to also remind her of the "rules" (e.g., not talking to anyone else except her friends, etc.). He justifies these things by claiming he's worried about her safety. She might then interpret that as caring. In reality, he is just being jealous and refuses to share her with others.
Any news she shares with him that could mean more time away from home (e.g., starting a new job, going back to school, finding a new hobby, etc.) can spark a fight. Abusers often perceive outside activities as threatening because they would, again, have to share their partner and risk getting less attention. They might also view the news as something that can potentially help their partner get stronger and more independent. That, in turn, can lead to her desire to leave the relationship. So, when the abuser hears such news he might find a way to make fun of it by belittling his partner's choices (e.g., "Why do you need to join a book club? It's for desperate women who have nothing else to do with their lives") or attempting to make his partner feel guilty (e.g., "How could you even consider taking night classes, and why am I the only one wanting to spend time together?").
She decides to go on a trip with a friend but gets into a fight with her partner the night before. The fight lasts the entire night, as he is keeping her up and not letting her go to sleep. Finally, when she has only a few hours left before she needs to head out to the train station, he commands her, "What are you waiting for, start packing! Do you think I'm some kind of a monster who doesn't let his girlfriend go on a trip?". At this point, she has no energy or excitement left, but she decides to do what she is told because she knows what happens if she does not obey.
An abuser will tend to have a list of "rules" that he casually shares. The rules can be presented as "universal knowledge" or be disguised as unique asks, often perceived as acts of love. He might say something such as, "We should end the call by sending each other kisses." At first, she might find it cute: "He really cares about me and this relationship, so what if he wants to have some traditions?" But the problems start when she forgets to send the kisses and then this is seen as being disobedient.
There are also "rules" abusers don't share, and their partner will hear about them after the fact. For example, after seeing her hug a male friend, he might say, "This is not the kind of hug one gives to a man she's not sleeping with." She then learns to control and modify her behavior - she might switch to very brief embraces instead of hugs or start avoiding physical contact with her male friends altogether.
Unfortunately, there is no way one could learn all the rules and steer clear of the consequences. If the partner breaks a rule (and she eventually will because the rules are unrealistic), disciplining will follow. The punishment can be rowdy and violent. Abusers might try to destroy their partner verbally or even escalate to a physical altercation. Other times retribution comes in the form of silent treatment or in another passive-aggressive guise. For example, he may stop talking to her for a period of time or change his mind about going out to dinner by saying, "I don't feel like going out anymore." He might lock her in a room or make her sleep on the couch. She might also have to hear about fights days or weeks after they happen.
Interestingly, abusers themselves operate on a different set of rules. They are allowed to forget or make exceptions to them (e.g., he can hang up the phone without sending kisses because he walked into a meeting or he can have female friends and go out with them as often as he pleases and hug them however he chooses). He is allowed to do these things. She is not. Abusers have special rights and advantages. Moreover, if she dares to bring this up, he might attack her or accuse her of initiating a fight.
Abusers often try to isolate their partners by disconnecting them from their friends, family, and/or things that they are passionate about. They generally prefer to see their partners alone and vulnerable so they can have better control over them. The abuser cannot risk someone telling his partner that the relationship or his behavior is unacceptable. Furthermore, an abuser can also not risk a partner spending time with her friends and family and engaging in activities that makes her happy because this will help her build confidence and feel stronger.
Thus, he might tell her how he doesn't like her friends and/or family or continuously bring up negative characteristics they may have. He might claim that her friends are not a good influence or otherwise question her friendships. She might then slowly start seeing less of her friends and/or family or stop going to the book club that she so much enjoyed. She does this because it is less stressful (e.g., not having to hide your phone when certain friends call, etc.).
A controlling person might also dictate what his partner can or cannot talk about with her friends, threatening her with consequences if she chooses to disobey. He might tell her that there are specific topics she shouldn't bring up with friends, such as her relationship issues or any of her past fights. She might then feel anxious about breaking the rule and may stop sharing things altogether and, therefore, not get much-needed support and feedback.
At the beginning of the relationship, jealousy might come across as a compliment or a sign of love (e.g., “He is crazy in love with me"). Unfortunately, in an abusive relationship, this probably has very little to do with love. It is common to think that abusers are jealous because they are insecure or might have trouble trusting. The reality is that this is what they want their partners to believe, but it's usually not the case. The jealousy usually stems from the ownership mentality. Abusers often see their partner as a belonging they don't want to share. For example, coming home from a night out with her girlfriends, she might be greeted by him with, "You smell like another guy, don't even think about coming inside this house." Interestingly, abusers themselves might not always believe their accusations. They often use them as scare tactics and as ways to let their partner know that such behavior isn't allowed.
Abusers often make it seem that their jealousy is their partner's fault (e.g., her personality, upbringing). He might insinuate that she is too outgoing or friendly, which is why he does not want her to go out by herself. So before leaving, she might be thoroughly interrogated, "Who else is going to be there?" "If someone were to approach you, what would you do?" "What time will you be back?", etc. After this, she might feel that she is not really in the mood to go anywhere and may perhaps decide to stay in next time because it is merely causing too much stress.
Can he change?
To change, the abuser needs to let go of the controlling. The change is possible when they fully admit and understand their wrongdoing and, most importantly, back it up with action such as seeking professional help. However, even with full effort, it might take years to see a significant change. The data shows that the number of former abusers committing to the required work on self is quite low.
Can therapy help?
Individual therapy for the abuser may not be successful if the goal is to stop the abuse. The therapist might not always realize that the client is abusive. Abusers tend to use the same manipulative tactics on the therapist, often painting the picture of their partners being the "bad" one. The abuser may use other people (friends, co-workers, etc.) to demonstrate how well respected he is and how highly everyone thinks of him. He may present himself as the "real victim" and express that everyone agrees on how "twisted" she is. Since his view is often distorted, his explanation of things is likely inaccurate. When the therapist, based on his narrative, happens to reassure and validate him, it can make the abuser even more demanding with his partner.
Because of an abuser's distorted thinking, couples counseling can also be challenging, if not impossible. Abusers will commit to their 'truth' or justify their behavior in every possible way while lacking empathy to understand how this is affecting their partner and the relationship.
Leaving an abusive relationship
Leaving an abusive relationship can be challenging. The suffering partner might find herself fully isolated and dependent on the abuser, which makes leaving much more difficult. Furthermore, abuse victims might feel lost as they find themselves doubting everything, including the decision to leave the relationship. The sense of worthlessness has settled in with her after countless negative assertions the abuser pushed on her, such as, "Nobody will love you as much as I do" or "If you leave me, you will spend the rest of your life alone because only a real idiot would want to be with you."
In conclusion, one should leave when they feel they are ready to do so. It is essential to have support. Once the decision has been made, reaching out to friends and family to let them know what you are planning is highly advised. Healing from an abusive relationship might take awhile. Therefore, seeking additional help (therapy, support groups, etc.) can greatly increase the chance of independence.