Over the course of a lifetime, it seems that each of us will have to deal with a hurtful or abusive relationship at one point or another. Whether it be an overly critical mother-in-law or an aggressive spouse, we have to find a way to come out above it all before our emotional bank is exhausted.
Sometimes it’s easier to blame ourselves and believe that we’re selfish for expecting more, but we all deserve to be loved in a way that uplifts us rather than demoralizes us. If you’ve ever heard that little saying, “Treat others as you would like to be treated” you know what I mean.
In abusive relationships, the victims often worry more about the abusers feelings than their own. They put their needs last and over time, begin to believe that their feelings are somehow less important. The abuser fails to meet their needs and the victim is left to believe that they don’t count. But, if we take the saying above and adjust it slightly we come up with a recipe of words that can benefit victims. “Treat yourself as you believe others should be treated”. Putting someone you love first, does not mean having to put yourself last. If a victim is ever to escape the cycle of abuse, they must first realize that they deserve the same consideration as any other individual and learn to make themselves a priority. By understanding abuse and how it functions, we can change our perspective of ourselves and begin to realize our true worth.
You deserve love.
In abusive relationships, we can become desensitized to the reality of how bad the situation has gotten. In time, we come to see the events as “normal” or “acceptable” because “it could be worse”. This is especially true in cases of generational abuse, where the victim was also abused in childhood, saw their parents and family members abused and knows little of relationships otherwise. In cases of generational abuse, it can be extremely difficult to overcome the psychological effects that keep us down and doubting our worth. Essentially, we learn to put our feelings aside in an effort to rationalize the abuse and we dismiss our feelings about the situation or our want for escape. It’s important to try to think objectively about the situation in order to gauge whether or not you should end the relationship. Often times, we may know that walking away is best, but inevitably, we stay.
Here are some of the most common issues that prevent us from protecting ourselves from our attackers.
- Low self-esteem
- Financial worries
- Fear of retaliation
- Fear of being alone
- Emotional attachment
- Belief that abuse is “normal”
All of these feelings are illusions to some degree. Lies that we tell ourselves in order to cope with the abuse or manipulations that our abusers use to keep us under their control. Because abusive relationships play “tricks” on us to make us doubt our emotions, we must be ever vigilant of the signs of abuse and guard ourselves against them.
Know the warning signs of abuse.
In an abusive relationship there are many warning signs, or “red flags,” that can help to alert you to the fact that you are in an unhealthy relationship. Once you know some of the warning signs, you can begin to create a plan of action that can help you to either repair the relationship or, in cases of continuing abuse, walk away.
Here are some examples of “red flags”:
- Jealousy, possessiveness, being bossy or demanding.
- Controls your life by limiting contact with family, friends, controlling the things you say or do in public, etc. Takes over finances, household decisions, doesn’t trust you to make choices or allow your input in discussions. Keeps track of everything you do, repeatedly attacks you for any actions that they disapprove of.
- Loses control when upset, reacts aggressively to things you say and do.
- Addictions, affairs, drug use, history of abusive relationships or childhood, warnings from family and friends about their behavior.
- Blames you for their anger and abuse towards you. Threatens you, hits you, pressures you to do things your not comfortable with, sexual acts, illegal or immoral acts, etc.
- Destroys your personal property and sentimental items when angry.
- Constantly criticizes and demeans you with little or no consideration for your feelings.
- On/Off relationship, you leave, but keep returning, can’t seem to stay away despite knowing the relationship is hurting for you.
So what is a healthy relationship?
Because victims of abuse don’t often see healthy relationships daily we tend not to recognize what it is that makes healthy relationships work. A healthy relationship is one that is based on equality and mutual respect. Both partners are in balance and work together to make decisions while maintaining healthy boundaries.
Here are some good examples of healthy behavior:
- Communicating honestly and openly.
- Listening without judgement and responding to each other’s opinions and valuing the others perspective and feelings.
- Helping those you love to reach their personal life goals as well as your family goals.
- Respecting and appreciating their interests and unique traits.
- Acknowledging mistakes or bad behaviors and apologizing.
- Changing bad behaviors when it hurts someone.
- Open to self-help, outside help and counseling when needed.
- Sharing the responsibilities of parenthood, work, household chores and other duties.
- Compromising, rather than arguing when there is a disagreement.
Setting & enforcing boundaries.
One of the most important differences between abusive and healthy relationships is the ability of both individuals to set, enforce and respect boundaries. When boundaries are respected, both individuals are able to express their feelings and know that the other person will honor them in return. Sometimes it helps to look at the situation from an objective angle. Think of what you might tell a friend in an abusive situation. Should we expect them to put their feelings aside in order to gain the acceptance of their abuser or would we ask them to acknowledge their own feelings and make themselves a priority? In every relationship there has to be a balance of power. Allowing others to gain control over our emotions will only ensure that we are left feeling empty, unloved and used. By learning to prioritize our own emotions, we can gain some control in the relationship and ensure that our feelings aren’t continually trampled on by others.
Here are some common ways that we can stand up for ourselves and enforce our boundaries:
- Learn to say “no”
- Demand respect & don’t back down
- Realize that you deserve the right to defend yourself
- Speak your mind & point out unacceptable behaviors
- Encourage change in your abuser, but don’t think that their change is your responsibility
Start by making a list of all the things that you don’t want to do, but are afraid to say “no” to. Also, make a note of why you feel unable to say “no”. Would you hurt their feelings or do you fear they would become angry? Whatever the reason, list it. Making a list like this can help us to see the ways in which we allow others to control our actions and helps prevent us from getting pulled into things that will later will regret or resent having to do. Let go of the guilt or fear that you may feel about asserting yourself and realize that your needs are also important.
When to walk away.
At some point, relationships can become toxic. You’ve tried again and again with no success and the abuser seems unwilling or unable to change. Perhaps the physical abuse of domestic violence also plays a role. This is when you have to make a plan to walk away from the relationship. Staying only condones the behavior and reinforces their belief that what they’re doing is acceptable in some way. At this point there is always some hesitation because walking away from someone you love hurts and walking away from someone who has controlled you is frightening. We get to the point where we believe that we “need” that person in our lives in order to survive. Like the air we breathe, the lack of their presence can be suffocating. In spite of our feelings, there is hope. Walking away can allow us to reclaim our confidence. Once the abuse has ended, we can learn to rely on ourselves to meet our emotional needs. There is a tremendous power in learning to encourage yourself that can never be found if you continue to measure yourself against everyone else’s expectations and demands. There are times when being alone can help to produce some very good changes.
Walking away from a relationship or preparing to can cause a lot of emotional pain. We often feel guilty for leaving them out of our lives, worry whether we will make it on our own, or if they will retaliate. Through all the guilt and disappointment about the relationship not producing fruit, we can be sure of one thing. We all deserve peace in our lives. Peace comes with learning to acknowledge our emotions and making that effort a priority in our lives. Many psychologists describe a set of five stages that occur between the loss of a loved one and the final realization of peace. These observed stages of grief can help us to deal with both the physical and emotional losses.
The stages in order of occurrence are:
- Denial – We are shocked by what is happening and refuse to accept it.
- Anger – We don’t understand why this is happening. We blame ourselves or others.
- Bargaining – We try to make deals with God or others in an attempt to make the problem go away.
- Depression – As we begin to realize our loss, we are left with the hurt and hopelessness of the results.
- Acceptance – We understand and accept the loss as it is.
Learning more about the five stages of grief can help tremendously in our efforts to resolve our feelings about the situation and eventually find peace. To learn more, please see the links below.
Abuse Help & Information Websites