Five Characteristics of Abusive Relationships

Five Characteristics of Abusive Relationships
  1. Not recognizing and setting boundaries on abnormal behavior.

What is abnormal behavior?  It is offensive, disrespectful, unloving, intrusive, demanding, and harmful. It can include but is not limited to any of the following: insults, criticisms, demands, expectations, threats, rejection, neglect, blame, manipulation, punishment, terrorizing, ignoring, silent treatment, teasing, being the object of a joke, ridicule or contempt. Experiencing harassment, physical assault, sexual assault, public shaming, public correction, public punishment, excessive punishment, arguing shouting, name calling or sarcasm. Being controlled in the areas of time, money, social opportunities, leisure opportunities, religious expression, parenting practices, or physical liberty. Having a partner who commits infidelity, stealing, or lying about you.

In some situations emotional abuse can be very subtle and passive aggressive. Examples include, implied messages like, you can’t make good decisions, constant (quiet) disapproval, comparison to another (supposedly superior) person, emotional blackmail (do it my way or loose connection with me), I’m to busy (literally or otherwise) to notice you or spend time with you.

If you are unsure, often the first indicator of an abnormal behavior is a sense of offense. Somehow what just happened didn’t feel very good.

Boundaries can range from simple to complex, depending on the situation. The essential idea is not to tolerate abnormal behavior; however, this quite quickly becomes complicated. First, the boundary setter (the one who feel abused) cannot be abusive in the way a boundary is set or enforced. Second, and probably more problematically, the original offender usually has all sorts of ways to resist being limited or refused.

  1. Accepting minimal.

Receiving and giving minimal can be expressed in many ways. The ideas listed below are common, but by no means exhaustive.

Time –  people important to each other spend minimal quality time together; can be excused by work, hobbies, etc. Everyone needs personal time, but relationships also need time invested. This balance is best evaluated over a longer period of time. A dysfunctional relationship can also demand all of one’s time, which is also out of balance.

Love – love is cool or nonexistent; healthy relationships have some sort of affectionate, respectful appreciation of the other. Usually love is at a minimal if one or more of the offensive behaviors above is practiced regularly.

Affection – minimal touch or appreciation expressed verbally or in body language; perhaps the opposite is expressed in the form of contempt, distaste, disdain, antipathy.

Help – with child rearing, household chores, preparation for work; try to imagine this both ways. Some men may not help with the household chores, but some women may not even clean the house (assuming traditional gender roles). This can take place with any type of (gender) roles practiced.

Connection – minimal touch, maybe sex only, no heart to heart, touch may be always or only sexual with no emotional intimacy; or maybe the denial of sexual intimacy, minimal heart to heart conversation, minimal shared goals and cooperation; minimal or no friendship; you live with your enemy.

Behavior – minimal help, minimal positive behaviors, pretty much anything listed under abnormal behaviors; minimal effort to change/heal/improve. Addictions.

Respect – anger, sarcasm, disrespect, public correction, humiliation, unequal destructive teasing, man hating, women hating etc.

Compensation/treatment – unequal compensation or treatment for equal work because of age, gender, race, religious belief or any other ism.

  1. Accepting that the guilt and shame are all mine.

Basically, this is the belief or messaging that you are the problem. If you would just change, then everything would be okay. I’m angry and I behave abusively because you’re disrespectful, dumb, incompetent or somehow inadequate. Or I’m controlling because you’re stupid and immature and irresponsible, and if I didn’t control you would destroy or damage yourself. I shame your angry outburst because you need to be reminded of how much you hurt me and others. I correct you in public because you are a liar and cannot tell the truth or I act as if you are unworthy, unintelligent, clumsy or inept and if you were better I would act better.

This one is often more difficult to see because there is some truth in the abuser’s argument. Abused people are imperfect, and they do all kinds of imperfect things like exaggerate stories, make mistakes, act out their anger, covet and lust after things that they cannot have etc., etc,. etc. The abuser points out these imperfections and uses them as a justification for abusive behavior. Don’t be fooled by this process. Everyone is imperfect and everyone can have their imperfections exposed. Doing something imperfect or even bad does not justify receiving someone else’s abuse. If they are abusive, they have a problem of some sort that needs to be addressed, if they do not address the reasons they abuse others you will continue to be abused by them unless you change the way you allow them to abuse you.

  1. Justifying and explaining.

When the dynamics of an abusive relationship exist, one or both parties involved will either demand an explanation in order to invalidate or refute it, or they will try and give an explanation in order to justify offensive behavior. In the first case, imagine being with someone who is highly controlling with time. They may ask you to account for every moment of your day or your trip around town. Once they have the information, they will find a way to suggest that you should have done this or that differently or better to meet their agenda, which may be about time or simply about putting you down. This same explanation process could be used to criticize the way you spend money, parent, choose friends or even express your wants and needs. For example: “Why do you want that… well that’s stupid, or you can’t have that because…. etc.” While we cannot have everything we want, watch for a pattern that uses your explanation to undo or invalidate your thoughts and actions.

On the flip side, one might use an explanation to justify offensive behavior: “Honey, I’m late because I had to have a drink with the guys, or stop by the store and pick up some items, or I was working late to support our family.” Or: “I’m angry and yelling because you always nag me to death.”

Justifying and explaining is about protecting and maintaining abusive behavior. As a rule of thumb, you should never justify yourself and you should only explain your thoughts and actions when you feel safe  within the relationship.

  1. Accepting and taking responsibility for others’ feelings.

Many counselors would describe the client’s experience of this dysfunctional behavior as “walking on eggshells.” While many people know that they do have the sense of walking on eggshells around someone in their life, they are not completely clear why they feel this way. When a person experiences this sensation, what they are really doing is trying to modify their behavior to avoid provoking the anger (or any other expected abnormal behavior) of the abuser. The underlying thought process is “if I just get this right then my partner, or my son, or my boss (my abuser) won’t blow up (or act offensive).” Of course, what really happens is the conditions required for appeasing the abuser often (or almost always) seem to shift, and the offensive behavior (hitting, shouting, shaming, criticising, etc.) continues to happen anyway.

The basic reason for this is that we cannot control the feelings and thoughts of another. Often we cannot even modify their behavior with the use of excessive emotional or physical force. People choose how they feel. If you don’t believe me, imagine for a moment that someone you are close to has just cooked your favorite meal. If the relationship is good, you may think something like “hey, they really like me, they know what I like and they care enough to take the time to cook for me.” If, however, this person owes you money and the last several times they have asked for a loan, they have cooked your favorite meal first, your thoughts in response to their actions might very well be much less positive.

In the same way, abusive people choose to perceive others as threatening, they perceive situations as requiring control, either with abusive angry actions or some other offensive behavior. You cannot control the way they perceive or respond to the world, or you. When you try to do so, you accept the label and logic that you are the problem. If only you would behave differently or explain your position better, they would be less abusive. Remember, there is no excuse for abusive behavior. I may not like what you are doing, I may be offended or even very hurt, but that pain, anger or irritation does not entitle me to abuse you. I need to express my feelings and needs in an assertive non-abusive manner. The abuser needs to take ownership over what they like and don’t like, and what I want and don’t want. And they need to learn to find ways to meet their needs and wants that are not harmful to the ones around them.

If you have recognized any of these patterns in your relationships, there is hope. You can begin to take action to improve the circumstances and relationships in your life. It may not be easy, but I guarantee you that it is worth it. People with these types of patterns in their relationships need help to learn a new way. They may need help to heal the wounds that these types of behaviors have caused. Most people need someone who is safe to talk to, and who knows how to sort through the many wounds and patterns in their lives. If you’re thinking of making a change and you would like someone to talk to, give me a call.

Until next time

Stay well and remember there is no one like you. You are uniquely valuable and worthy of respect and love. Don’t accept anything less. And when you find it, share it with someone.