Sooner or later, someone trapped in an abusive relationship will be asked why they don’t just leave. In reality, it isn’t always that easy. The hold abusive partners can exert is extraordinary, and their victims can literally become addicted.
Knowing That You Are in an Abusive Relationship
Of course, many people trapped in abusive relationships aren’t even aware of the fact. And this is true of most addictions, whether it be to drugs, gambling, sex, or alcohol. Abuse can also develop slowly. A husband who hits his wife, for example, may begin the marriage as the sweetest and gentlest of men, but then, gradually, reveal this darker side, beginning with a raised voice, then an occasional shove, then a slap and, finally, a closed fist.
Abusers also tend to be highly manipulative, even convincing their victim that this is all perfectly normal. Others break their partner’s self-esteem, making them feel that the abuse is deserved. And abusers can be immensely charming to outsiders, who are often astonished when the abuse is exposed. Indeed, some neighbors and friends never really accept that it occurred. And because the abused partner hears nothing but what a great guy their husband is, or how sweet and funny their wife is, they may doubt themselves and wonder if they are just being too sensitive.
It is also worth noting that abusive relationships are rarely abusive all the time. Those who beat or humiliate their partner may sincerely love them – they just have no idea how to express it. Of course, that isn’t always the case: some just love the power, others are out and out sadists. And yet abuse can be a twisted form of love. Some adore their partner, but dread him or her leaving, so, in order to prevent this, they break them. Once you have broken someone, destroying their self-esteem and their will to resist, you can control them and ensure that they never leave you. But abusers know that relentless abuse would be too much, so they alternate between cruelty and affection. Time and again the friends of an abused individual will hear something like this, often said through angry tears, “you don’t understand what he’s like when it’s good. He can be so sweet. I know deep down that he loves me.”
Another reason people fail to recognize what is happening is that they have never known anything else. Maybe they grew up in a world in which physical violence was the norm; their father hit their mother, their brother hit his girlfriend, the neighbors constantly screamed and fought, and so they come to believe that this is just what couples do. Then there are cultural differences. Even in certain Mediterranean countries, wife beating was widely accepted until well into the 20th century.
Signs to Look Out For
So how do you spot the signs? Are you really in an abusive relationship, or is he or she just being horrible? The most obvious sign would be some kind of physical violence. And this need not mean actual punching or slapping. Someone who grabs you by the arm or shoves you out of the way is being physically abusive. In fact, even blocking your path when you try to leave the room is a form of violence. And it needs to be stressed that physical violence isn’t only inflicted by men. Women can, and do, physically abuse their husbands. And if women are too ashamed to admit that their male partner beats them, men are even more ashamed to admit to being beaten by their wives. Even today, while most would sympathize with the first, many would choke back a laugh at the second.
Then there is psychological abuse. An abusive partner may be one person at home and another out of doors. And this not only because they wish to keep the abuse secret but because they wish to confuse and unnerve their partner. Such people will go to great lengths to create confusion and doubt. Remember, abuse is about power. And if you can make someone lose confidence in their own judgement, you have power over them. Abusive partners will constantly twist your words, or deny that something happened when you know it did. Another classic trick is paying you compliments while simultaneously making you feel worthless.
Consider how isolated you are as well. You may have noticed that friends and family rarely call, or that you never seem to visit them. Maybe your partner always makes a point of being there when they do visit, and of making them so uncomfortable that they rarely come back. And when you do socialize, it will be with your partner’s friends and family, not your own. So far as he or she is concerned, they are the only people you need now. Or maybe your partner persuaded you to move away from your home town. Often, the abuse only begins once the move is complete.
Abusive partners also tend to be controlling. They will probably control the money, decide how the children are raised, choose the vacations, even which TV shows you watch. In the most extreme cases, one partner won’t even allow the other to leave the apartment without his or her permission. They will also want to know exactly where you have been and who you met.
Overcoming Your Addiction
As with any addiction, the first step is to acknowledge what is happening. Think of this as breaking the spell. Many people who escape abusive relationships look back in disbelief at the hold their ex had gained and say that it was like being bewitched. You don’t deserve this. And your partner does not have the right to make you so unhappy.
Once you have recognized what is going on, you must begin to disengage. As relationships falter, they reach a critical stage in which one, or both, partners begin to detach, to sever the deep, unconscious bond they have formed. In good relationships, this bond persists even when the couple argue or fall out. In an abusive relationship, however, the ‘bond’ is more like a toxic addiction.
Obviously, the ultimate goal should be to leave. But when you do so, the break must be clean and permanent. Time and again, those who help such people watch in disbelief as they return to the very person who hurt them. Abusive partners can exert an extraordinary hold. Be wary of this, and do not underestimate the danger. Physically leaving is often the easy bit, just as it is easy to knock back a whisky and then declare “that was my last ever drink.” The difficulty comes when you try to resist the excuses, the protestations of love, the claim that things will be different this time around.
If your break is to be permanent, you must do all you can to prepare for and build a different life. And you must believe that such a life is possible. First, you will need to save, or borrow, some money. This can be tough of course, not least because abusive partners tend to control the finances. If you find it impossible to open a separate bank account, could you hide money in the locker at work? Or maybe you have a beloved friend or sibling who could store it for you. Just be sure you can trust them – and that they are willing to face your partner’s fury should he or she find out.
Next, be sure you have somewhere to go. This may seem obvious, but if the abuse suddenly escalates, or your partner finds out your plans, what would you do? And be sure it is somewhere bearable. Don’t just make vague plans. The last thing you want is to be forced to return home in desperation. If you are the one who is staying, consider how you can make this person leave. It may be worth contacting the police to see what they can do. Should they reply that there are no grounds for involvement, could you ask friends or family to back you up? Once this person has gone, get the locks changed and take out a restraining order.
There are also numerous organizations that could help. Plus, of course, there is the Internet. This could prove invaluable, not only to find refuges or support groups, but also for online forums, where you can chat with others who’ve escaped – or are still trapped. Another big problem is how normalised the abuse becomes. To many victims, it seems perfectly acceptable to be kicked, slapped, ridiculed, or controlled. They may have known nothing else for years, even decades. Chatting to people who have been through this themselves will help break your abuser’s hold. Reading posts in which people recall their partner doing or saying exactly the same things as yours will make a big difference. What may have seemed like a sincere apology or a heartfelt promise is shown up for what it was – empty clichés.
Children are another major concern. Who will win custody should you leave? In many abusive relationships, the abuser will reduce his partner to a nervous wreck, using tranquilizers and anti-depressants just to get them through the day. Since abusers also tend to hide the abuse, and to present a quite different face to their friends and neighbors, the victim’s complaints may be put down to their neurotic and unstable personality – after all, she is taking tablets, and in any case, her husband is so charming and sweet!
If it should come to a battle for custody, the psychological problems that your partner has created may even be used against you. He or she will claim that you’ve made false allegations and that your depression or use of tablets means you cannot be trusted. Secretly record them verbally abusing you. And be sure to photograph every cut and bruise. It is also important to tell someone now, while the abuse is happening. That way, you can ask them to back you up in court.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. You may look back in disbelief some day, furious that you wasted all those years on someone who did nothing but hurt you. But toxic and addictive relationships are based not on reason but emotion. Finally, do not fool yourself. Relationships that have degenerated to such a point do not suddenly transform into something loving and healthy.