This week I want to talk about abusive behaviour in relationships. Those of you who have been in abusive relationships and who are recovering might find discussion of this quite difficult, or triggering to your trauma symptoms, so everything else is going to be behind the "read more" break.
A long, long time ago,when I was a teenager, I was in an abusive relationship. It didn't last long, but it shaped my beliefs about relationships for a while, and it took me a while longer to recover. I don't want to talk about my experiences today - I'm mentioning it so that you know that I understand some of these behaviours well. I understand why so many of the people I work with have difficulties in ending abusive relationships, and even in recognising that the relationship they're in is abusive. Some people will say that I shouldn't speak about my experiences, but if you read this blog regularly, or follow me on social media, I won't need to explain why I think that's rubbish. So I won't.
For some people, abusive behaviour is easy to characterise. They believe that unless you have been physically injured, what you have experienced is not abuse. These are also usually the same people who will excuse all behaviour up to physical assault, and then ask why you didn't leave your partner sooner if you felt unsafe. In some ways, those people are lucky, as they have no real-world experience of feeling unsafe for a sustained period of time. Of feeling powerless. Of feeling conflicted.
I think it's important to talk about these experiences, because not everyone recognises the warning signs of being in an abusive relationship.. If we keep talking about it, hopefully it will help the people who still feel trapped in those relationships to discuss it with their friends, formulate an escape plan, and eventually leave.
Some of the warning signs of being in an abusive relationship are as follows. Please note that this isn't an exhaustive list, but these are the ones that I feel are talked about slightly less.
Control disguised as concern
Let's be clear: anyone who puts limits on what you do with your life or your body might not be the best person for you to be around. Especially if those limits are disguised as concern about you, or subtly designed to make you doubt yourself.
"Do you really want to wear that shirt tonight? It's not your best look."
"Maybe you shouldn't have a dessert - you are supposed to be on a diet."
"I don't really like you hanging around with them, they seem quite negative. Maybe you're better off staying home with me."
Sometimes people can feel that they're genuinely being concerned about you, and you can gently explain to them that it doesn't feel like concern, it feels controlling and you'd appreciate it if they didn't do it again. If they love you, they'll stop. If they don't stop, or try to justify their behaviour, that tells you what you need to know - it's probably not about their concern for you, it's about their need for control.
Isolation disguised as intensity or romance
When you're right at the start of a relationship, it's normal to want to spend a lot of time together - you're just getting to know each other, after all. But if your partner sulks or goes silent when you go to your spin class, doesn't want to meet your friends, and insists that you go everywhere as just the two of you, there might be more to it. This can feel quite intense, and some people mistake the strength of feeling of their partner for romance - isn't it lovely, they want me all to themselves! After a while though, it becomes a bit clearer that this isn't romance, it's a way of isolating you from other people. Even if you think that this isn't the intention, make sure you still spend regular time away from your new partner, so that you don't end up in a tricky situation if that relationship ends.
Blaming you for their feelings
"You just make me feel so angry, is it any wonder I react the way I do?!"
"When you go out with her I just feel so lonely, I'd rather you stayed home."
"If you weren't so frustrating to be around I wouldn't shout all the time."
Just writing those sentences made my hair stand on end. Let's be honest, we all do things that wind up our partners (if my other half leaves the fridge door open one more time...!) but the crucial thing is that how we feel is our responsibility to manage. If their behaviour isn't acceptable to us, we can calmly tell them and if that doesn't work, we can leave. A partner who blames you for how they feel, and expects you to do something to manage that, is being unreasonable. Don't get me wrong - my other half wants me to be less stressed, so if he chooses to try harder to remember to close the fridge that's fine - those kind of compromises are all about making the relationship work. But if you find yourself second-guessing your (perfectly reasonable) behaviour because you're worried that your partner will yell or throw things, or give you the silent treatment, that isn't okay.
Financial control disguised as trust issues
I cannot stress this enough - even if you've been in a relationship for a long time, even if that relationship is going well, even if you think that it will last forever, make sure you have access to some money that your partner does not control. If that sounds strange to you, read this and then come back to this post. Heck, read that post anyway, it's raw and hard-hitting and will make you see the value of having an emergency fund even if you already have one.
If you've ever been in debt, or you struggle with maths, it might feel reasonable when your partner says they don't trust you to make good financial decisions, and that it would be better if they handled the finances. And that works well for some couples. But if you're being given an allowance of your own money by your partner, and you struggle to pay for your lunches whilst they swan around in a Mercedes, there might be a problem. I've already posted about how to take control of your finances - part of that is about discussing money as a couple, and making sure that you are both comfortable with what you're doing with it. You're a team at the end of the day, and you should feel like a team - whether that's about one of you doing the things that the other finds difficult, or about you both doing everything equally.
Ultimately, whilst relationships can be painful at times, they shouldn't make you question who you are as a person, and they shouldn't make you afraid. If someone is physically abusive, it is highly likely that it won't be an isolated incident - they are likely to do it again. Recognising the warning signs of abuse or control can help you to find a way to leave before it gets to that point. If you're in a difficult situation and want to talk it over with someone, get in touch.
Do you have any other tips for spotting the warning signs of abusive behaviour? Let me know in the comments.
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects