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Stop it!

This is about verbally or emotionally abusive relationships.  If you are experiencing any physical violence at all, please seek help immediately and keep yourself safe.

I realise now that some of my past relationships have been emotionally abusive to varying extents.   Thankfully I’ve experienced almost no physical abuse other than being shoved, and being held down briefly and yelled at.  Even if physical violence seems minor, we must be aware of the potential for it to escalate, and that it is always preceded by some form of verbal or emotional abuse.

Verbal or emotional abuse is a form of violence, and can take many forms, for example: destruction of property, financial control, jealous behaviour, controlling behaviour, manipulation, misleading behaviour, lying, stalking, threats, name calling, yelling, belittling, denying someone’s feelings, criticism, blame, judgement, denial, exclusion, character assassination, parental alienation, dangerous driving, emotional blackmail and suicidal threats, withholding information, sulking, social isolation, humiliation, intimidation, sleep deprivation, coercion and much more.  When it occurs in the presence of children or when there are children in the relationship, this makes it even more of an issue.

I’ve experienced many of these things myself within relationships, as a child, as a young girl in one of my first jobs, as an adult outside of relationships, and probably many times I’ve forgotten about.  Most, I’d even guess all of us, have some experience of abuse.

It can be confusing when you think about arguments in your relationship and have the awareness that both of you have engaged in some of these behaviours at times.  I know I have.  Immature behaviour in arguments often goes both ways, and whilst it does need to be addressed, it doesn’t necessarily constitute an abusive situation. 

What makes the difference is control and power, intentions and feelings, and I recommend trusting your gut.  The person being abused, whilst they may be very confused, and tending to assume they are generally at fault somehow, will usually have a much better ability to be honest with themselves and examine their own intentions.  They are much more likely to be the ones questioning and examining themselves, looking for solutions, and able to experience empathy.

I’m writing a separate article discussing the victim triangle, and if this article is of interest to you, I highly recommend learning about the victim triangle as well.  The thing is that we often do play a part in the situation we find ourselves in, and it’s very important to understand that.  This in NO way means you should accept and tolerate abuse.  Sadly there are many people who are severely oppressed in their situation and have very limited options.  For others, what is keeping them stuck in misery can be changed by understanding what is going on, and being empowered by that to make the necessary decisions.

To recognize whether you are in an abusive relationship is not always easy; it’s not always obvious, but there are plenty of clues.  Your feelings are your best guide.  If you often feel confused, powerless, like something might be wrong with you and so on, that’s a good indication. If you are in a situation where things just don’t feel right, where you’re constantly doubting yourself, questioning yourself, thinking you said or did the wrong thing to provoke or annoy someone, don’t feel emotionally safe around the person concerned and don’t feel a sense of freedom and peace within yourself, it’s quite possible you have an emotionally abusive person in your life.  It may be subtle, or really obvious, overt or disguised, but the signs will be there.  Confusion is very common, and abusers know and use this.

As Patricia Evans explains in her excellent book The Verbally Abusive Relationship, an abuser feels the need to have “power over” the person they are abusing, a strong urge to be in control, and this can be achieved in many ways.  It can be quite obvious and overt, and it can also be subtle enough to sneak in un-noticed at first, causing the targeted person to assume something is wrong with them. There is a type of behaviour which has been described as “crazy making”, where the abuser does things like denying they said what they said, insisting that certain statements were a joke, that the person targeted is over-reacting or being over-sensitive, where the abuser denies that the other party feels how they feel, discounts their opinions, repeatedly lies, refutes, contradicts and distorts the facts of a situation, makes irrelevant arguments, the kind of thing where you can start to believe you must be crazy or wrong or bad or incompetent, when you’re not.  These things are explained clearly with examples in Patricia Evans’ book.

The danger is that it wears you down over time, and you become so accustomed to it that you don’t even see it any more; you have a tendency to just assume you’re wrong, much of the time.  I believe there are even circumstances where the person being abused learns to adopt some of the “faults” they are constantly accused of having, impacting on their sense of identity.  It’s a situation where learned helplessness often occurs also.  The more helpless and dependent you are, the easier it is to control you.

Recognizing that we have tolerated, enabled, or just been totally baffled by an abusive situation is no reason to assign guilt or shame to ourselves.  On the contrary, it’s cause for celebration, validation, and feeling grateful for the understanding and the massive difference it can make to our lives for us to now have this understanding.

It’s certainly a good thing that people are becoming more comfortable with expressing that physical violence is not acceptable.  Of course violence against women is so common, so prevalent, that I feel it’s an important thing to be studied and taken into account in addressing our human condition generally.  Much less common within relationships is violence against men, by either other men or by women, both physical and emotional, but it does happen, and probably much more than is ever reported. 

Abusive behaviour towards others can take many forms, but originates from the same things.  The abuser is experiencing a huge “secondary gain” or “payoff” from the behaviour.  These are terms we use in Life Coaching to describe obstacles which are in the way of making positive change.  The payoff for an abuser, is that it allows them to avoid facing reality about themselves.  Yes, it’s as simple as that.

Another thing that’s not commonly understood, is that there are many people out there who portray themselves to be victims or rescuers, who are actually abusers.

Patricia Evans explains in her book how it is pointless trying to reason with an abusive person, because they are not viewing the same reality that we are.  They actually have a very distorted version of reality which must fit the construct they have made to protect themselves from seeing themselves.  No kind of logic will get through to them whilst they are operating from this mindset.  This, for me, was one of the most outstanding observations in the book.  It’s so important that we are able to recognize when a person is displaying patterns of abusive behaviour so that we can take that into account when making decisions for ourselves about how, or even whether to, respond to or interact with them.  The book contains a host of real examples to make it crystal clear.

I have come across a vast array of material online describing individuals displaying the exact same behaviour, as sociopaths, psychopaths or borderline personality disorder, and seen it said that it is not possible to re-habilitate or educate the person to a saner mindset.  I hope that is not true in all cases, but it does seem to be the case that the further it has gone, the more the abuser has invested in protecting themselves from the truth.

So I think that there are varying degrees of severity of the situation, depending upon the mindset of the abuser, and how severely entrenched they are in denial, how much trauma and pain they are hiding from themselves.  There are severely immoral people who are able to hide it very well and appear to function well in society.  Others may be well intentioned and unaware of how much pain they cause with their strategy of projection.

The person abusing you might be your partner, a co-worker, a friend, a family member, or you might even recognize that you sometimes display that kind of behaviour yourself.  If you do recognize it in yourself, you’re already well on the way to changing the situation.  Having the guts to face it is the biggest obstacle, and why abusers are unlikely to be the ones reading this.

Abuse, bullying, emotional and physical violence don’t just occur in relationships of course.  It could be happening to you at work, in your extended family, online and many other situations.  There are also many situations where entire families, communities, minorities, disadvantaged people of all kinds, and entire populations are victimised, abused, taken advantage of, bullied, subjected to violence, economic hardship, injustices of all kinds and of course war.  Understanding the concepts behind an abusive relationship can help us understand all these situations also.  There is always fear behind it, and whoever the tyrant or tyrants are who are perpetrating the injustice, endeavouring to have power over others, they are operating from a fear based mindset, are in deep denial, and are not aware of it.

Kids being bullied at school, online trolling etc, all fall into the category of abuse or emotional violence, in my view.  I believe we need to accept responsibility for this as a society and ask ourselves the difficult questions about where the beliefs, attitudes and denial behind the behaviour are coming from.  They all originate from the perpetuation of fear in our culture.  Culture, of course, is strongly influenced by the media.

 If you believe you might be in an abusive relationship, I strongly recommend you read Patricia Evans’ book (there is a Kindle version), and that you begin making some decisions about what you are and are not prepared to live with, and whether you honestly think the situation can be changed or whether you need to disconnect from the person concerned.  If there has been any physical violence, any at all, please take immediate action to make yourself (and your children) safe.  Be aware of what help is available to you in your location, and educate the hell out of yourself (read, read, read).

If your partner is verbally or emotionally abusive, but not physically, know that physical abuse is always preceded by verbal abuse, and that you do not have to live this way.  If the abuser is unlikely or unwilling to seek help or modify their behaviour, is denying and avoiding, my choice would simply be to leave.  I know many people choose to stay anyway, often for fear of not being able to support themselves financially, or because they feel obliged to help the abuser.  It can also be because you have your own secondary gain or payoff for allowing the situation to continue (see the victim triangle).  It’s your call, but I can tell you I’ve done it, just left, starting from nothing, on more than one occasion, with kids in tow.   If it’s an option, you can also get help (from the police if necessary) to get your partner to leave.

There’s a series of books I also recommend called Boundaries, by Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend, that very skilfully discuss the concept of how to have self respect and set reasonable standards and expectations.  It’s reasonable, for example, to expect not to be harassed, berated, manipulated, controlled, put down, have your feelings or your personhood invalidated. 

If you’re thinking of taking action on this, get hold of that book, and remember, there is no use trying to reason with them!  I’m sure you have already taken ample reasonable steps to resolve things.  They are likely not aware and will strongly resist becoming aware that they have a problem.  It is not your responsibility to make things better for them and attempting to do so is likely to be a huge waste of your time; your responsibility is to yourself, to honour yourself, and in doing so, you set a good example for others, especially children if they are involved.

If you see that a situation is unjust and harmful, and you have the ability to change that without endangering yourself or others, then the only thing stopping you is your own mindset, and we already know that if you have the ability to understand the situation, you have the guts to face whatever you need to face about yourself.  What’s best for you, is also best for the greater good.

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