How People Find Themselves in Abusive Relationships and Why It’s So hard to Leave

Trigger warning: Domestic violence trigger, this blog discusses abuse in relationships and may bring up negative feelings for anyone who has experienced abuse. If you are currently in an abusive relationship please read with the understanding that you should do it in a location where your partner cannot see you/have access to your internet history. See the resources at the bottom of the blog for more help. 

I got a lot of views and comments about my last blog entry, and some very good questions.  Not every blog I write will be about Domestic Violence, but I decided to follow the last one up with another blog entry about how we “fall into” or “end up” in abusive relationships. It’s not a choice we make ahead of time, no one sits down and thinks “I think I will date someone who hits me, or scares me, or controls me” I use the allegory of the ladder, when you first start the relationship you are high up on that ladder, and your partner slowly pushes you farther down step by step, and before you realize what is happening you are hanging on the last rung.  Within domestic violence we use what is typically known as the “Cycle of Abuse”. But I don’t want to come from this subject with a social work standpoint, and teach directly about the cycle, I want to delve more into how these phases look in relationship, and hit on those few warning signs we may have missed, and more importantly, why we missed them.  I also want to talk about what draws us in, and what makes us stay.

More about the Cycle of Abuse:   http://www.1736familycrisiscenter.org/pdf/Cycle%20of%20Violence_v3.pdf  (Please note that I do not like the term “battered woman”, that this link uses, this is a term (Still used predominantly in the U.S.A. that carries a lot of negative connotation, as well as labels women, a better term would be Someone who has experienced violence. Because you are first and foremost a person, not a “battered woman”. Your experiences do not define who you are.)

Since most of the research on domestic violence is about men, a lot of this blog entry will be more applicable to the behaviour of Men. So much more research needs to be done in regards to both females who act abusively and those who identify as LGBTQQ2A. In my last blog you know I kept those pronouns as neutral as possible. And I will continue to advocate for more research being done, but to be honest I am not sure if a woman acting abusively would fall into these categories. That being said, I don’t want to rule out the possibility and have someone click away because I use pronouns that are not applicable to them, so neutrality here we go!

Not all abusive people follow this pattern, even abusive men, this is a guideline not a bible, and it is meant to provide insight not a diagnosis. Please take it for what it is.


 

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(Photo Credit: Piotr Bizior – http://www.bizior.com)

The Honeymoon Phase

Every relationship has a honeymoon phase, so don’t be worried if some of these things apply to you, however if you are identifying with every word it may be time to consider whether your relationship is heading down this road. This is a phase identified on the cycle of abuse, but I am breaking it down a bit further here to include some aspects that I have noticed. The Honeymoon Phase is when things are going great, the partner is buying you presents, taking you to dinner, being emotionally supportive and loving.

We all like praise, maybe for some it is because we haven’t heard enough of it, we need it somehow. And then here comes this seemingly wonderful person, and they are telling us we are beautiful. We are perfect. We are wonderful. They have set us up high on this alter of love, they worship us, they make us feel invincible. We are the only person who can love them. WE are it, we are the one, WE complete them. And we think how did we get so lucky? To find this person who worships us. We are up so high on that pedestal and we are looking down thinking about how lucky we are to have found someone who not only worships us, but who can’t live without us. This is the fairytale we have always dreamed of.

Warning Signs: No one is perfect. If someone calls you their goddess, uses the word “perfect”, though it may be nice to hear, we can never be perfect, and that is a very high standard for us to live up to. Constant gift giving, attention, may seem great now, but it is a warning sign. 


 

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Vulnerability

Now we are hopelessly in love, head over heels. And we think it couldn’t possibly get any better, Then one night, probably after a very intimate moment (sex), your partner tells you something. Something that makes them so vulnerable that it breaks your heart. You thought your partner was a strong, emotionally secure person, but it turns out that they NEED you. It’s not just that they want you, they need you. It’s hard not to feel emotionally connected to someone who shares their deepest darkest secret to you. Some examples of this secret often include childhood physical or sexual abuse, or some traumatic event. Please keep in mind that your partner most likely isn’t lying, They are on a cycle too, though they may or may not be aware of it. Some abusive partners are in denial that deep down it is part of the method to gain control over you, and some are hurting so much inside that they lash out as they cannot deal with their own pain, they need to make you hurt too.

Warning Signs: This isn’t a negative thing in and of itself, however we have to remember that when someone is in pain, they often cause pain. If your partner has experienced a traumatic event, this does not make them abusive, but their need for you to constantly support them emotionally may not be healthy. If this traumatic event becomes a justification for later abuse or hurtful comments, this is a warning sign. 

 


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Rumours about a violent past

At this point you are so emotionally connected, you are joined at the hip. You go everywhere together, you do everything together. But then you hear something, maybe a rumour, maybe from his parents, or a friend, that the person you are with had a lot of fights with their ex, and maybe there was some police involvement. You feel like you should give your partner the benefit of the doubt, so you confront them about it.

Most commonly the response given is “My ex was crazy. She made up all that stuff.” My suggestion, ask to see court documents, any information that your partner has. You may not be able to get to the truth due to confidentiality, but even knowing what your partner was charged with could provide some insight. Please also note that even if the charges were dismissed be cautious, because sometimes they can take a counselling program to have the charges dropped, it does not mean that they did not act abusively.

Obviously it’s hard to not know the facts, but be wary of rumours and blanket statements about previous partners. Please know that if charges were filed, whether you feel at this point it is possible or not, your partner may have some issues with abusive behaviour.

On that note, if your partner does not attempt to hide their past incidents with abusive behaviour, be just as cautious. Especially if the incidents happened with multiple partners. It will probably happen again. We like to think (especially when we are still on the pedestal) that we are different than those “crazy” ex-partners. But this may be your partner blaming their abusive behaviours on their partner. Even knowing about our partners past sometimes doesn’t stop us from staying, because they were so vulnerable and shared and we want so badly to help them.


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Falling off the Pedestal/Altar

For some relationships this phase can take place before or after they begin to tear you down. Sometimes this is the sparking event that switches that person into their phase of abusive behaviour, and sometimes it is the last straw after weeks of slow degradation.

Falling off the pedestal is when your partner realizes you aren’t perfect. And who is? None of us are perfect, and it is not our fault that we fall off the pedestal because we are up way too high and cannot keep our balance. Falling off the pedestal could be something as simple as saying “my food is too salty” at a restaurant. There is nothing wrong with saying your food is too salty. But in an abusive relationship the meaning of a simple statement can be skewed into my partner thinks the restaurant I picked isn’t good, and then they relate that to themselves, I can’t make good decisions, that is what my partner thinks, how dare they say that! That thought process may be a bit hard to follow for someone in a healthy state of mind but often people who have abusive behaviours attribute the smallest thing their partner says with their own inadequacies, it is called projection. And now that their partner has fallen from that pedestal, they are no longer a person. They are objectified, and therefore abusable. Often they no longer see you as a person, and may call you hurtful names, instead of using your given name.

A lot of people in abusive relationships are walking on eggshells, thinking that if they just do everything right, if they just do everything their partner needs and wants, that they will be ok. That is why so many people feel that it is their fault. And sometimes it is so hard to come to that realization that the relationship is not healthy.


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The Bad times

As previously stated, the bad times can happen at any point in the relationship, sometimes it starts off slow and barely detectable. Warning signs include:

  • Put Downs: Your Partner may make comments about your body. One week they may tell you that you are beautiful, then that you are ugly. This is so that you don’t notice that they are chewing away at your self esteem. 
  • Social Isolation: They may start to talk about your family and friends, saying that they don’t like how you act around them. Or that they don’t like how your family treats you and makes you feel. They will ask you to stay home instead of going and spending time with your family/friends. This may make your family and friends angry, and cause tension between your partner and friends/family.
  • Control: Your partner may start to control or monitor your actions/behaviours. They may request that you only leave the house with them, and they may check your phone/computer/ other devices and read your private conversations. If they have already succeeded in isolating you from family and friends, their justification for this control may be that they don’t want you to do anything without them. You may become fearful of talking on the phone in case he may hear, and you may experience high levels of anxiety.  
  • Physical abuse: This can include kicking, punching, strangulation, throwing objects, damaging property, pulling hair etc. 

This list could be a lot longer, and one day I will write a blog about the different types of abuse, and how they can manifest, but for now, I will stick with these as they apply more to what we are talking about.

 


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The good times are so eclipsingly great

This is something that both partners use to justify staying in the relationship, even when they know that it isn’t healthy, and may even be dangerous. This phase is like an eclipse, because it blinds us to the darkness. The brightness of the relationship in the “Honeymoon” phase sets us into a survival mode, and we think if we can just get back to that good time, and stay there, it will be ok. We have so much history, we have shared so much (Vulnerability) how can I walk away now that times are tough. 

The danger in our thinking is that the cycle is going to come back around, things will get good, and then they will get bad again. Not only that, but every “bad” time will get progressively worse, and sometimes can lead to death for the partner experiencing abuse. I don’t take this subject lightly because that is the reality, you could die. You are especially at risk if:

  • Beatings are getting more and more severe and frequent
  • You are pregnant
  • You are about to leave the relationship/Threaten to leave

 


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Afraid to Leave

At this point a person may be too afraid to leave. They may fear that their partner will kill them if they talk to anyone about the abusive behaviour. At one point they may have been through all of the above phases but been unable to acknowledge that they were at risk. Generally once the more overt abusive behaviour starts is when we start to feel afraid, trapped. And then the guilt and embarrassment arises too, because we don’t understand “how we didn’t see it coming”. Some still blame themselves for their partner’s abuse. You are not to blame. You didn’t see it coming because your partner didn’t want you to see it coming. We are all at risk. No one is safe from this pattern. It has nothing to do with intelligence, it has nothing to do with economic status. The nature of an abusive relationship is that the emotional, psychological, and or physical/sexual abuse takes away from us our strength, our self-esteem, our support. We are unable to leave because we are scared and alone, or in denial that the abuse is happening.

If I can send one message to someone who is experiencing this now, or thinks that it may be headed down this path, you are not alone, and it is not your fault. No one ever has the right to be abusive towards you. No one has the right to hit, there is no justification or reasoning that would make it ok. No one has the right to track your movements, or to confine you to your home.

Thanks for reading, please know there are people out there who care and want to help you. Stay strong and reach out for help.

For more on how to support someone you know in an abusive relationship check out my last blog entry: https://socialworkmania.wordpress.com/2015/03/05/7-ways-to-support-someone-who-may-be-in-an-abusive-relationship/

 


 

Resources

If this blog entry triggered you in any way, of if you would like more information on resources on this topic, here is a short list of resources relevant to North America, if you are a reader from outside this area and you are having difficulty finding resources, let me know, and I can try to help you find some.

http://www.fsws.ca/safety.htm

http://www.thehotline.org/

National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224

http://www.ncadv.org/


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3 thoughts on “How People Find Themselves in Abusive Relationships and Why It’s So hard to Leave

  1. Excellent post. For me the signs were very subtle at first and I was heavily committed before I began to realize anything was wrong. It was 22 years before I realized I didn’t deserve what was happening.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Like

    1. Thanks for your comment. It can be so subtle and I have spoken to many people in relationships for 20+ years, it becomes so engrained in your every day life and it becomes “normalized”. We go into survival mode, telling ourselves to just get through this moment.

      I struggled a lot writing this blog because I wasn’t sure if people would identify with it, I am glad it rang true for you.

      -Alicia

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So true and doubly so if you were “normalized” to being demeaned and degraded as a child. Then, the abuse you’re receiving as an adult is just more par for the course.

        M

        Like

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