Is my partner abusive? Understanding abuse

Stories of domestic violence have been more present then ever in recent years.  They bombard the news, the media, even pop culture with stories such as Rhianna’s and Amber Heard’s.  People are speaking out yet the victims of abuse are still being put on the hot seat.  “Well if he or she was abusive how did you not see it?”  Or “Why didn’t you leave sooner?”  In the majority of cases the abuser is male and the victim is female, however, when the victim is male there is even more stigmatization and less of an understanding of the dynamics involved.  In order to help shed some light on these questions I thought I would write down some of what I have learned through my experience as a counsellor.

So what does an abuser look like?  Or better yet what does a victim look like?  Well unfortunately they look like me, you, the person sitting next to you.  Every person’s story is unique and cannot be generalized, however, in many cases there is a general trend.  Abusers often use a similar strategy to engage their victims.  And this is how it often starts.

The cycle of abuse

You have started dating someone new and you feel like the luckiest person to have found such a charming, attentive, caring, and charismatic person.  Everyone wonders where you have met such a wonderful person.  You couldn’t be happier.  They often make you feel special, putting you up on a pedestal.

And then after a period of time something changes.  Your partner may start to pull away or appear irritated.  You can feel the tension and all of a sudden you are walking on eggshells.  You ask yourself is it stress from work?  Financial pressures building up?  You may even blame yourself.  The truth is it may be something much more perverse but very common and often not talked about.  You may be dating an abuser.  You may say to yourself there is no way that your partner is abusive.  Your partner has been nothing but supportive and loving, this must just be a phase.

The period of tension is usually followed by your partner doing something very out of character.  There is usually some sort of outburst.  They may, yell, hit, break, or say something that hurts you. You question where your kind, loving partner is and who this person who has replaced your partner is.  You miss the person you cared about, the person you thought you knew.  And right when you thought you lost that person forever, your partner apologizes and tells you it will never happen again.  Your partner may even promise to make it up to you, give you flowers, whatever it takes to regain your trust and forgiveness.  What a relief.  You haven’t lost your loving partner; what happened was a minor incident and they said it would never happen again.  You believe your partner, I mean, it did seem very out of character.  Until… it happens all over again.  The tension followed by the explosion followed by the apology and empty promises.  Over time, however, the apologies often slow down and there are no more flowers.  The promises become excuses and the apologies are replaced with reasons why you caused the outbursts.  “If you didn’t make me so angry…”  You are left confused, hurt, and second-guessing yourself. Yes, this is the cycle of abuse and it often escalates over time.

What is abuse?

Abuse is about power and control.  Abuse is the means or instrument to maintain power and control regardless of the form of abuse.  The abuser will initially gain your trust and often treat you in a way that makes you feel like you have control or are calling the shots.  Not that you are asking for control, but they are giving it to you.  This is an illusion to pull you in.  In most cases, unhealthy and healthy relationships start out the same.  Would you date someone who walked up to you and said “Hi my name is Joe, I am an abuser”?  Most likely not, so they often manipulate and charm, not just you, but the people around you.  In many cases, the façade is created in such a way that down the road when you try to tell others that you are noticing your partner has changed or is acting abusively, the people you reach out to may be shocked.  This is not the person that they met, they have been nothing but nice, caring, and attentive to them as well.  Some may even question if it’s you that’s the problem.  Abusers often build alliances before you even sense anything is even wrong.

Types of Abuse

One misconception is that if its “real” abuse then it has to be physical. There are many forms of abuse and they are all damaging and destructive to our sense of self-worth and self-esteem.  Subtle manipulations, put downs, and passive aggressive remarks are made to make the victim feel powerless, inferior, and, demeaned.  This chips away at our core self just as much, if not more, than any kick, hit, or punch.  It can have us questioning ourselves, feeling crazy, second-guessing our thoughts and feelings, and feeling as though we are not worthy.  We may internalize what the abuser has said and start repeating it to ourselves.  Your partner may also create dependence in order to make it harder to leave.  They may start to isolate you, tell you how to act, who to hang out with, or make you feel like you can’t do anything right.  The abuse tends to escalate during relationship milestones, in other words, when they have solidified their power and control.  Milestones include, moving in together, getting married, and getting pregnant.  When the abuser feels that they are losing power and control over you, for example, when you leave or meet a new partner, the abuser will become the most dangerous, unpredictable, and impulsive.

Why the victim stays

There are many factors that cause people to stay in an abusive relationship.  They may not know that what they are experiencing is abuse.  Abuse can be very subtle and disguised. Remember abuse is about power and control and so the abuser may achieve this in a very subtle fashion with the intention of keeping the victim’s self-esteem down, making the victim feel that they are the problem, crazy, and so on.

There are often many practical reasons why the victim of abuse stays such as finances, children, cultural reasons, and so on.  Abusers will often go out of their way to create dependence.  They may control the bank accounts, passports, important documents, and so on.  The victim may stay to protect the children often knowing that if the victim lives in the same household as the abuser, they can protect the children.  The abuser will often make threats such as that they will seek full custody and will prove how “crazy, financially unstable, abusive” the victim is.

The confusion of the cycle of abuse often creates hope and denial in the victim, hope that it will get better and denial that it is as bad as it is.  This is also a way of coping in these relationships.  As the abuser is moving through the cycle of abuse, the three phases being tension, explosion, and honeymoon/justification/pretend normal, the victim is in the middle with their head spinning.  It becomes all about what the abuser is feeling and thinking. The victim is often trying to get into the abuser’s head, trying to smooth things over attempting to make the abuser happy but to no avail because there is nothing that can make the abuser happy.  The abuser’s unrealistic expectations are a moving target.  The victim’s attempts are at the expense of their own thoughts and feelings.

Another reason why a victim of abuse may stay with their abuser is a sense of responsibility to the abuser.  The abuser often presents early on as a victim, a childlike figure who needs love and nurturing, and the victim is the "only person" who can fulfill that role.  This induces guilt at the thought of leaving or “abandoning” the abuser who “needs” the victim.

Getting out

So how do you know if you are dating an abuser before you are caught in a web that they have spun around you?  There are some red flags to look out for.  My next blog post will discuss red flags of an abuser and what to watch out for.  If you or someone you know feels trapped in an abusive relationship or is even questioning whether what they are experiencing is abuse, there are resources to help.  There are resource centers and experienced counsellors that can help you decipher what you are experiencing.  When you are in it, abuse can be very confusing. It often has us questioning ourselves.  In many cases the abuser may have us convinced that he or she is protecting us, teaching us a lesson, or doing what is in our best interests.  It often does not appear as clear-cut or obvious as it is portrayed in movies and we often only hear about extreme cases in the news where the abuse has already escalated to a dangerous level.  Safety plans can be developed and there resources to help you leave.  If your intuition is telling you something is not right, reach out!

Changing the cycle

If you recognize your own behaviours as abusive and want to change, there are ways.  Acknowledging the abuse is the first step.  Reaching out to a counsellor who understands the dynamic and can help you take a closer look at where the abusive behaviours stem from can help you become the partner you want to be.  The pattern can be changed; we may not be able to change the past but we have choices for a better future.