How to Tell if You’re in an Abusive Relationship

Signs of abuse and help for how to heal.

Posted Jul 24, 2019

Sydney Sims/Unsplash
Source: Sydney Sims/Unsplash

I've been consumed with the news this week about Brandon Thessfeld's arrest in the grisly murder of Ole Miss student Ally Kostial. I am reminded of the arrest of Ayoola Ajayi last month in the murder of University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck. Last October, the University of Utah lost another female student to dating violence when Melvin Rowland murdered Lauren McCluskey.

We have to connect the dots of these sorts of cases. Kostial was shot multiple times and thrown in a lake. Lueck's body was found charred in a shallow grave in a wooded area, her arms bound with zip tie and rope and part of her scalp missing. McCluskey was stalked and killed in a trapped car. Ajayi was abusive to his estranged wife and had threatened to kill her, and was accused of sexual assault. Rowland had been abusive to other women and was a convicted sex offender.

All of this not only makes me sick to my stomach, but also makes me worried about my own students. Next month, I return to the college classroom to teach. I have taught many female students who have been raped, harassed, stalked, manipulated, beaten, and threatened, and I have had students who lost their own mothers and aunts and grandmothers to domestic homicide. There are many lessons I try to impart. Here are some of them: 

Instant intimacy is often followed by disillusion so tread carefully. Abusers are experts at zeroing in and preying on vulnerability. 

Relationship violence consists of acts and beliefs that rupture human connection and trust. Just as entrapment encapsulates the experience for victims/survivors, entitlement characterizes the experience for abusers. As a society, we tolerate abusers’ excuses that perpetuate women’s entrapment, excuses that include the perception of victim provocation.

Abuse can take on many forms including: 

  • Physical: hitting, kicking, biting, pulling hair, pushing, grabbing, blocking exits, destroying property and precious objects like family heirlooms
  • Emotional: name-calling, mind-games, threats
  • Sexual: includes assault and rape as well as coercion, pressure, threats, and sexual bargaining for things in return
  • Financial: putting someone in debt, closing accounts without consent, giving an allowance that then infantilizes the other person
  • Neglect: withholding affection and attention

Abuse is damaging on various levels—to the body, the psyche, the heart, the spirit, to one’s moral core, to the wallet, etc. Abuse and violence are not natural and inevitable aspects of intimate relationships. Abuse and control are embedded in the fabric of our society and in patterns of social relations as to seem natural.

Abuse is not episodic; it is patterned. What exists between what we call “episodes” is what keeps the victim seduced into the pattern of violence. What exists between are often the apologies, the gifts, the quick fixes, and the promises.

In an abusive relationship, one person is treated as being less valuable than the other and then that person’s needs, desires, and interests are also subordinated to the other. Abusive relationships involve power and control; abuse is not so much about anger or conflict tactics but really about control tactics. Abuse is about forcing someone to do something against their will as well as preventing someone from doing what they want to do. Violence exerts social control, meaning that even those who have never been victims of violence know to fear it. 

One of the primary tactics of abuse is isolation, making it very difficult or impossible for someone to see and talk with their friends, to pursue goals such as school, or to travel and get where they need to go—slashing tires so a person cannot leave, for example. Other examples of isolation include not conveying messages, intercepting mail and voicemail, etc. It is important to understand that being jealous of someone or something is a normal emotion, but acting on it by being possessive is not. 

An abuser frequently carries out the violence at his partner's school or workplace and that reveals a great deal about how he sees and regards women. This harassment often causes women to lose their jobs or causes major disruption when pursuing an education. When men who are abusive and violent violate their partners at work, they violate their partners' independence and restrict her movement in organizations in which she could have access to power and resources. Abuse creates a web of fear for the victim and the feeling of walking on eggshells, and it creates low self-esteem and ambivalence.

Girls and women are socialized to forge and maintain relationships, almost at any cost to themselves. That's what good girls and women are taught to do: create relationships and make them work. So, it is a particularly cruel irony that at the time a woman is most vulnerable, in an abusive relationship, we ask: Why does she stay, why doesn't she leave? But in actuality, she has done what good women are taught to do—she has conformed, maybe overly so, to societal standards. And when she is at the highest risk of being killed by her partner, we insist on asking these questions, and we insist on her resisting and going against all the socialization that has been imposed on her all her life.

There are many other reasons why people stay in abusive and coercive relationships—love, fear of danger, fear of not being believed, children, finances, health or disability of their partner or themselves, immigration status, religious upbringing, threats that the abuser may have made regarding killing her or himself, racial loyalty (black women often report that given the rate of incarceration of black men, they don't want more dirty laundry to be aired), etc. 

I am often asked why survivors of violence recant their story. This gets at how victims are trapped in abusive relationships. A vicious cycle is perpetuated, because once the victim/survivor recants, the sense of the brutality of what was endured gets minimized in the relationship and by those outside the relationship.

The experience gets reduced to: "See? It wasn't that bad. It's never that bad." And then a dynamic ensues such that survivors are not seen as trustworthy with the experiences they have faced. When it comes to accusing and recanting, survivors already have the sense that they won't be believed, because they have been told so by abusers over and over again, and society reinforces this through victim-blaming and tolerance and excuses for violence. 

In essence, the reasons that survivors recant their stories are often the same reasons they stay in abusive relationships—a torturous combination of love and fear. Most survivors face a tremendous sense of ambivalence—wanting the violence to stop and the relationship to continue, though these may be incompatible goals.

Most people want to believe that the person they love loves them back, and that when he says he is sorry, he means it. Though women may wind up scarred and scared from the experience, and often not presenting well, seeming angry, depressed, and anxious, while abusers can present better and calmer, it is also crucial to understand that victims do resist. Sometimes resistance may be subtle and less explicit. In fact, resistance is always present, because violence is unwanted. 

If you or someone you know is being abused, the following suggestions and resources might offer a helpful, healing path: 

  1. Help the person identify and name the abuse.
  2. Help create a timeline of the abuse so s/he can see the patterns and cycles of it.
  3. Ask the person specific questions, in non-threatening ways, to show him/her that this behavior is abusive.
  4. Ask what his/her concerns are.
  5. Help the person identify reasons for abuse as excuses.
  6. Consider the victim as an expert.
  7. Don’t assume that the abuser is male until you are told the gender of the person.
  8. Talk to the person away from the abuser.
  9. Let the survivor of the abuse set the pace and tone.
  10. Provide this person with as many resources and information as possible (e.g., RAINN and The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence), and suggest that the person find a counselor especially skilled in the dynamics of relationship violence.

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