August 29, 2018

Understanding and Combating Abusive Relationships

How to Spot an Abusive Relationship and How To Get Out

Abusive relationships are tricky. We’re conditioned to expect that if a relationship is abusive, it will be obvious, and that abusive partners are easy to spot. The truth, however, is the opposite. Abusive relationships develop slowly, with conditions gradually worsening over time, and abusive partners are skilled manipulators who often appear too good to be true. At least at first. What’s more is that the people who are most attractive to abusers - people pleasers, people with poor boundaries, people with attachment issues - often experienced some form of abuse in their past, particularly in early development. As a result, some of the behaviors that would be considered red flags to people with healthy boundaries and a history of functional relationships will go unnoticed by a person with a history of abuse, as this kind of behavior appears normal. Further, people who have not had healthy, positive experiences around setting and maintaining boundaries may be so unsure of themselves that they can be too easily manipulated even if they do spot a red flag.

One of the most common questions among people who have never been in an abusive relationship before is, "Why don't you just leave?" That's such a heavy question. First, there's the just, which implies that it's so simple, so easy, and so obvious. Then there's the implication that being with a person who hurts you, whether emotionally, physically, or otherwise was a conscious choice. The reality is that no one who has ended up in an abusive relationship made the choice to be with an abusive person. The person they chose was wonderful, perhaps overwhelmingly so, and they would never have imagined that they were entering a dangerous situation. What people on the outside of abusive relationships don’t understand is that abusers use a series of manipulative tactics which distort the victim’s reality. The victim is flooded with positive experiences, then driven to anxiety and even desperation when the abuser begins to intermittently and unpredictably withhold the positive experiences, replacing them with negative ones. By the time the victim realizes something is wrong they’ve been hooked on their abuser like an addict to a street drug. Telling a person in the throes of an abusive relationship to “just” leave is like telling a heroine addict to “just” put the needle down.

Translation: It’s not that simple.

One of the benefits of survivors of abusive relationships sharing our experiences is that we can help people who may be going through a similar situation right now. We can help them spot the signs that they're in something toxic and help them find ways to get out, and promote awareness so that others can spot the signs and never get involved in abusive relationships in the first place.

* It should be noted that the following information is a combination of research and personal experience. Some of this will be anecdotal, some should be taken with a grain of salt, and none of this should be used as a substitute for speaking to a professional if you think or know that you are in an abusive relationship.

End of disclaimer.

Honeymoon Phase

Abusive relationships always start with a honeymoon phase. Now you might be thinking, but don't all relationships have a honeymoon phase? Sure. The honeymoon phase is typically referring to the beginning of a relationship, when two people are first exploring their mutual attraction. The time when everything is exciting, new and easy. When you talk less and have sex more. Pretty typical.

In polyamorous relationships, this stage is typically described as NRE - New Relationship Energy - where infatuation and newness with a new partner creates a sort of passion that makes that relationship more exciting - if temporarily - than the existing relationship(s) in the person's life.

The honeymoon phase in a relationship that is going to turn abusive looks different. It isn't simply a matter of ease or of newness. There are very distinct characteristics and they are present in all abusive relationships in their early stages.

Idolization 

This person isn't just excited to meet you or to be going on dates with you. This person is in love with you almost immediately. They are enamored by everything about you. They will tell you how amazing you are. How exceptional. How special. There is a difference between affection and idolization; between attraction and worship. If the person is treating you like this - especially before sufficient time has gone by for them to truly have gotten to know you - watch out. This is one of the most common red flags for impending abuse and it is evident nearly immediately.

Love Bombing

Not only will this person be extremely and almost unrealistically affectionate toward you, that affection with be constant. Of course, since it is positive, you probably won't mind. That's the trick. But this person will be in near constant communication with you. You'll find yourself texting them every moment throughout the day, talking to them every night, seeing them whenever you can. You'll wake up to their text messages, and get used to an affectionate message waiting for you virtually every time you check your phone. Again, this isn't just excited to meet you. What they are doing is trying to get you hooked on a drug. This barrage of affection is meant to overwhelm you and disorient you, laying the groundwork for dependence.

Excessive Favors

It isn't abnormal for people who are dating to do little favors for each other or to give small gifts. That's pretty normal, and for some people it's their primary way of showing that they care. But this can be dangerous if it is excessive. For example, is the person that you're dating doing favors such that they are taking over some of your basic self care? Are they putting gas in your car without being asked? Are they coming over for a date with household appliances in hand that you didn't ask them to pick up? Are they buying you significant things - like an entire kitchen set when you move into your new apartment - without being asked? Are they quick to offer to loan you exuberant amounts of money when all you did was mention wanting to pick up a shift at work to pay for a luxury?

That isn't normal. They may seem like they're just so generous, or that they just care about you so much, but again, they are laying the groundwork for making you dependent on them. They are trying to make you comfortable with their level of assistance so that you'll change something - maybe lease a new car that you couldn't afford on your own, or move into an apartment with rent that's just a little outside your budget, or take on a demanding commitment that wouldn't have been possible had they not volunteered to help you out with [insert chore here]. So that when the ground inevitably does shift underneath you, by some means or another, you'll be trapped.

This can also be used as a method of control. By having done these things for you, even though they weren't asked, the abuser can now feel as though you owe them for their generosity, and may invoke this imagined debt at a future date to try and force your hand in other ways.

Talking about the future very quickly | Making big plans | Pushing for commitment

This phase is extremely telling. Most people do not rush into relationships after, oh say, two dates. Most people do not commit themselves to someone that they've only known for a fortnight. They may be excited, and they may indeed be thinking about a potential future, but still most balanced people reasonably expect for the future to come later.

In abusive relationships, the future is now. If you both discussed a desire to travel abroad "someday" on the first date, this person will be trying to plan that trip to Spain with you on the third date. There will be no gentle musings about maybe living together "someday". This person will try and convince you to move in with them in the first six months, if not less. They will be very keen on getting you to commit - it won't always be in the form of a title. The title is less important than the assurance that you aren't seeing anyone else. They want you to be as heavily invested in this relationship with them as possible, as soon as possible.

If you object to this, or seem hesitant, this is a great way to spot someone who has the potential to later become abusive. They will try and get you to do things their way, on their terms, via some form of manipulation. They may say something like, "I understand where you're coming from, but life is so short. I want to enjoy it as soon as possible, don't you?" Or, "I like to live my life adventurously. To take chances. Come on, take a chance with me." It may even take the form of, "I love you so much. I don't see that changing anytime soon, do you?" They may make it look pretty and wrap it up in a Tiffany bow, but do not be confused. This is not acceptable behavior. This is an attempt to cross your boundary, and people who respect you will respect your boundaries - not try to talk you out of them.

Goal: All of this behavior is with the goal to hook you to them. Make you dependent on them. Get you to commit to a future and invest in it so that it will be difficult for you to leave.

Controlling Behavior 

Controlling behavior is often thought of in its most extreme and obvious form. Someone overtly saying, "do this", or "don't do that". "Wear this" or "don't wear that". Indeed, some people may in fact say those things, with no greater goal in mind than the thing itself. A person who says "don't put that sweaty beer on my oak coffee table without a coaster," isn't necessarily graceful in their approach, but they aren't necessarily going to turn around and hit you. The person who says, "don't wear that low cut dress when I'm not with you," may indeed have some jealousy and control issues to answer for, but they won’t necessarily become abusive (although the clothing control does tend to be a bit of an indicator, in my experience).

The control I'm talking about is subtle. You don't even realize you are being controlled while it is happening because it's rather covert. It usually happens through unilateral decision making.

Think about the first few dates. Rather than saying, "Hey, what kind of food do you like? What do you think about Italian? What time works for you?" the first date is more likely to look like, "Meet me at Boucherie at 8." Seems innocuous enough, yes? You arrive at the restaurant, and your date has either already chosen a table, and is already sitting in their seat, or they usher you to the table and pull out your chair for you. Innocent enough. Then you pick up the menu. "You should try the duck, it's fantastic," they might say. "I'll get a bottle of wine for the table," they may tell you, and proceed to order from the wine list you haven't glanced at yet.

What do all these seemingly innocuous things have in common? - You aren't making any choices! In each instance decisions are being made for you. It doesn't matter what is being decided. It doesn't matter whether you don't care what restaurant you go to, or if you're not well versed in wine and wouldn't know what to order anyway. What matters is the pattern that is forming, which is that they make a choice for you and you comply. This is akin to the Pavlov experiment. Your thought processes are being altered here. Over time you subconsciously come to accept this person as your decision maker and may even find yourself unable to make decisions without consulting them first, telling yourself you just want to get their "opinion". You are being trained to be obedient.

It isn't about the damn wine, and isn't a small thing. It's huge. So pay attention to how your date talks to you early on, and pay special attention to what happens if you say anything besides, "okay".

Isolation

Okay, so here you are in the honeymoon phase, where everything is awesome (except how you're being slowly manipulated). Another key ingredient that every abusive relationship has is isolation in some form or another. Some are more obvious than others.

The Relationship Must Remain Secret

For some reason or another, they'll suggest that you keep your relationship under cover. If you met at work, or you still work together, this is the easiest excuse in the book because it's so logical on its face. But don't be fooled. This isn't about who is going up for promotion, or what people will think, or any of the other clichĂ© excuses you might be fed. The relationship is a secret so that when something inevitably goes wrong, you will not be able to talk about it. The secrecy also shields the abuser from visibility and responsibility when and if the abuse becomes visible. If you begin to come to work looking distraught or disheveled. If you’re anxious or crying a lot. If evidence of physical injury is present. Even if it is clear that you are in a problematic situation, they won’t be implicated, and by this time the fear of consequence if the agreement of secrecy is broken will serve to keep the dangerous status quo intact.

Turning You Against Friends and Family

Does the person tell you that there's something off about your friends? They don't like the way a certain friend speaks to you, or they think your relationship with your mom is unhealthy, or hey, are you aware that your so-called friend is saying [insert unfavorable gossip here] behind your back? Have your friends suddenly been acting strange around you? Almost as though someone told them that you said something about them or did something, but you can't imagine what it could be? Are there rumors spreading about you through your school, or place of work, or circle of friends, that paint you in a negative light and make it difficult for you to make and keep friends? Think about it. If you suddenly find yourself alone, without the ability to turn to friends or family, and your SO turns around and hits you one day, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? Further, if your character has been successfully maligned by your SO (though you may not know that they are in fact the source of these unfavorable rumors) and you do decide to come forward, are you likely to be believed?

Ask You To Move Away With Them

Does part of your fairy tale romance involve eventually or actually moving away to some obscure location. Not obscure because it's Guam necessarily, but because it is somewhere that would find you apart from all of your friends and family? This isn't a coincidence. It is very strategic. This way, when something inevitably goes wrong, it will be very difficult for you to leave the house, let alone the relationship, because you won't have anywhere else to go.

Goal: To solidify your dependence on them. To create a situation in which you don't have a support system, either because you can't talk about the relationship, or because you simply have no one to talk to. This situation is easier to prevent than to deal with once it has actually happened. Please be aware that with just a quick internet search (in a private window if your personal devices are not safe, or on a public device like at a cafĂ© or a library) you can find support in your area. Not just someone to talk to, but somewhere safe to go if you cannot go home.

"The Problem" is Introduced

Also known as the "manipulative shift", this is the moment that the relationship changes. It may not be the first moment of outright abuse. It may be a more subtle form of negativity breaking an otherwise positive streak, or the sudden and inexplicable withdrawal of the love bombing to which you’ve grown accustomed. Overtime it gets harder to see because, as a victim, you become conditioned to expect a certain amount of pain and learn to detach from it to an extent, finding ways to normalize it for your own survival. But the first incident, because you won't be expecting it, will be particularly sharp.

While this does happen in every abusive relationship, it can also be a bit elusive because it doesn't always take the same form. Personally, I have always found this very easy to spot in retrospect, but almost never spotted it in the moment. Basically, the relationship you think you're in transforms, and this transformation is justified by the introduction of a problem, be it yours, theirs, or both.

They might tell you that there is something about you that needs to change in order for the relationship to continue. Often this comes as somewhat of a shock because, before this, you were in the idolization phase. They loved everything about you. Worshipped you, practically. But now something is seriously wrong. They may, for example, tell you that your tendency to go out at night is a problem (even though they met you while you were out at night). They may tell you that your religion is a problem (even though they knew your religion from the start). That your messiness is a problem, or your neatness is a problem. You're too structured, or you aren't structured enough. Granted, as a relationship develops people may communicate new boundaries and/or needs. That is normal. But this usually goes hand in hand with respectful negotiation and compromise, as opposed to one partner (the abuser) giving the other an ultimatum such that there will be an extreme, relationship altering consequence (e.g.: the relationship ends) if certain conditions are not met. Although the condition(s) will be specific, this isn’t really about the conditions themselves. This is about establishing control. Often you will find that the condition is extremely difficult if not impossible to meet and, if you do succeed, new conditions will pop up in the place of the one that has been met.

If the abuser does not present you with your problem, they may instead present you with their own. They might tell you about a deep, personal struggle they've gone through in the past or even one they're currently dealing with. (e.g.: Parent was/is abusive; parent was/is an addict; ex cheated.) Often the story ends with some variation of and that's why I'm like this, and is introduced to justify the shift in the relationship. The existence of the abusive parent, for example, will be revealed the first time they fly into a rage. Their history with the addict parent and how it impacted on them will be used to justify their first unexplained, prolonged absence (and to get you to accept the inevitability of future ones). The sad story about the ex who cheated with their best friend will conveniently conincide with the first time they make a controlling request or display an inappropriate amount of jealousy. (Note: This isn’t to minimize real personal struggles that people have. Some of us do have trust issues from past betrayals, attachment issues from difficult childhoods, or lifelong struggles with health issues, etc. and not all people like this are abusive. It’s when these things are hidden at the outset and only seem to manifest as an excuse to justify unacceptable behavior that it becomes a red flag.)

If one or both of these things happen, you are being setup for abuse. If you fail to fix the problem your SO has found with you, your "punishment" (be it physical, emotional, sexual, etc.) will be justified by you not meeting your prescribed condition(s). If your SO crosses a boundary of yours, or subjects you to some form of abuse (verbal, physical, etc.) it will be justified by their struggle with whatever it is they said they were struggling with. This is a way to try and get you to tolerate and even excuse unacceptable behavior.

Goal: Establishing control. By holding the relationship over your head they now can dangle reward or punishment in order to control your behavior. By confessing some deep, dark secret you're now more likely to be excessively compassionate with them, so that when they do something unacceptable (and they will) you will blame their "problem", instead of their behavior, and let it go. This creates tension and an enormous amount of emotional stress for you.

Shifting Goals

In an abusive relationship, usually the problem that is setup, whether yours or theirs (or both), is difficult to impossible to overcome. This ensures longevity, because while you're busy being distracted by trying to address your problem or help them through theirs, they're enjoying a relationship that will increasingly begin to benefit them at your expense. The other thing about the goals in an abusive relationship is that they tend to shift, morph and change, just in case you do somehow manage to achieve them.

Change your religion? Of course that won't happen overnight.

They need to work on their self-esteem before they can stop being controlling? People work their whole lives on self-esteem.

Their career isn't "where they want it to be"? What does that even mean.

They want to make sure they can "really" trust you. How?

Notice that these goals are extremely vague. They are vague and slightly confusing by design. When there isn't a specific behavior, calendar date, or otherwise markable and quantifiable thing to be tracked, it is easy for the abuser to continue to rationalize their shifting goal posts as they keep you on the hook.

In a secret relationship, for example, let's say the goal was to tell everyone about your relationship once your SO got promoted.

Promotions aren't certain. That's a problem right there. But let's say they did get promoted sooner than either of you imagined. Now you say, "We said we'd tell everyone at work about us once you got that promotion, and now you got it! Congrats. You ready?" They are likely to say something like, "Well it wasn't about the promotion itself so much as just feeling really secure in my role at the job. This role is so new, I don't want anyone questioning my professionalism while I"m still getting adjusted. Maybe we should just wait until..."

And the new goal is set...

The goals will always shift. They will always move, and morphs, and change. They aren't real goals, you see. You aren't meant to achieve them. You are meant to focus on them so that you're distracted from the person you are with and the situation you are in as it gradually unfolds.

Meanwhile...

Manipulation

In every abusive relationship there is manipulation in some form or another, but usually several are happening at once. There are certainly more than the ones I'm about to go through, but these are the ones I am most familiar with both through research and personal experience.

Gaslighting

Gaslighting can take many forms, but the gist of it is that someone will try to make you question your reality. This usually doesn't happen in one fell swoop. As in, your partner isn't going to walk in one day after years of behaving absolutely normally and suddenly try to convince you that the Sun revolves around the Earth, but that that's not important because this planet here is called Mars.

It's typically a lot more subtle than that. For example, let's say that you've been dating your partner for six months. Let us also say that you're a very punctual person, and typically meet your partner at least five minutes before the agreed upon time. Then one day something out of the ordinary happens, causing you to be half an hour late for your plans. When your partner confronts you, they say, "Could you please try to be on time when you and I have plans? Normally when you're late I don't say anything about it, but today you were really late so I thought I should mention it." Your immediate thought will probably be something to the effect of, I've never been late before, or, When else was I late? Maybe you actually say that to them aloud, and they are vague in their response, or they do provide a specific example but you are sure you were not late in the example they provided. Now, let's say that going forward, not every time, but intermittently, they remind you not to be late when you have plans, and not necessarily in a formal or confrontational way. It could be by emphasizing the time that an event starts. It could even be by flirtatiously quipping "don't be late" at the end of a text conversation, complete with a wink emoji and an "lol".

Overtime this has the effect of making you question yourself. In the first instance of your partner's complaint, when you actually were late, you may have specifically remembered every date and known for sure that you'd never been late. Until then, of course (which is why they chose that moment to bring it up). But overtime you'll start to question whether there really were several instances that you were late, besides the time that it actually happened. Additionally, you may begin to think of yourself as the type of person who is prone to being late - even though you previously identified as a punctual person, and even if you only think of yourself that way when it comes to your partner - and start to develop anxiety around it. Then suppose your partner lashes out at you one day, and during a listing of grievances says that you're always late. At this point you've internalized lateness as a problem that you have with your partner, when in reality you were only late once in your entire relationship.

The tricky thing about gaslighting is that the benefit isn't always immediately apparent. Why would your partner try to make you out to be habitually late if you are not? What would be the benefit of that? Is punctuality really that important to your partner, and if it is, and you have in fact been punctual, then why has this become such a big deal? In reality, what your partner wants is not your punctuality. What they want is your anxiety. For you to be preoccupied with them out of a sense of worry and fear, so that eventually they will have the true reward. Your compliance.

Gaslighting, like all other manipulative tactics, has a solitary goal. Control. Gaslighting confuses you, the real victim. It keeps you off balance and creates anxiety and tension. Meanwhile, your partner (who is only playing the victim) is using your guilt, shame and anxiety as leverage to try and control your future behavior.

Using reward and punishment to control

This is very clear in physically abusive relationships. Often the subtext of those relationships becomes, do everything right and I won't get violent. Misstep somehow and I will become violent. It is less clear in relationships where the abuse is more subtle, such as emotional abuse.

Let's go back to the punctuality example. If a healthy person realizes that their partner has an issue with time management and punctuality, they will find direct ways to address the issue. They may have a conversation with them, expressing how it negatively affects them to always be made to wait. Alternatively, they may discuss changing the way that they make plans, perhaps agreeing on looser time frames to make it easier for the person who struggles with time to make their dates, or having the partner meet them at home before proceeding with plans so that they aren't unduly inconvenienced.

An abuser, however, will not confront an issue (be it real, or imagined) head on. Instead, if their partner arrives on time, the abuser will be on their best, most loving behavior. If their partner arrives late, the abuser will be cold and withholding, making their partner feel unloved. Rather than directly asking for what they need and/or negotiating these needs on shared terms, the abuser will reward their partner when they behave the way they like, and punish their partner when they do not, with the hope that overtime the partner will seek to avoid punishment by stopping the undesired behavior.

Establishes their likes and dislikes of you through suggestion, backhanded comments or critiques

Innocent things like "I like that lipstick" or "I like that sweater" can happen in relationships without an ulterior motive. But when this is excessive it typically translates to control. If someone is constantly showering you with unsolicited approval and disapproval of what you say, do, wear, etc. they are literally trying to teach you how to behave. This isn't normal.

Triangulation

Triangulation is the introduction of a third party into the relationship. It isn't what it sounds like (a threesome request is not necessarily triangulation). With triangulation, the third party can be a person, a job, a video game, a cell phone, an ex. It can really be anything. The goal is to create a triangle in order to facilitate competition and use it to control your behavior.

For example, if you're on a first date, and your date goes on and on about how annoying he finds it when women just assume that a man is going to pay. Then he brings up his ex girlfriend. She always expected him to pay, he tells you. And she always expected him to buy things for her. And she never said thank you. And she never appeared grateful. At the end of the date, how likely are you to sit there comfortably while he picks up the check?

Via this third party, the manipulator makes it very clear what behaviors they like and dislike. In this example, the manipulator paints the ex girlfriend in a negative light + a behavior they don't want (you letting them pay for things) to control your behavior. Other times it might look like them telling you how lucky so and so is because his girlfriend gives him blowjobs twice a day. Now so and so's girlfriend is painted in a very positive light + a behavior that they do want (frequent blow jobs) to try and control your behavior.

When it is a job it can look like: My job is so demanding, my boss is always on my case, I have so much anxiety, my phone is always blowing up, I'm so stressed, bla bla bla bla bla bla. Their phone is such a nuisance, they tell you, and they hate receiving calls/texts right before work. And during work. And after work. As a result, you become very careful not to bother them. It never feels safe to call or text. Even if they break a date with you. Even if they suddenly disappear for days at a time without warning or explanation. In reality the manipulator is responsible for managing their day to day stresses on their own. You are not responsible for this. They can choose to put their phone on silent so that it doesn't disrupt their work. They can choose to tell you in advance if they have a stressful situation coming up and may be very busy or unreachable for some reason. Instead, the manipulator is using work as an excuse to be unpredictably unavailable to you, which has the equal and opposite effect of making you excessively available to them, as the only time you'll reasonably communicate with them is if they decide to reach out to you.

With a video game or a cell phone, there is an object in between the two of you, and this creates competition. The subtext is: If you want my attention, you need to be more interesting than this video game I'm playing or whatever I'm doing on my phone. The goal is to get you to work for something as simple as eye contact. And the likelihood is that, at some point or another, they have peppered your interactions in with hints as to what will win their attention. Alternatively, the video game or cell phone can be used as a form of punishment. By being distracted with something else the manipulator withholds their affection.

Resets the situation (but it stays the same)

A common theme in abusive relationships is that they tend to have a lot of "reset" moments. You may hear phrases like, "let's just start over," or "let's go back to when [bla bla bla]". Or it might look like, "This has gotten really out of hand. From now on, let's try things this way."

Sometimes the situation does in fact change or improve, but in abusive relationships this is short lived. Eventually the situation reverts back to the same problematic model, or becomes worse than it was before.

Blames you if you call out their bad behavior

This one is pretty textbook. "I only did this because you [insert behavior here]."

I only ignored you for three days because you always nag me and it stresses me out.
I only stormed out of the party and left you there without a ride home because I saw you talking to that guy.
I only followed you around the room all night because you decided to wear that tight dress.
I only went through your phone because you insist on talking to your male friends.
I only threw your phone at the wall because you raised your voice when you told me to give it back.
I only slapped you because you said that thing and it was disrespectful.
I only changed the locks because you got home at 3 AM and you said you'd be home at 11.
I only cheat on you because you refuse to do the things in bed that I want.
I only hit you because you push me to do it.

Obvious right? Each of these attempts to shift the blame. They aren't responsible for their bad behavior, you are responsible for their bad behavior. They didn't do it, you made them do it.

No.

You aren't responsible. You can't make anyone do anything. People are responsible for their choices and their actions.

*It should also be noted that victims aren't "perfect". That is to say that sometimes you really did do something that has upset someone else legitimately. Maybe you did say you'd call them when you got home, and you forgot. Or maybe you said you'd meet them somewhere and got caught up with friends, causing them to wait somewhere alone for a long time. Nevertheless, even when someone has legitimate cause to be upset with you, it does not give them permission to abuse you. No one is entitled to unleash the full force of their rage unto you even if you have done something wrong. They are still 100% responsible for how they handle their emotions, their feelings, and their rage. Never accept that you have somehow invited abuse. Ever!

Silent treatment

This is a common abuse tactic. From relationship abuse to child abuse. It is exactly what it sounds like. In a relationship it can be someone dropping off the face of the planet suddenly. Maybe you always talk every day but suddenly you haven't spoken in three days, and they don't pick up their phone, don't text back, don't respond to any attempt at communication even though they're on their FB, or IG or whatever. If you live together maybe they just avoid eye contact, respond to anything you say in three words or less and close themselves off in the bedroom, etc.

Granted, couples fight. However, when there is a problem in your relationship, you should know. Even in an instance where one or both people in the relationship need some time to cool off before discussing the problem, in a healthy relationship this is explicitly stated and/or discussed prior to a period of silence. Someone might say, "I don't want to talk about this right now, let's talk later." Or you may schedule a time to discuss things when things are less heated or when you both have time to have the conversation out properly.

The silent treatment, on the other hand, comes without warning. It comes without the, "I need some space," disclaimer or the scheduled conversation at a later time. The silent treatment forces the other party to figure out that something is wrong.

This isn't normal. Letting someone know (or forcing someone to worry) that something is wrong by suddenly withholding attention and affection is not a respectful or considerate way of confronting a problem. This is one of the reasons that people who have been in abusive relationships (whether from child abuse, friendships or intimate relationships) report extremely high levels of stress. This kind of stress can literally make a person sick. Physically sick. It activates stress hormones in your body, puts you into fight or flight, and can create life long cardiovascular issues.

In a relationship where abuse has already occurred, this is usually the first step to alerting the person who is being abused that something - though they don't know what - is about to happen. They find themselves walking on eggshells, putting on their best behavior, trying to avoid whatever consequence is coming.

Unfortunately they are only prolonging the inevitable.

Trauma Bonding / Sharing a Secret Crime

This kind of manipulation can also be a part of isolation, but I think it's important to give it space in its own right because this can become so huge that it can take over a person's life and identity long after the relationship is over.

A trauma bond is extremely powerful. When people go through a legitimate trauma together, or meet survivors of a similar trauma, a deep bond born of understanding and compassion can form. This bond isn't artificial, and is perfectly natural. Survivors of abuse may find this bond legitimately when they meet others with similar stories. There's a sense of validation (I'm not crazy), community, and a sense of understanding that no one who hasn't experienced what you have experienced can relate to in quite the same way.

Abusers instinctively understand this somehow - and I say "somehow" because it is a common tactic used by abusers at even lower levels of intelligence and social understanding - and fabricate situations with their victims that create a synthetic form of trauma bonding.

Commit a Crime With Me

One way of creating this synthetic bond is by convincing their victim to commit a crime with them. If you're in high school it may be getting you to cut a class and sneak off to a secret place. If you work together it may be getting you to fudge your hours somehow (leave work early but send an automated email making it look like you stayed until 5). It may even just be the admission of a crime that they committed alone with the understanding that you will keep their secret (maybe they confess the drug deal business they have going on the side).

This not only facilitates isolation, but enforces a false sense of trust between you and the eventual abuser. Also, if they have successfully convinced you to commit the crime with them, they now have something to hold over your head that can be further used to manipulate you.

But that's not as bad as it can get. An abuser can also create a synthetic bond with you by creating a false "problem" and sort of positioning themselves as an expert or mentor to help you through it.

The Mentor Trauma Bond

In this scenario, the abuser will convince you that you have a serious problem. For example, they may convince you that you are an alcoholic. When they do this, they will confide that they are also an alcoholic, or they used to be an alcoholic, and can help you as you struggle through this problem (that you don't actually have). Not only does this facilitate isolation, but it sets this person up as an authority to whom you will now be checking in with, giving progress reports to, whose advice and prescriptive behavior you will be deferring to, all in an attempt to control your "problem".

The abuser won't come right out the moment they meet you and label you an alcoholic. They'll set the stage for this slowly, often participating with you in the very behaviors they will eventually condemn. They may invite you out for drinks, or offer to pour you a scotch every time you come over, establishing a pattern. Until the day you come over and ask for a scotch on your own - then they'll ask you why need a drink so badly. If you say you don't need a drink, you just want one, they'll challenge that, insisting that on some level that you aren't aware of, you need the drink and would not be able to refuse it were it on offer.

You might think that there's no way you would ever be susceptible to this form of manipulation. But because it will be happening in tandem with the behaviors of the honeymoon phase, because it will be coming from someone you have come not only to love but to rely upon, it will be difficult for you not to accept. In reality you have developed an addiction - to your abuser! - and the subtext when confronted with your "problem" - fix this or the relationship ends - will be impossible to ignore. Additionally, because this trauma bond is meant to facilitate isolation and deference to your abuser, they will aim to drag the issue out as long as possible. Do not be surprised if the same so-called mentor who notices your alleged alcoholism congratulates you after you've been sober for a month and then attempts to reward you with a drink!

This is mind-fuckery at it's finest. In all likelihood you don't actually have a problem at all, but by convincing you that you do, the abuser has found a way to control your behavior. What's more is that if they can successfully get you to identify, say, as an addict, they've managed to literally replace who you were before you met them with a brand new identity that - surprise! - they are at the center of.

Suggestion (Think Inception)

Abusers also use the power of suggestion to manipulate their victims. I think of it as being similar to the movie Inception. The abuser tries to plant an idea in your head and make you believe that it is yours.

The abuser may use language that tells you want you want and how you feel rather than asking you.

Examples:

You wore that lipstick because you want to seduce me.
You're being especially amorous today, you must really want to go down on me.
Look at you putting your hand on my knee. You must really want me to make you my girlfriend.

It may even come in the form of a question. For example:

How did you know that I liked red lipstick?
How badly do you want to go down on me?

Or a challenge, like:

If you want me to make you my girlfriend, just ask.  

By this method the abuser has projected what they want and think onto you, and even if you refute the suggestions, the topic of conversation has been opened and they can always claim that it was your idea, even though it wasn't.

*Intermittent Reinforcement*

Intermittent reinforcement is the most dangerous manipulative tactic that can be used against a victim, because it is the most effective. Intermittent reinforcement is present in ALL abusive relationships. 

Think of a slot machine. If every time you played the slot machine you won the jackpot...well...you'd be rich (chuckle). But the point is that you would know what to expect and could plan accordingly. You would know that slot machine = jackpot. If every time you played the slot machine you always lost, you would know what to expect and could plan accordingly. Slot machine = waste of time. And you would walk away.

But slot machines don't work that way. You play. Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win something small, and sometimes you hit the jackpot. The rewards are random, so you never know what to expect. This is why people become addicted to gambling, because of the chance (however slim) that they just might win.

Healthy relationships are akin to a slot machine that always pays out with the jackpot. You call your partner, they answer the phone. You send a text, you get a text back. You make dinner plans, the dinner plans are kept. Yes, sometimes things may happen that disrupt the otherwise consistent nature of the relationship. Maybe work gets crazy and someone can't pick up right away, or text back right away, or gets stuck later than they thought and has to meet for dinner later or cancel altogether. But in a healthy relationship, these instances will be few and far between. They will be the exception, not the rule.

Abusive relationships are as unpredictable as a traditional slot machine. You call your partner - sometimes they pick up, sometimes they don't. You send your partner a text - sometimes they respond, sometimes they don't. You make a date - sometimes they show up, other times they don't. On Sunday your partner showers you with attention and affection, and asks if you can meet them tomorrow night. But when Monday night rolls around they are nowhere to be found. On Tuesday night they reappear, pedaling some excuse, and promise you'll get together Thursday instead. On Thursday they cancel ten minutes before your date, because whoops! They forgot they have to...some ridiculous excuse. Clean their pet turtle's tank, and it's urgent because [insert extended excuse here]. And just when you're about to give up and walk away from the game...ahem, excuse me...your abuser, they surprise you. They call you up unexpectedly and treat you to an amazing date. Maybe you go out to an extravagant dinner, or on some sort of vacation. Everything is amazing and back to normal, you think. And then a few days later they disappear unexpectedly.

Because you aren't being met with consistent behavior, you never know what to expect. If your partner were consistently positive, you would be happy. If your partner were consistently negative, you would leave. But because you sometimes experience positive results, you stay at the slot machine. Pulling. Hoping. Waiting.

Overtime, you hit the jackpot less and less. Your experience with your partner is more negative than it is positive. But by this time you have literally developed a chemical addiction to your partner. You've been conditioned to expect a certain amount of disappointment, so you don't react nearly as negatively to it as you would have in the beginning. Similarly, because your partner is randomly withholding the positive experiences (affection, attention, quality time, etc.) you are so starved for it that you respond disproportionally to smaller and smaller instances of positivity. Where it once would have taken an extravagant vacation to get you to forgive, say, verbal abuse, now it only takes a candle lit dinner. Where it once took a diamond necklace to get you to forgive a slap in the face, now it only takes a tender kiss and an apology.

As a victim, you develop a sort of Stockholm syndrome towards your abuser. They are the source of your pain, but they are also the source of your relief from that pain. By randomly peppering in positive experiences in an increasingly negative situation, the abuser maintains the illusion that the relationship can and will eventually return to the positive experience it was during the honeymoon. These fleeting glimpses of the past keep the victim holding on, hoping that if they just try hard enough, they'll eventually hit the jackpot and get their fantasy relationship back.

In reality, the honeymoon never returns. The honeymoon phase, you see, was never the relationship that was on offer. It was only the hook. The abuse - that is the real relationship. And once an abuser knows they have you on the hook, they have less and less incentive to provide you with positive experiences.

Types of Abuse

Part of what can make abusive relationships so difficult to spot as they unfold, is that people are conditioned to think of abusive relationships in their most extreme and obvious forms. We picture a victim who has been badly beaten by their partner, or an abuser who is screaming obscenities at a docile victim at the top of their lungs. Abuse is not always that obvious, at least not at first. However, abusers will continue to test, push, and cross boundaries overtime, so even relationships that don't seem dire at first will eventually become worse. They can even become deadly.

Emotional

Your partner love bombs you during the hot phase, then breaks up with you without warning, labeling some character trait of yours a fatal flaw. Your partner tells you they love you consistently for months, then suddenly backpedals and confesses that, in fact, they never loved you in the first place. Your partner initially tells you that you're beautiful, but eventually begins to criticize your appearance, your weight, the way you dress, etc. Your partner begins the relationship proclaiming to admire your intelligence, then slowly erodes your self-esteem by belittling your intelligence, perhaps even orchestrating situations with the sole purpose of embarrassing you.

Verbal

Things like profanity, raised voices, and name calling are pretty obvious. Verbal abuse can also be more subtle. Words are incredibly powerful, and many carry with them inescapable negative connotations.

Let's say, for example, that on the way out to an event you've misplaced your keys. Your partner observes you scurrying around trying to locate them. Maybe they ask where you had them last and try to help you retrace your steps. Maybe they observe your search and tell you not to stress out, that you don't have to rush, and that actually your turning over the apartment is kind of cute. They may even tell you that you look confused. These are all acceptable ways to talk to one's partner in this situation. An abuser, however, might watch you looking for your keys and casually say, "Awwwww, you can't find your keys? How pathetic."

Pathetic carries connotations that undermine necessary components of a healthy relationship, namely trust and respect.

Even when done so subtly, language that is inherently disrespectful is a form of verbal abuse.

Sexual

Sex can be used in a relationship as a mode of reward and punishment, or as intermittent reinforcement. An abuser may strategically withhold sex to facilitate the desired behavior on the part of their partner, or to cause anxiety and desperation in their partner.

Conversely, sex that is unusually rough (say, after an argument), or outright rape, is sexual abuse within a relationship.

Physical

This is probably the most obvious. Even if it isn't an outright beating, a slap, a push, a shake. This is all physical abuse, and as this can turn deadly if it worsens, if you experience this please, please, seek professional help right away.

It should also be noted that manipulation, in and of itself, is already a form of abuse. If you stay in a relationship where any of these things have already occurred, it is highly unlikely that the situation will improve. Instead, the abuse tends to get more overt.

Once you've shown your willingness to stay in an abusive relationship, the abuser is less and less likely to hold back.

The Cycle

Honeymoon, problem, abuse. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The initial honeymoon phase lasts the longest. It may take weeks, months or even years for the first problem to arise, and then many months for enough tension to build before the first moment of outright abuse. Maybe they say horrible things. Maybe they break up with you as a punishment for failing to meet their prescribed goal. Maybe it's sexual abuse, or maybe it's physical. Regardless, if they return with grand apologies and promises seeking to bring you back into the honeymoon phase, and you accept, the cycle starts all over again.

The cycle of abuse will get shorter and shorter every time. The honeymoon gets shorter. The tension builds quicker. The abuse becomes both more severe and more frequent. This is usually when the person being abused figures out that things aren't going to go back to "normal". That it's not going to change back or be fixed. This is it. This is the relationship unless you get out.

Devalue/Discard

Every abusive relationship, whether a relationship with a borderline personality, a narcissist, or an abuser of another kind, ends with one final phase. Devalue and discard. This is when the person abusing you has taken everything you have to give. You have been depleted. You have been reduced. It isn't fun or challenging for them anymore and they move onto someone else.

The devalue phase can happen gradually overtime, or it can happen suddenly in the moment you are being discarded. The devalue phase is the opposite of the idolization phase. You are no longer the amazing person you once were, in your abuser's eyes. Now they see every flaw you have, both real and imagined, and the abuser will use these flaws to attempt to devalue you as a person and justify their choice to discard you.

Note that this is not as simple as a person breaking up with you. Even when a SO breaks up with you and provides a reason for doing so, this doesn't necessitate a full on character attack. Regular break up reasons may look like, I don't think this is working, or, I just don't think we're compatible. Devalue and discard break ups tend to have more you statements than statements. An abuser will try and convince you that you are inherently flawed in some way, and that that's the reason they've treated you as they have and eventually decided to move on.

Even though an abuser has no designs on a happily ever after, it is very important to these people that they are in control of when the relationship ends. If you try to get away from an abuser they will make it very hard for you to do that. Usually by starting back at honeymoon. They will make big romantic gestures. They will make promises of change. They will chirp all the right words that you always wanted them to say. But if you resist these more common tactics, they will try whatever tactic they think might work to get you to stay. They may initially pretend to accept separation but then tell you how depressed they are without you and that they may hurt themselves (guilt). They may tell you that no one else will love you after what you've allowed them to do to you (shame). Or, at the very worse levels of abuse, they may threaten you physically. They may even threaten your life.

*In most cases where women are killed by a current or former intimate partner, it is during the moment she tries to leave the relationship, or after, in retaliation for having left.

This doesn't mean there is no way out. But it is important to understand all of the stages in an abusive relationship because it is easier to get out earlier on.

Signs It's Happening

1. Hot Phase
The hot phase is easy to spot. It literally just feels too good to be true. It will feel like a lot and it will try to move very, very quickly. This isn't normal.

2. Panic
When the problem is introduced you will feel panic. Please pay attention to it. Please don't sweep it under the rug. Please don't immediately make yourself adjust to it. That very first moment when the relationship is threatened, either by your problem or theirs, there will be a moment of panic when you realize you need to adapt somehow to stay in this. Rather than adapting, this is a good moment to get yourself out. This is NOT normal. Problems do arise in relationships, but not in the form of ultimatums, and especially not in the form of the entire relationship itself. Additionally, healthy partners address issues they may have in a relationship head on, rather than withdrawing or otherwise creating tension before eventually revealing the reason for their change in behavior. That is control and manipulation and it's unacceptable.

3. Stress
If you stay past the point of the manipulative shift, stress will become very familiar from then on. You will be walking on eggshells. Extended periods of quiet will make you nervous. Anxiety will be frequent. Often you are kept waiting on purpose, left hanging on purpose. This is when they start testing your boundaries and exerting their control over you, and the constant mind games will have you in a constant state of stress.

4. Fear
Are you constantly afraid that something is wrong? That you did something to upset the other person without realizing it? That they're angry with you? These are signs that you're being manipulated.

5. Confusion
Did you just have a long conversation that doesn't really make sense? Did you agree to a situation that has become something else and you're not sure how you got there? If outsiders ask you questions, are you able to answer them easily and honestly, or do you tell them that it's complicated because you can't quite get it straight yourself? If you're constantly feeling confused it is because you are being manipulated.

6. Lying / Shame
Are you lying to cover up what's happening? Are you afraid of what people will think, or what your partner will do if you tell the truth? People who are manipulating you in abusive relationships rely on your shame to keep you quiet.

7. Emotional Numbness
How do you feel? Seriously. Stop, take a moment, and evaluate how you feel right now about the person you're with and the relationship that you're in. Regardless of whether you still feel invested (because intermittent reinforcement facilitates that investment), do you actually feel the way you felt about your partner in the beginning? How about the way you've felt in healthy relationships?
When you're in an abusive relationship, even if that abuse is emotional, you're being exposed to trauma over and over again. A person can only handle so much of this, and overtime your brain goes into survival mode to protect you. Feeling emotionally distant, or emotionally detached, is part of that survival, because if you actually felt the abuse with the full depth of your emotions, you wouldn't be able to survive it.
When a person is treating you so badly that your brain starts to shut parts of you down just to get through it? - it's time to get out!

Get Out

If you realize that you are in any form of an abusive relationship, understand that the person you're in a relationship with is not a healthy partner. It is very tempting to want to work on the relationship. The honeymoon phase was likely perfect, too good to be true, and you may believe that if you could just solve things you can somehow get back to that. The manipulative shift is designed to make the victim believe that the change that occurred in the relationship was their fault, because logically if they caused the relationship to change for the worse, then they can also cause the relationship to change for the better, or in other words, to change back. In reality, the beautiful relationship you've been fantasizing about eventually getting back to (once you overcome the many problems that suddenly and inexplicably arose) never existed in the first place. Instead, the real relationship is the abusive situation that you are in now, and it will not improve the longer you stay in it. It will only get worse. 

Detox

Because of the psychological and chemical effect that intermittent reinforcement has on the brain - releasing a large rush of the dopamine neurotransmitter whenever the victim is thrown even a scrap of a positive experience - abusive relationships require an actual, chemical detox. Indeed, if you are in an abusive relationship you aren't involved in a relationship at all. You aren't dating your abuser. You're addicted to your abuser. That means that when you leave the relationship you are going to experience withdrawal. 

At this point, even the scraps of positive experience will seem very, very attractive, and you will be tempted to engage with your abuser for the chance of acquiring these scraps, even in the face of inevitably negative consequences. What is actually happening is that your brain is being deprived of the intermittent dopamine hits that have facilitated your addiction to your abuser thus far. That's why to successfully detox from an abusive relationship, you need to go no contact. 

No Contact 

No contact, means no contact, means no contact. In some cases you won't need to go no contact indefinitely. If the relationship was rather short, 30 days of no contact should be enough to successfully detox. If the relationship was longer, or if you've already tried to leave and have returned, I recommend a full 90 day detox. Do not call in case of emergency. Do not drunk text. Do not go to the event that the mutual friend is holding where you just might "accidentally" run into your ex. Don't think of yourself as getting over a breakup. Think of yourself as a recovering drug addict. Any form of contact - a voicemail, a text message, an Instagram like - is akin to a hit of the drug you are addicted to. Choose the length of time that you will allow yourself to detox from the toxic relationship and stick to it.

Beyond Romance

Romantic relationships are not the only ones capable of becoming abusive. Abusive relationship are caused by abusive people, and their abusive traits are not necessarily isolated to romance. Particularly in situations where avoidance of the person is difficult to impossible (home/work) or in situations where the person is in an inherent position of power (parent/landlord/boss), people who prefer to get what they want via abuse rather than respectful means are likely to rear their ugly heads. 

The fact that an abusive relationship is not romantic does not make it any less dangerous. Anticipating the next explosion alone is enough to release excess stress hormones and take a toll on physical health, not to mention mental health. Many of the signs that predict abuse in romantic relationships also pertain to relationships with family, friends, roommates, work associates, etc., and the cycle of abuse maintains the same pattern once it starts. 

Support

Abusive relationships are extremely damaging to victims. They result in eroded confidence, self-esteem, and even identity. While you are recovering from having been involved with an abusive partner (or person), enlist support! Talk to friends, family, and if necessary seek professional help. The involvement of third parties will not only serve as support while you recover, but will also prevent future instances of gaslighting and other manipulative tactics that rely on the isolation of the victim. In other words, you'll have witnesses.

If you are in the process of extricating yourself from an abusive relationship, in addition to enlisting support, write things down. Keep a personal record of occurrences. Mark the calendar. This is for your own sanity. Abusive people have a tendency to rewrite history in whatever way serves their current interests (gaslighting). If you have a physical record of things this becomes more difficult to do. Granted, they may still do it. But you will, at the very least, know the truth and be slightly more removed from their manipulative behaviors.

Lastly, let me just say that if you are currently in an abusive relationship, I know how difficult it is to read something like this. If you found this article because you were looking for advice as to how to fix your relationship and get it to return to it's magical origin story, I'm sorry. I really am. The fact is that once this cycle begins, it does not deescalate. It will only continue, progress, and worsen. I've been there multiple times and I know how impossible it feels to walk away from someone who you believe you love. Chemical dependency, however, is not the same thing as love. I promise, what you'll find is that the first 30 days are the hardest, and as you approach the 90 day mark and stop associating the feeling of the dopamine rush with the face of your abuser, you will begin to see them clearly and the false feeling of love with fade. This too can be extremely difficult, because in addition to mourning the loss of the relationship, you will realize that the relationship itself was never real. Having bought into a beautiful lie may cause you to question your own judgement, but this is why it is so important to have a strong support system in place as you go through this process. It will be difficult. Inexplicably difficult. No two ways around that. But in the end you will be better for it. 

Know that you are strong enough to overcome abuse, and are absolutely worthy of relationships that are consistently respectful, loving, and reciprocal. True, no relationship is absolutely perfect, but that is where compromise, compassion and growth come into play.

Not abuse.

Because love is not supposed to hurt. 

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