7 tips to help you understand why, and manage an abusive relationship
There it was again: a fresh but already yellowing circle around her eye. I swear the month before she'd carried, for a while, the puffed signs of a swollen jaw; not long before that she'd been wearing dark glasses on an overcast morning. She worked in our local post office. She always looked diffident, unsure, depressed. I never felt able to ask her about herself; the context was all wrong somehow. But I guessed that whoever she was going back to, again and again, was the centre of her Universe - and not in a good way.
If you have become a punch bag in a travesty of a relationship, then I implore you to make your own health and safety your number one priority. Of course, there are many types of abuse and emotional bullying, however subtle, can still make you feel under attack. Abusive relationships come in multiple guises: men to women, women to men, same gender abusing same gender. But whatever form the emotional aggression takes, why would anyone put up with being stuck in an abusive relationship? Here's why:
Emotional abuse in relationships - why it happens
Think about how a cult works. When people join a cult, it becomes their significant relationship. If you were to join a cult, there'd be the inevitable honeymoon period as the cult seems, initially, to provide you with:
- Attention; 'love'.
- A sense of importance and purpose.
- Feelings of intimacy with other cult members; kinship.
- Financial help, perhaps.
- Feelings of status (the cult members 'know things' that non-cult members don't).
- Excitement; emotional stimulation.
- A sense of special protection from life 'outside'.
- A feeling of specialness.
But, bit by bit, the cult starts to demand 'payback'. This happens gradually, so might not be obvious first off. Soon the cult starts to subtly discourage social connections to 'non-cult' members. Later the cult may start to demand money, time, and dignity whilst perniciously sapping self-confidence ("Your own thoughts are bad!"). The message essentially is: "Without us (the cult) you are nothing; you cannot possibly meet your emotional or 'spiritual' needs in any other way than by being totally committed to us."
The victim of the cult is brainwashed through emotional manipulation and constant reminders of how intensely good things were in the early days of their cult membership - the 'honeymoon days'.
Again, a cult will often use guilt to glue the victim's allegiance in place: "But I have gained/learned so much from the [cult]." The cult victim may feel that they want to give it one last try because, after all, they have invested so much in the cult. How can they just walk away? And they may in fact try to leave many times before making the final break.
Now let's talk abusive relationships:
A cult of two people: How the abusive relationship gets under your skin
Abusive relationships can operate almost identically to manipulative cults.
From outside the relationship, we may wonder how anyone could ever allow themselves to be abused. But when we understand universal psychological patterns, it's clear to see what's going on.
The emotionally abusive person may:
- Initially shower you with love, attention, flattery, sex, money, a feeling of fateful "it was meant to be", and so on.
- Gradually but increasingly try to turn you against, and discourage contact with, your friends or relatives.
- Use threats, promises, and other forms of emotional blackmail: "If you leave me, I'll kill you/myself!" Sometimes the threats are implied.
- Repeatedly tell you they can't live without you and you can't live without them.
- Sap your confidence in your ideas and interests.
- Play on your guilt: "After all I've done for you!"
- Brainwash you into feeling that they are the only one for you, perhaps constantly reminding you how good things were at the start, during the 'honeymoon period'.
'Outsiders' may look at the bruised face and wonder why she goes back to him or why he can stand to be publically humiliated by her time and again, but once we understand the 'cult of two' we can see why people get caught, for a time, in abusive relationships. What people need is to regain perspective.
If you suspect you are in an abusive relationship, then I sincerely hope these tips will help you see the light and make changes.
1) Be clear about your abusive relationship
Don't mistake intensity for love, don't fall for the trap of feeling that the "good times are worth the bad", because, as sure as night follows day, the bad times will, bit by bit, become all there is. Intense emotion stops you thinking clearly and clouds your judgment. Take time away from this person to help you start to see them clearly. They may have attractive elements to them, but all traps do.
2) Don't assume you can "change them"
So many people sucked into an abusive relationship come to feel they can "save" or "change" the very person who abuses them. This is another trap. If they are abusing you, then the relationship isn't working. People don't change if it suits them not to change. Bullies come in different guises and whether it's physical abuse (and I re-emphasize: get out now if it is) or emotional manipulation, if you put up with it, you are encouraging this abusive person not to change.
3) Stop making excuses for them
At the start of any relationship, we all tend to blind ourselves to the faults and inconsistencies of the new partner. This is natural. We see them through rose-tinted spectacles. We find them attractive perhaps because they seem to need us so much or because they are sexy or very rapidly express undying love or fulfil a pattern of neglect and abuse that we have been 'trained' to feel familiar with by previous experiences. Perhaps all the attention - even jealousy - is flattering. This is normal, but the first step of getting out of an abusive relationship is seeing it for what it is. There may be reasons, but there are no excuses for your partner treating you like dirt or cynically manipulating you.
4) Don't be blackmailed
- "You'll never find anyone else to love you like I do!"
- "Without me, you're nothing."
- "I would die without you!"
- "We were meant to be together until we die."
- "If you don't text me back, I don't know what I'll do!"
- "That was your fault I did that!"
- "I warned you; you brought that upon yourself."
- "I'm sorry. I'll never do that again. You must forgive me!"
Remember, a cult blackmails people with threats and promises. Does your partner make implicit or explicit threats? The gross manipulation of blackmail should never be a part of any real relationship. Feeling sorry for someone who bullies you is all wrong.
5) Maximize your self-respect
Abusive relationships sap self-respect. You start to doubt yourself and feel that your partner is 'right' because of their powerful influence. Make sure to spend time with people who build you up (without demanding anything in return).
We all have emotional needs, but if the abusive partner has severed your connections with good friends, then they have, in effect, ensured that they have become the sole 'supplier' of your needs for attention, affection, conversation, and intimacy. This makes the prospect of leaving them scarier.
Cults do the same and therefore make it more frightening for the victim to contemplate leaving. But, of course, you can have attention, emotional intimacy, fun, and connection with people (friends and family) outside the relationship. Keep these connections strong so that you can develop and maintain a strong sense of yourself outside of your relationship.
6) Be clear with your abusive partner
Some abusive partners - in fact, many - genuinely won't believe they are abusive. They'll either feel that you 'force them' to be as they are or feel that they are just being themselves. Be clear with what you will and won't put up with. Don't always make excuses for them and decide how many chances you'll give them. If they are violent, don't give them any chances. Look at what people do, not what they say.
7) Leave the abusive relationship
If things don't improve, don't waste years of your life on a destructive relationship within which you are treated with contempt (regardless of what the other person says). If your partner is violent, find someplace safe to go and tell the police this person is threatening. If they are emotionally manipulative, don't fall for the lies. If they tell you that they'll do something rash if you leave them, that is down to them, not you. Hand over responsibility for them to them.
You may be very surprised how easily they pick themselves up again after a split, bringing it home how manipulative they were. This is your life, a precious gift - respect it.
I have no idea what happened to that repeatedly bruised woman all those years ago