Are you in an abusive relationship? Here’s signs to watch out for
When I was in my late teens I was in an abusive relationship. I just didn’t realize it at the time.
For the most part, our relationship wasn’t physically abusive. However, it was replete with what I like to call “emotional violence.” My ex-boyfriend had anger issues, which meant that his moods could turn from charming and jovial to blind rage at the drop of a dime. Consequently, I never knew which version of him to expect hour to hour. He frequently criticized my friends, the way I dressed and my overall appearance. He yelled. A lot. Sometimes, the yelling would get so bad that I’d just curl up into a ball in the corner of the room while he ranted, raved and hurled insults for what felt like hours.
He didn’t need to hit me - his words hurt me down to my core. I internalized the things he said about me, allowing his words to shape how I viewed myself as a person. When I finally did leave him for good, it took years for my self-esteem to recover.
I used to tell everyone I dated about my past, but now I’m more careful. People always want to know why I stayed as long as I did. It’s exhausting having to explain such a personal chapter of your life, only to have your answers met with judgement. Although I can now see our relationship for what it was (abusive and unhealthy), it’s more challenging to see the warning signs when you’re still on the “inside.”
Akirah Robinson is a break-up coach, therapist and author of the book Respected: How One Word Can Change More Than Just Your Love Life. As she explains, “Sometimes it takes a bit of time to determine whether a relationship is healthy or not. People don’t usually go on dates with stickers on their foreheads that say 'abusive,' 'not supportive' or 'cheater.' As Chris Rock says, ‘when you meet someone for the first time, you’re not meeting them, you’re meeting their representative.’”
When it comes to defining an abusive relationship, Lorna Hecht, a San Diego based therapist, says she shies away from using that specific term. Instead, she uses the term "violent relationship" to describe physical violence between partners during a conflict.
However, even if there isn’t physical violence, Hecht says, “If communication involves threats, name calling, screaming, attempts to insult, put down or control the other, these are indicators that intervention may be advisable.”
Any attempts to control the behaviour of the other partner should be seen as a huge red flag, says Hecht. For example, instructing the other person on “what to wear, who to spend time with, how to behave, whether or not to work outside the home and/or jealousy that involves trying to keep the partner away from certain people, friends or family members,” says Hecht.
(I experienced all of these control tactics in the relationship I mentioned above. As a result I felt isolated, insecure and completely dependent on my ex-partner. It got to the point where I was more scared to leave than to stay. I’ve since learned that how I felt at this time is actually quite common when it comes to these kinds of relationships.)
Hecht says it’s also a danger sign if a partner’s behaviour begins to escalate - for example, if verbal abuse moves to throwing things to shoving to hitting. She also encourages individuals to be aware if their partner has a history of violence in previous relationships. “Violence in the family growing up is sometimes an indicator, but not always,” says Hecht.
In addition, Robinson reminds women, “If your new beau buys you expensive gifts that make you feel uncomfortable, pressures you to agree to a monogamous relationship soon after meeting, says derogatory things about ex-partners or other women, expresses unreasonable jealousy when you interact with other people and/or places you on a pedestal, RUN.” However, if you feel like your personal safety might be in jeopardy, Robinson urges individuals to contact their local domestic violence centre before doing so.
Lastly, stay alert. As Robinson explains, “Many of these red flags will likely pop up after dating someone for a longer period of time. Toxic partners are often very charming at the beginning of relationships, looking to woo people they’re dating, in hopes of becoming closely attached early on in the relationship.”