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How to Tell if You are in an Abusive Relationship

Are you thinking you might be either on the abusing or abused end of a relationship? If you’re thinking you might be, then you probably are!

This resource will help you:
- understand the dynamics of abusive relationships
recognize the signs of a potentially abusive relationship
identify types of abuse

No doubt a relationship feels good for you, when the person you are in a relationship with is treating you with dignity and respect. However when these good feelings turn into feelings of fear, doubt and  pain, then you know, all is not well in the relationship.

World wide statistics show that relationship violence and abuse do not discriminate and can really happen to anyone. It occurs within all age ranges, ethnic backgrounds, and economic levels. And while women are more commonly victimized, men are also abused—especially verbally and emotionally, although sometimes even physically as well.

However, in terms of the magnitude of the problem, official records only show the tip of the ice-berg. Due to the common nusive patterns and cycles of abuse, most cases - especially if the abuse is emotional - are overlooked, denied or even excused. The bottom line is that abusive behavior is never acceptable, whether it’s coming from a man, a woman, a teenager, or an elderly person. No one should live in fear of the person they love. If you recognize yourself or someone you know in the following descriptions of abuse, reach out. Help is available.

Understanding the dynamics of abusive relationships

The dynamics of abusive relationships are rather simple and nurtured by three essential factors:
- insecurity,
- fears that feed the insecurity and
- an expectation of inconsistency, both real and perceived

The Abuser:

Abusers are mostly driven by a pathological or amplified insecurity. They have little sense of their social value and through domination and control try to re-gain some semblance of that value.
The fear factor: the fear that feeds the abuser's insecurity has two fronts: fear of not being lovable, and fear of appearing weak. The paradox here is that the abuser is, in fact, weak, which is why he or she abuses -- to maintain a sense of control -- in the first place.
Perceived inconsistency: The perceived inconsistency on the part of the abuser is that the victim may not submit to the abuser's domination.

The victim:

The victim is also morbidly insecure and for surprisingly similar reasons. Victims also have little sense of their social value, but make an effort to establish that value by losing themselves to the demand for submission.
The fear facotr: the fear that feeds the victim's insecurity is also about not being lovable or loved
Perceived inconsistency: victims are willing to accept the inconsistency of the abuser's attention for the sake of being loved

The pathological need to control on the part of the abuser and the pathological need for attention on the part of the victim is a match made in heaven. This is why it is often difficult for partners to leave an abusive relationship and choose to deny or bilittle their situation.

The common face of victim denial:

It's really not that bad: The incidents of physical abuse seem minor when compared to those you have read about, seen on television or heard other women talk about. There isn’t a “better” or “worse” form of physical abuse; you can be severely injured as a result of being pushed, for example.

It was just a one-off: The incidents of physical abuse have only occurred one or two times in the relationship. Studies indicate that if your spouse/partner has injured you once, it is likely he/ she will continue to physically assault you.

It's my fault: The physical assaults stopped when you became passive and gave up your right to express yourself as you desire, to move about freely and see others, and to make decisions. It is not a victory if you have to give up your rights as a person and a partner in exchange for not being assaulted!

There hasn't been any physical violence. Many women are emotionally and verbally assaulted. This can be as equally frightening and is often more confusing to try to understand.

How to recognize the signs of a potentially abusive relationship

There are many signs of an abusive relationship, the most telling of which is certainly fear. Other signs include a partner who belittles you or tries to control you, and feelings of self-loathing, helplessness, and desperation. To determine whether your relationship is abusive, go through the questions below. The more you answer with “yes” , the more likely it is that you’re in an abusive relationship.  


Your Inner Thoughts and Feelings

Your Partner’s Belittling Behavior

Do you: Does your partner:
  • feel afraid of your partner much of the time?
  • avoid certain topics out of fear of angering your partner?
  • feel that you can’t do anything right for your partner?
  • believe that you deserve to be hurt or mistreated?
  • wonder if you’re the one who is crazy?
  • feel emotionally numb or helpless?
  • Your Partner’s Violent Behavior or Threats
  • humiliate or yell at you?
  • criticize you and put you down?
  • treat you so badly that you’re embarrassed for your friends or family to see?
  • ignore or put down your opinions or accomplishments?
  • blame you for their own abusive behavior?
  • see you as property or a sex object, rather than as a person?
  • Your Partner’s Controlling Behavior
Does your partner: Does your partner:
  • have a bad and unpredictable temper?
  • hurt you, or threaten to hurt or kill you?
  • threaten to take your children away or harm them?
  • threaten to commit suicide if you leave?
  • force you to have sex?
  • destroy your belongings?
  • act excessively jealous and possessive?
  • control where you go or what you do?
  • keep you from seeing your friends or family?
  • limit your access to money, the phone, or the car?
  • constantly check up on you?


The Vicious Cycle of Abusive Relationships

Relationship abuse falls into a common pattern, or cycle of violence which typically contains following episodes: 


Your abusive partner lashes out with aggressive, belittling, or violent behavior. The abuse is a power play designed to show you "who is boss."


After abusing you, your partner feels guilt, but not over what he's done. He’s more worried about the possibility of being caught and facing consequences for his abusive behavior.


Your abuser rationalizes what he or she has done. The person may come up with a string of excuses or blame you for the abusive behavior—anything to avoid taking responsibility.

"Normal" behavior

The abuser does everything he can to regain control and keep the victim in the relationship. He may act as if nothing has happened, or he may turn on the charm. This peaceful honeymoon phase may give the victim hope that the abuser has really changed this time.

Fantasy and planning

Your abuser begins to fantasize about abusing you again. He spends a lot of time thinking about what you’ve done wrong and how he'll make you pay. Then he makes a plan for turning the fantasy of abuse into reality.


Your abuser sets you up and puts his plan in motion, creating a situation where he can justify abusing you.  

Your abuser’s apologies and loving gestures in between the episodes of abuse can make it difficult to leave. He may make you believe that you are the only person who can help him, that things will be different this time, and that he truly loves you. However, the dangers of staying are very real.

Related items

  • Getting Out of an Abusive Relationship

    Leaving an emotionally abusive relationship, needless to say, is very hard. However, as you embark on this difficult journey, keep in mind that it is not only necessary but also very rewarding. Whilst the first step to getting out is recognizing that you are in fact being abused, the second starts with a decision and a concrete practical plan on how you're going to do it.

    This resource will help you:
    - think your situation through and help you draw a map for the journey of regaining your life. 

  • The Drama Triangle

    See how we slip into the Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer roles to play seductive high energy drama games in order to avoid attention on our own personal accountability and vulnerability.

    This resource will help you:

    - understand the counterproductive dynamics of game playing
    - recognize when games are being played
    - identify your preferred role

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