It is a sobering fact that once domestic abuse starts, it’s likely only going to escalate and continue, says Steven Stosny, Ph.D., author of Love Without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One.
“Once a behavioural threshold has been crossed, that person is more likely to continue the behavior,” Stosny says.
Unfortunately, the longer someone stays in an abusive relationship, the harder it becomes to walk away, Stosny explains. One possible explanation: When a woman becomes attached, she may start to overlook destructive actions with hopes of changing her partner’s actions over time.
Moreover, abuse tends to start small and escalate. Abusers follow a pattern of behavior where they put down and belittle their partners, thereby destroying their self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
Once emotional abuse escalates into physical abuse, many victims have such damaged self-worth that they blame themselves. Those feelings are compounded by the fact that abusers often isolate their victims from friends and loved ones. With all of these factors working together, sometimes it feels as if leaving is impossible.
That said, while it’s hard to escape an abusive relationship, it’s not impossible. If you think that you may be involved in an unhealthy and potentially abusive relationship, follow Stosny’s guidelines for identifying the bad behavior, and getting the help you need.
SIGNS TO LOOK OUT FOR
He Blames You for His Actions
Excessive blame is one of the first signs that a relationship is becoming abusive, says Stosny. “It’s not only blaming you for making him do something, but an abuser will blame someone for every bad feeling he may have,” he says.
Blame is simply a defense against vulnerable emotions. Instead of feeling his own shame, he transfers it to someone else and then he can feel anger, which is more empowering, he says.
He Demeans You
Belittling can take many forms, Stosny explains. It stems from possessiveness and can end up making you feel inferior. If your partner makes you feel like there is something wrong with you for not agreeing with him or he constantly tells you how much smarter and better educated he is, it’s a sign of abuse, Stosny says.
He Dismisses Your Feelings
“When you form a bond with someone, there’s an implicit understanding that the other person will care how you feel,” says Stosny. When they don’t have that empathy, it can feel like betrayal. Your partner doesn’t always have to agree with you, but he should care that you are hurting.
He Threatens to Hurt You or Himself
Although physical abuse is intolerable, emotional abuse can often have more long-term damage, Stosny says. And when a partner threatens to hurt himself because of something you did, it can invoke guilt and shame. Guilt is what keeps people in attached relationships, no matter how bad they are, he explains.
“When someone hits you, you can assume it stems from an impulse-control problem,” he says. “But when they hurt you psychologically, you are more likely to think their actions stem from something you did.”
He is Overly
Someone who is insecure will want to keep tabs on you and check in on you, but someone who is possessive will forbid you to go places, Stosny says. He may then punish you for “breaking his rules” by withdrawing affection or making things unpleasant for you.
He Doesn’t Let You Make Decisions
“Controlling behavior is motivated by anxiety—your mother might be guilty of this because she worries about you,” says Stosny. “But dominating behavior is motivated by shame and making others inferior to yourself,” he says. Abusive relationships can have both, but mostly they are characterized by dominance, he says.
He Doesn’t Try to Change
Everyone makes mistakes. If someone accidentally hurts your feelings, they will apologize, says Stosny. If it happens consistently, and your partner blames you for the outburst, it’s abuse. Your partner should issue an immediate apology, take responsibility for his actions, and explain how he will change his reactions or behavior accordingly.
He Isolates You From Friends and Loved Ones
“The worse thing that can happen to a woman is that she feels isolated,” Stosny says. If someone is emotionally punishing his partner by taking away the things she loves or refusing to participate in her life, it’s easy to lose a sense of reality, he explains. Make sure to remember that your partner doesn’t have power over you in this respect, he says.
He Pressures You for Sex
Forcing or incessantly asking you to have sex or perform sexual favors is a sign that your partner may see you more as an object than as a mate, Stosny says. “This kind of pressure doesn’t stem from a mutual enjoyment or exchange of affection—it’s an indication that you see this person as property,” he says.
STEPS TO TAKE
If these warning signs sound familiar, know that leaving the relationship is possible. Here, steps to take to eventually disentangle yourself from the cycle.
In a lot of abusive relationships, the abuser may control the finances. But it’s very difficult to navigate the world without money, Stosny says. By opening your own bank account, or finding a separate source of income, you can be more prepared to leave the relationship and be on your own.
Develop an External Support System
Confide in friends or family and let them know how you feel and what you plan to do.
“What inhibits women from reaching out are feelings of shame or embarrassment, and they may also think there is something wrong with them,” he says. But finding outside help, even if it’s from a counsellor or therapist, will help you realize the abuse is not your fault, he says.
Transition with a Friend
Don’t give your abuser any indication that you are planning to leave, says Stosny. And, if necessary, pack your things in secret, until you are ready to move out. If you feel nervous to go, ask a male friend or family member to help you move out, so you don’t run the risk of being alone with your abuser. “Abusers are less likely to show anger in the presence of other people,” he says. “Plus, then you also have a witness, just in case.”
Find a Place to Stay
A friend or family member may be able to take you in while you are in your transition period. Although you may feel like you are betraying your partner, or abandoning him, you have to fight the urge to return to your previous life, and especially the home of the abuser, says Stosny.
Reach Out for Professional Help
Alert your local domestic violent organization of your situation. That way your experience is on record, says Stosny. Also, a local women’s shelter can help set you up with a counselor.