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There is Hope
One of the unique aspects about an abusive relationship is that many people don't even realize they're in one. Neither the person being abused nor the abuser usually recognizes that abuse is occurring. Both rationalize that it's love not really abuse. You'll be able to see that in the story below about Debbie and Scott's abusive relationship.
If you're concerned that you or someone you care about may be in an abusive relationship then you're likely to have many questions and concerns. One of the biggest questions people have is, "How do I know for sure?" The information below will help you figure that out.
The experts at Guy Stuff who wrote this article have nearly 20 years of experience in treating relationship abuse. Below you'll find real-life examples of abuse, a definition of relationship abuse and the different types of abuse, and find answers to the most common questions we get asked about abuse in romantic relationships by both women and men.
Read this article and you won't be confused anymore.
Debbie glanced at the clock and began to panic. It was nearly 6 and the laundry wasn’t completely done and dinner was still cooking. Not to mention the kids were fighting and being loud. Scott would be home at 6:30 and he hated it when the chores weren’t done and dinner was late. The kids arguing would only make things worse.
Scott wanted to come home to peace. He believed the house was supposed to be a sanctuary and when it wasn’t it was her fault. He said he didn’t think it was too much to ask to have dinner ready, a clean house and well-behaved kids. When those things didn’t happen he would take it out on her.
She tried to tell him that working, handling the kids and their schedules, doing the cooking and managing the house sometimes meant that the timing could be off a bit.
Debby had become so confused on what she needed to do to make Scott happy.
Debbie thought she used to be smart. At work she still felt she was smart and appreciated. Lately she had begun to think Scott must be right – at least on some level.
Scott had what he considered a stressful job. He didn’t particularly like it either, but it paid the bills and people respected him. He had risen through the ranks at his company, was well-liked and considered successful at what he did.
Like a lot of people, especially men, Scott struggled making the transition from workday to home life.
Coming home was supposed to be the highlight of his day. He looked forward to seeing his wife and family – most of the time. Sometimes, however, he just didn’t get Debbie. He told her exactly what he wanted from her and he didn’t think it was that complicated.
In Scott’s mind that’s just the way you run a household and deal with your family. Just like it never occurred to Debbie that she was in an abusive relationship, it also never occurred to Scott that his words and actions could be abusive. After all, he didn't get angry for no reason. Besides, he never hit Debbie and in his mind that's what spousal abuse looks like.
Abusive behavior in a relationship can happen in many ways. The most common forms of relationship abuse are physical, emotional, verbal, mental, sexual and financial. Any set of behaviors that are intended to harm, manipulate or control the other partner are considered abuse.
Most often people think of physical violence when discussing abusive relationships, but the range of behaviors that fall into the category of abuse is much larger than just physical aggression.
Relationships almost never start out being abusive. In fact, many female victims of spousal abuse will say they never could've imagined their husband becoming abusive. The same is even truer for men – as women can also become abusers in a relationship too. Although this may seem rare, it's not. Because the typical stereotype is a man abusing a woman, the idea that they could be abused by a woman isn't something that occurs to most men.
An abusive relationship generally starts off the same way any other relationship does – with two people falling in love. This love is one of the things that can make recognizing spousal abuse very difficult and make getting out of an abusive marriage even harder.
Abusers want to control their partner. The means by which they accomplish this will be affected by the circumstances and psychology of the abuser themselves. Whatever the approach, their goal is to get their partner to do what they want.
It's vitally important that partners realize that abusive behavior in any relationship isn’t normal or acceptable. A healthy relationship doesn’t include any of the behaviors listed above – even if they're justified as being done out of love or for the person's good.
Here are answers to some of the most common questions about an abusive relationship that both women like Debbie and men like Scott will ask. While many of these questions are asked and answered from the perspective of understanding abusive men, most of the answers also apply to women who are abusive too.
An abusive relationship can arise in a number of different ways. Domestic violence is a term most people are familiar with and believe is used to describe physical abuse. In actuality domestic violence encompasses all forms of relationship abuse. A number of terms are interchangeably used to describe an abusive relationship – domestic violence, domestic abuse, marital abuse, spousal abuse, and intimate partner violence.
Being abused doesn’t have to only mean you're being hit or beaten. For example, physical abuse can also include other forms of physical aggression, such as throwing things, punching holes in walls, blocking doorways, taking and refusing to give back personal items such as house or car keys or a cell phone.
We all know that physical abuse is wrong and needs to be stopped, but many discount or don’t even recognize the other ways abuse can show up in a relationship. There are several other equally as damaging, sometimes more so, ways a person can be abused.
One of the most common types of abuse in a relationship is emotional. Just as with physical abuse, emotional abuse is about power and control. However, with emotional abuse there are no bruises or broken bones as evidence of the hurt inflicted. The damage is subtle and not outwardly obvious when emotion is used as the method to abuse.
Emotional abusers can also use their love and affection as leverage to get what they want, making receiving their love conditional on their partners behavior. They may make their partner feel unworthy of being loved unless they do as the abuser wants.
Verbal abuse often goes hand-in-hand with emotional abuse. It most often takes the form of repeated name calling, insults and put downs that eventually take a toll by destroying a person's identity and self-confidence. While it's easy to assume that verbal abuse would be obvious, like the abuser who yells and berates his partner loudly in public, this is more the exception than the rule as most abusers are careful not to expose their behavior to others.
Again, the example of Scott shows how a perpetrator of abuse can use two types of abuse simultaneously:
Even though someone outside the family isn't likely to hear him say this to her, if a casual observer did overhear it they might think his language is a bit strong but not see it as a potentially abusive relationship.
Just as emotional and verbal abuse are often interconnected, mental abuse can be intertwined with them as well. Often abusers will use a number of forms of abuse at the same time and won't even know they're doing it. Mind games are an example of mental abuse that cause a partner to question their own thoughts and feelings, what is true and not true, real and not real. Leaving them dependent on the abuser to know the difference.
Gaslighting is another example of mental abuse that is seen in relationships. When someone attempts to manipulate someone by making them question their own sanity and reality they're gaslighting them. Eventually the abuser makes his or her partner feel totally unable to function without them because they no longer trust their own thoughts or instincts.
In the case of Scott and Debbie, Scott’s cruel and demeaning words were beginning to change Debbie’s view of herself. Where she once felt confident and intelligent, she was now starting to believe Scott when he tells her she is incompetent and stupid. This is a clear example of mental abuse in a relationship.
Sexual abuse is any unwanted sexual activity forced by one person on another. Rape or child molestation is what comes to mind for most people when the term sexual abuse is used. However, sexual abuse can occur within romantic relationships as well. Typically it's much harder to see since the relationship already includes an expectation of consensual sex.
Finances are a challenging topic for most couples. This makes it easier for financial abuse to go unrecognized. Actions to manage spending can easily cross the line into controlling and abusive behavior. Partners who withhold financial information or keep secrets about money activity are being abusive financially. Ways this frequently occurs is a partner having an undisclosed credit card and accumulating debt that is kept hidden. Or the partner who's kept from having equal access to the family finances and has to ask for money to spend can be a form of financial abuse.
Another thing that all forms of domestic abuse have in common is that they tend to start slowly and get worse over time. Nearly all abusive relationships start in a somewhat normal fashion with both partners feeling in love and hopeful. Because of this people usually don’t even recognize they're being abused when it begins. By the time they, or someone else, realizes what’s happening they're scared, lack confidence, and often feel as though they're the cause of the behavior.
Recognizing the signs of abuse in any relationship can be tricky. While some signs are always there, depending upon the type of abuse and your vantage point they can be difficult to see. For instance, it's easier to see them from the outside than it is from within the relationship. The victim and abuser always have the hardest time spotting them, partly because it seems normal to them.
Abuse signs are often intentionally hidden. Bruises can be covered over with clothing and explained away. Red, swollen eyes from crying can be hidden with sunglasses or just by avoiding in-person contact with people. These are also most often the signs of an abusive man, yet women can abuse too, just typically in different ways.
Emotional and mental abuse signs can be much harder to spot because they're more inward than outward. Responses like anxiety or fear can be explained away as having another cause. As a result the person suffering the abuse, and those close to them, often don't realize they're in an abusive relationship. The signs of an emotionally abusive relationship are also much more subtle.
If you think you see some of these signs of abuse in your relationship or someone's you care about then it’s time to get help. Abusers won’t usually stop without outside intervention, usually from a professional who can help them recognize their behavior, the damage it's doing and learn why they do it. There are many resources available. Counseling can help can be invaluable for both the abuser and the person being abused, as it can help them gain perspective and guidance in how to get things to change. If you need to speak with someone immediately, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.
The line between showing care and concern for a partner and being controlling can sometimes get blurred. Since the outward behavior often looks the same at first glance, deciphering the difference ultimately comes down to the motivation. Is their behavior serving you or them? Are they seeking what is in your best interest or theirs? As has already been mentioned, abusers seek power and so controlling men are ultimately after power, not care for you.
Why are some men controlling? They can be controlling for a variety of reasons. Generally speaking, they're likely insecure and not comfortable enough with themselves to trust your decision making. It's really about them and not you. Some are narcissistic. Even though being a controlling man is a characteristic of narcissism this alone doesn't make a man a narcissist.
Anger and abuse pretty much go hand in hand. So if your husband has anger issues it's certain that the manner in which his anger gets expressed is going to sometimes (or most of the time) be in abusive ways toward you and others close to him.
As in other forms of abuse, blaming other people and situations for inappropriately angry responses is common. It may even seem like your fault at times. Nevertheless, the one responsible for your husbands' anger issues is him. You can definitely influence how he feels, but he's still fully responsible for how he responds.
Debbie thought she could manage Scott's anger by controlling her own behavior and it didn't work. His anger issues, as are your husband's, are likely about a whole lot more than whatever the trigger is at that moment. The root cause of anger issues goes much deeper. He's also responsible to manage his emotions, not you. So don't take that on.
Does any of the following sound familiar?
Yes, this is abuse. Making someone mad doesn’t give them the right to call you names or make you question your worth. Nothing any of us does entitles someone to be abusive like this towards us.
All couples get angry at each other from time-to-time, but communication in a healthy relationship doesn’t include name-calling or put-downs. Repeatedly telling someone they're stupid, dumb, worthless, a bitch, or any other derogatory name crosses the line into verbal abuse.
The same can be said of a husband who mocks when you argue.
Speaking to anyone like this is wrong and also falls into the category of abuse. A healthy relationship between two people who are loving and respectful toward each other won’t include these kinds of demeaning descriptions. Even if it's explained away as humor or sarcasm, it's still not okay.
Remember the motivation behind an abuser's words or actions is control. When your spouse says hurtful things to you it's to control your actions, thoughts or feelings. They're seeking to get you to do what they want. Why they want to do this varies from person-to-person (some reasons are listed above) and can be very psychologically complicated.
Name calling between romantic partners is a form of verbal and emotional abuse.
Unfortunately, this behavior tends to get worse as time goes on rather than better. Those on the receiving end can become desensitized to it, assuming that speaking and being spoken to in this way is normal in an intimate relationship. Some of us have also been talked to this way our whole lives and so we've never experienced anything else. Regardless, what you should do when your husband calls you names is to see it as a problem that needs to get fixed.
Derogatory name calling in any relationship isn't normal or okay. Over time it can erode a person’s self-esteem.
If you're in a relationship where name-calling has become a problem you'll need to work on strengthening your communication skills and setting healthy boundaries. This isn’t always easy to do, however. Often by the time this form of verbal abuse is recognized as a problem it's been going on for a long, long time and the behaviors (yours and your partner's) can be hard to break. It can take the assistance of a professional counselor to help you see where you need to set boundaries and to learn how to do it.
Know that if your husband routinely calls you names or puts you down it needs to stop. And wives can be just as guilty of name calling too – sometimes more so. This behavior has no place in a healthy relationship. If changing this behavior, either together or own your own, hasn’t gone well then seek help in how to make the changes you need.
This can be a tricky one. Yes, yelling can be abuse when it becomes a regular pattern of behavior, but it's not always. Raising your voice or yelling is something we've all done at some point. Generally it happens when we're angry and have a lapse of self-control.
Unfortunately, yelling can become accepted as just the way partners talk to each other. In counseling sessions it's common to hear either "my husband yells at me" or about a wife yelling at her husband. Many of us grew up in families where yelling and screaming was normal and so we see it as a normal way to communicate. This is Scott's story – his dad did the same thing – and is partly why he doesn't see his yelling at Debby as a problem.
Frequent yelling in relationships, however, is an element of verbal abuse. People who verbally abuse can struggle with anger management problems and so yelling is one way their anger gets expressed. Not learning how to manage anger is how someone can become abusive who wouldn't other wise do so. Problems with anger can also potentially escalate into even more dangerous forms of abuse, such as physical abuse.
If talking to them and asking them to modify their communication style or work on the anger issues driving their behavior isn’t working, it's time to get help.
This discussion about abusive relationships has primarily focused on men being the abusers. However, this isn't always the case. There are abusive wives too.
As a society when we think of abusers it's typically men that come to mind. And statistically speaking women are more likely to be victims of abuse rather than abusers. It's possible, however, for a woman to be the abuser in a relationship and when this happens it's often harder to recognize.
Signs of an abusive wife generally manifest in different ways than in a husband. Despite the stereotype, research has found women to be the perpetrators in more than 40% of reported domestic violence cases.
As with men, there are usually underlying issues that give rise to such hurtful behavior by a woman, such as a history of being a victim of abuse herself. It’s also not uncommon for a female abuser, just like a male abuser, to have a drinking or drug problem that makes these things worse. Even though pain and anger can be the underlying source for the abuse, how it manifests may not look like anger at all.
The signs of an abusive woman in a romantic relationship can be subtle. Often friends and family will have no idea she behaves this way.
Because it’s neither well known nor stereotypical, men with an abusive wife often either don't recognize the behavior as abuse or resist seeking help.
If you think you could possibly have an abusive wife then it’s time to get help. Abusers rarely ever stop without assistance and things usually won’t get better without help.
"OMG I freaking LOVE this forum! So glad to know I'm not the only one out here with this problem!! My wife is a massive control freak and is always talking over the top of me when I try to initiate any kind of conversation with her or our 14 year old boy! She treats me with total disdain and even tells me to "Go and find a girlfriend" so that I don't bother HER for attention, affection and sex! Thank you for giving me direction and letting people know there is hope!!"
Recognizing that you need help with an abusive relationship is a big first step. Changing an abusive relationship or getting out of one, however, is no easy task.
Your partner will likely make it difficult for things to change. They may cause you to be fearful that you'll lose them. They can use your love to create guilt and doubt in your mind about your ability to live without them. They may threaten to harm you or even themselves if you leave. None of these are reasons you should continue to accept their abusive behavior. It's just another indication of why you need to look for help for what is clearly an abusive relationship.
Keep telling yourself that no one deserves to be abused, including you, and getting help is the right move. An abusive relationship doesn't magically improve on its own, so if your circumstances are going to change it's going to be up to you to make it happen.
Changing an abusive relationship can be very difficult to do on your own. If you can, look to those who love you for support and assistance. Not everyone has someone though. But if there's a family member or friend you can confide in do so.
There are also resources in many communities for victims of abusive relationships staffed with people trained and ready to help you move forward and stay safe. You can find these resources locally or through the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.
An abusive partner is the one who ultimately needs to make the biggest changes. And change can happen, but it takes time, work and the assistance of a qualified counselor. It may also require time and space away from one another. If talking, efforts to set boundaries, and requests for respectful behavior haven’t gone anywhere, you may need to separate for a period of time. Your physical and emotional safety is what's most important. Time apart can also be a wake-up call for your partner to see their part in your abusive relationship as well as their need for help too.
One more outburst and Debbie was done.
For a brief moment she thought that if he were dead things would be so much easier. With that thought a wave of nausea ripped though her and she cried harder.
This wasn’t supposed to be the way things went. Marriage wasn’t supposed to mean constant anxiety and unhappiness. Tomorrow she was going to get some help - if not for her and Scott, then for her and the kids. There had to be something she could do because she knew that she couldn’t do this anymore.
So Debbie started looking for help. Little did she know that Scott would end up doing the same thing that night.
Scott looked at Debbie as she was crying. It didn’t used to be like this. She didn’t use to make him so mad, or push his buttons so much.
His dad had been like that and as a kid he had hated seeing the way he acted. He hated his dad now. Would the kids hate him some day, he wondered. He didn’t want that.
He didn’t want so much hate in his house and in his head, but he didn’t know how to get rid of it. This wasn’t the way he wanted their lives to go, yet he didn’t know how to change things. Maybe he needed to find someone to talk to who could understand.
So Scott picked up his phone and started searching. He knew he didn't want to go to the typical counselor. He wasn't going to be told he was wrong by someone who doesn't get what his life is really like.
When he stumbled upon the Guy Stuff website something just felt right.
Scott didn't tell Debbie what he'd found. He wanted to keep it to himself at first.
After he'd met with Dr. Kurt a few times he decided to tell Debbie. She said she'd noticed a change in him, but didn't know where it was coming from. She was thrilled and proud of him. She knew it really took a lot for Scott to admit he had a problem and ask for help.
You'd never recognize them today. Yes, Scott still has his stressful job and has to control his anger, but he and Debby love each other and you can see it in how they treat each other.
Is there any part of Debbie and Scott’s story that you can relate to?
Relationship abuse can become a normal part of life, so it can be hard sometimes to really see it as the problem it really is.
Abuse in relationships has typically gone on for some time, so reversing it takes time too.
We know how demoralizing it is to have a partner tell you they love you but act in ways that says they really don't. Through the years we’ve heard countless stories from women and men trying to understand how their relationships have gotten to this point and what they can do to change them.
At Guy Stuff we successfully work with couples wanting to learn to love each other better. This one of the reasons why over 300,000 people just like you visit the Guy Stuff website every month looking for answers and hope.
That's why we’ve designed a series of simple questions to help you assess if your relationship really is an abusive one. Our Abusive Relationship Quiz can help you identify the challenges you face as couple and give ideas of the areas that need the most work.
And you’ll get next steps to set you on the path to clarity so you’re ready to move forward.
Please Note: The Abusive Relationship Quiz is in its final stages and will be released next month. In the meantime, please take either our Partner Rater Quiz to learn what problems contributed to getting to this point.