Sometimes people stay in abusive relationships for years without realising they're trapped in one.
Every relationship is different of course, but here's a typical case:
James and Anne have been in a relationship for five years. Since she’s been in the relationship, Anne has been gradually retreating from a lot of social engagements – she's stopped spending time with friends and family and devotes all her attention to James.
James is overly possessive of Anne and gets jealous if she spends time with anyone else. Anne hates being questioned and finds it easier to be around James rather than face his tirade at the end of the day.
James controls every aspect of Anne's life. She finds it difficult to break away from the relationship because James threatens to harm her or himself. After many years of harassment, Anne realises that she's caught in an abusive relationship.
Are you in an abusive relationship?
You’re in an abusive relationship if:
- Your partner hurts you physically – like slapping, pulling hair, punching, kicking, throwing things at you.
- Your partner forces you to have sex (that’s rape, even if you’re in a relationship or marriage).
- Your partner threatens to kill or hurt you or himself/herself.
- Your partner hurts or threatens your children.
If any of these are true for you, you should think about leaving your partner as soon as you can. These are serious and can put you and/or your children in immediate danger.
Signs that abuse is happening in your relationship:
- You are constantly scared of angering your partner.
- Your partner demands that you have sex in ways that you aren't comfortable with.
- Your partner is overly possessive or jealous.
- Your partner doesn't like you spending time with your friends or family.
- Your partner demands to know what you're doing at all times when you are not around them.
- Your partner demands to know passwords to your email, phone etc.
- Your partner humiliates or mistreats you in public.
- Your partner blames you for all the problems or fights in the relationship.
- You feel like your partner twists and turns the truth to manipulate the situation.
- You find it very difficult to leave the relationship.
- You hear yourself saying, '(s)he hurts me a lot, but I love him/her' or '(s)he abuses me, but I can’t live without him/her'.
- Your partner makes you feel bad about your sense of dress, your body, or your size.
- Your partner calls you names – it even if they seem mild, like ‘stupid’, ‘idiot’ or ‘bimbo’.
- Your partner controls all your financial decisions, and doesn’t think you’re capable of handling money or finances.
- Your partner scolds or humiliates you in front of your children.
- Your partner holds you responsible for anything the kids are doing wrong.
These are some of the classic warning signs that you’re in an abusive relationship. If you recognise yourself in any of them, raise it with your partner.
And talk to your partner about it if you think that any of these things are starting to emerge in your relationship. The sooner you bring it up, the better. By talking, you might be able to work things out and save the relationship before it’s too late.
Could you be an abuser?
If you recognise yourself as the abusive partner in any of these warning signals, you should question your own behaviour and how you may be treating someone that you care about.
If you are in an abusive relationship
First you need to acknowledge that you don't deserve to be abused. Feeling respected and trusted is an essential part of being in a loving and equal relationship.
If you're in an abusive relationship, it's normal to have trouble accepting that you're being abused. But if you feel the signs of abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional), it's time to acknowledge it and get help.
You may have distanced yourself from your friends and family. This is what usually happens – either we do it ourselves or our partner does it for us. The wisest thing to do is get back in touch with them. Start out by making contact safely and securely with someone you trust, someone you think will listen. Send them an email or have a phone conversation (safe and secure from your partner) to explain your situation.
Share details of your troubled relationship with them. Don't be ashamed to tell them what's happened and how you're feeling. Discuss what you've been thinking, be it giving up the relationship or working to improve it. Give your reasons and listen to their point of view. Ask how they can help, and discuss the next steps you could take.
If you don't trust anyone in your circle of friends and family to help you out or empathise with you, you can turn to counsellors or helplines that offer advice over the phone.
If you want to stay in the relationship
No one is perfect – we are all growing and learning and trying the best we can. Relationships all have their ups and downs and both partners need to work on keeping the relationship healthy. If you notice abuse in your relationship, you can work with your partner – or maybe with a counsellor – to help change harmful behaviour patterns. As long as you and your partner maintain good communication and a willingness to make things better, there is a possibility of creating a stronger relationship.
But set yourself a limit. Be realistic about your goals and what needs to change in the relationship. Try to set a timeline for yourself so that you don’t get stuck in an unhealthy relationship, like 'If my partner is still humiliating me in front of my friends in three months, then I'll leave.'
It’s only human to want to try to make things work and sometimes people can change – but sometimes they can’t.
If you are thinking about leaving the relationship
If you've decided to leave the relationship, then there are some things you need to consider. There's no single way of doing this. It might be as simple as not meeting your partner any more, not answering phone calls or SMSs, and cutting off contact with his friends and family – all this is possible if you don't live in the same house as your partner.
Whatever it may be, and however hard it may seem, try to make a quick decision and reduce the pain you may cause yourself. Give the relationship a chance, but not at the cost of your well-being and loss of self-esteem.
Never hold yourself responsible for the abuse. People in abusive relationships often find themselves thinking, 'I brought it on myself,' 'it’s all my fault' or 'you could say I’m to blame.' But there’s no excuse for abuse, and it’s not your fault.
Keep in mind that you can call the police to rescue you from an abusive relationship. Still, how much you can trust them and how well they're likely to respond depends on where you live.
If you aren’t sure you can handle this all by yourself, you can call a helpline for support.
Leaving an abusive relationship
If you're married to your abusive partner and/or live in the same house as them, then you'll have to plan your exit strategy. Here is a possible guide to help you:
1. Plan, plan, plan.
Making the final move is very difficult, and this is one of the reasons many people never do it.
It very much depends on your individual situation. Plan which day is the best to leave – it could be when your partner is away on a business trip or is going to be out all evening with friends. Find a good time to make the exit. It might even be a good idea to practice or rehearse leaving before you actually do it.
If you have children, explain them what you’re planning and gain their confidence. This in itself is a long-term conversation you ought to have been having with your children. If you're planning to take them along, think about where you're going to stay. It's easy to to accommodate one guest, but more than one can be difficult for anyone.
Think about school schedules and how your kids will get back to normal life.
If you're not taking your kids along because you think it’s better for them and for you, you need to spend some time explaining this to them. You also need to plan how they will be taken care of.
As you can see, it’s very hard to do this all on your own. That’s exactly why many people stay in abusive relationships.
2. Call in someone you trust to help.
You need someone to back you up in case something fails. Tell them your plan. This could be your neighbour, a trusted colleague, or an old friend or relative you’re still in touch with.
3. Find a safe hiding place.
Don’t leave any clues for your partner to find. If you're working, you need to consider whether the place you work at is safe. Will your partner go there in search of you? You may need to take some time off or leave your job for the sake of your safety.
4. Save some money.
Look at the savings you have. How many days, weeks, or months can you survive with it? If you don’t have any access to money, it’s time to ask for help. Perhaps you could borrow from a friend who understands your situation and won’t add pressure to your already tense life.
5. Take your time to recover.
Break the habit of being abused. Get back into a normal life and be around people who don’t have an abusive past. You can reach out to counselling centres and helplines to seek help too.
6. Begin to consider a divorce, if you are ready.
Seek legal assistance, find out what you need to file for a divorce, and see what your options are. There are many organizations and shelters offering services free of charge or at low cost to people who have been abused. against your abusive partner.
Why people stay in abusive relationships
Victims of abusive relationships often stay with their abusive partner.
There are many different reasons you might be doing this. The most common reason is that you still love your abusive partner. It could also be that you suffer from low self-esteem. You might feel uncomfortable breaking the familiar pattern of your life, despite the abuse.
You might also fear the consequences of leaving the relationship – what people might say about you or your family. Maybe you grew up in an abusive environment, so your own abusive relationship feels normal. The people around you may see abuse as a normal part of life, even though abuse is never 'normal' or acceptable.
Or you may want to stay with your partner for the sake of your children.
How can you stop being abusive?
Are you being abusive in your relationship? Are you being controlling and possessive of your partner? Do you want to change the way you behave, but feel like you can’t help yourself?
Well, it’s not easy to break abusive patterns. But you’ve already crossed the first and most important hurdle already – you accept and acknowledge that your abusive behaviour is hurting your partner.
Here are some tips on how you can change the situation:
- Find someone you can confess to, apart from your partner. This is a bold step and requires courage. But once you’ve done that, you have someone else who knows the reality and can watch out for you.
- Consider meeting a counsellor to help you through this process.
- Find out what causes your harmful behaviour. Sometimes your partner might just be a target for everything else that’s going wrong in your life. Whether that’s the case or not, find out what's causing you stress and what makes you react abusively. Are you being overly possessive because your partner abused your trust in the past? Or is there something deeper – your troubled childhood or a previous marriage? Does alcohol or drugs set off the abuse?
Talk openly to your partner. Once you know what makes you behave badly, let your partner know what you’ve learned. Let them know that you’re planning to change your behaviour. Seek their help to work out how can you can behave better in future, and try to heal the damage you've caused. Ask them how they would like to be treated and see what you can do to match those expectations or come close to it.
Actions speak louder than words: you have to show that you've stopped your abusive behaviour. If you continue to abuse your partner but just apologise and beg their forgiveness every time it happens, then nothing has really changed. If anything, it adds to the pain you're causing.
Work towards positive behaviour. Once you have a guide to good behaviour, start working on it. Set personal targets for controlling your anger and stress levels. Remind yourself that being angry is a decision you make. Not being angry will also be a decision you make.
Don’t expect your partner to be warm and welcoming. There might be years of anger piled up in them. They might not know how to react to a change in your behaviour and might even view you with suspicion. Be prepared for the worst responses, and don’t let them put you off wanting to change.
Be patient. Don’t expect yourself to change dramatically in a short period of time. Don’t set yourself unrealistic goals. Patterns of abusive behaviour can take a long time to do away with.