Imagine you went on a first date with someone who was sarcastic, nasty, disparaging towards you. It's hard to believe that you would agree to a second date. Yet an abusive relationship can creep up on us and have us gradually accepting that behaviour, justifying it, perhaps even feeling that we are in some way responsible for it happening.
The abuser often couches their behaviour subtly; they may claim they are trying to help us improve, are encouraging us to remedy a perceived failing or flaw.
It is often sexual abuse that gains the most media coverage but abuse also covers physical, emotional and mental cruelty and can be experienced by people of either gender, age, in any strata of society. It's important for us to become aware if escalating patterns of unacceptable, sustained bad treatment start to appear.
- Abuse is often about control. The abuser may be insecure, afraid of losing you, fearful that you'll find someone better, so they try to hold onto the relationship by increasingly checking where you're going, what you're doing, how you're spending your money, how you dress.
Often an abuser will try to make you increasingly dependent and reliant on them. They may discourage you from working; they earn enough, why not take a break, why not take time to think about doing something else? It can be a seductive, attractive process where you feel cared for, loved, supported but over time you gradually lose your financial independence, career, friends, even family.
- Emotional abuse often starts by establishing a cosy 'us against the world' scenario where you're assured that you're all they have/need/want. At first you feel loved and secure, safe in the loving bubble of warmth and protection. Gradually you'll find you spend less time with friends, especially if it becomes an increasing hassle to make arrangements, they are regarded as a bad influence or your family is accused of being unfriendly or interfering.
Over time it becomes harder to make plans to see 'outsiders'. You may find that when you try to make plans they often clash with 'special' or 'important' functions you're required to attend, or there is an insistence in dropping you off and picking you up, where they return earlier than agreed. This in itself may be fine. You justify the behaviour as friendly, sociable, helpful, but combined with negative remarks about your clothes, hair, makeup you may gradually start to lose any confidence in yourself.
Some abusers become so controlling that they methodically check every financial transaction and request for money, query every call or text on the itemised phone bill, undertake daily mileage checks on your car, phone or return home at unexpected times to see what you're doing. If you try to challenge their behaviour they will justify themselves logically and reasonably, even making you feel guilty, apologetic at having questioned their motives.
- Physical abuse often starts with a tap, a push, an angry slap. Sometimes alcohol is involved. The perpetrator is often seriously contrite afterwards, promising never to repeat their behaviour. It's important to be firm with them, discuss what's happened and insist that thy seek help, perhaps to specifically deal with anger or alcohol related issues. Keep a diary of abusive behaviour, try to save money in a secret account and have a safe place where you know you can escape to if you become afraid.
- Sexual abuse can involve gradual but increasing degradation; the pressure to do things, engage in practices you find off-putting, unpleasant, painful or humiliating. You may be accused of being frigid, a prude, old-fashioned but whilst it can be fun to experiment and explore sex together, a relationship should be about both parties feeling comfortable and moving at a pace that is fine for them both.
Start as you mean to go on is an important message for new relationships. Keep regular channels of communication open between you and be sure to discuss any areas you feel unhappy about. Be firm and refuse to be bullied into doing things you don't want to do. You're allowed to change your mind even if you've gone along with things previously.
If you're beginning to feel uneasy in your relationship find an ally, a friend, a therapist with whom you can confidentially discuss matters. It may be that you're being over-sensitive, feeling vulnerable, or past experiences have made you ultra-cautious. Even so, you're entitled to consideration and respect, to have your concerns listened to. Is there a place you could go to de-stress, to take a break, giving you both time to reflect on your relationship? Might you benefit from outside help from a counsellor, a mediator, priest, family friend?
Take time to explore what the triggers are, what happens to spark off the abusive behaviour. Look for help for either or both of you to deal with those issues. It's important to protect yourself and your self-esteem, and perhaps help your abuser too.