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Relationship Abuse: When Romance Goes Rogue

It’s not always easy to identify the signs of relationship abuse. Knowing what abuse can look like can help you take action to repair an unhealthy relationship.

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Life amidst the lockdown is difficult. We are facing new challenges around working from home, taking care of our children, supporting the elderly, and adapting to the new normal. Stress levels are higher than ever, and this is taking a toll on domestic and family life. Ever since the lockdown, there has been a spike in reports of domestic abuse and violence all over the world. Living together in this highly stressful environment is making relationship abuse more common.

Even if we didn’t consider the rise in domestic abuse complaints amidst the lockdown, the fact of the matter is that abuse in romantic relationships is a more pervasive and frequently occurring reality than we would like to believe. Most of us tend to think of abuse in terms of physical violence, and expect to see clear, visible signs of the same – a bruised hand or a cut on the cheek, maybe. However, in addition to that, abuse can be psychological or emotional as well, scarring the individual in ways that might not necessarily be conspicuous to others. 

Another misconception that most of us harbour is that the abuse is always committed by men against women. The truth is far from it – psychological and physical abuse is often meted out to men as well – and can exist in homosexual relationships too. Yet, the frequency and, in most cases, the intensity of abuse is much more when the victims are women than men.

What Abuse Entails

The American Medical Association (1992) has expounded on the differing forms in which physical and psychological abuse can be manifested.

Physical abuse meted out by one’s partner can manifest in relatively mild forms such as pushing, shoving, and throwing things at the victim. It could take more severe and violent forms as well, such as punching, kicking, biting, choking, burning, and injury with weapons. Even forcing a partner to engage in sexual activities against his or her will is abusive behaviour.

The more unobtrusive psychological abuse takes the form of public or private humiliation, intimidation, intense criticising, belittling, and name-calling, to name a few. Threatening to physically harm or abandon the partner, policing the partner’s movements in order to keep a check on them, and socially isolating them by being excessively jealous also falls under this category.

A rather insidious form that psychological abuse can take is referred to, in popular-media, as gas-lighting. Gas-lighting involves psychologically manipulating someone by questioning or rubbishing their feelings, memory and perception to the extent that the person begins to doubt themselves. In an abusive relationship, the gas-lighter/abuser may attempt to put forward a view of reality (“You’re overthinking this!”) different from the one that the victim has. This eventually erodes the victim’s self-trust (“Am I overthinking this?”). The manipulation aims to undermine the gas-lightee’s sense of self until he/she believes that they are wrong and the gas-lighter is right. The victim ends up believing that the gas-lighter is the only one who is willing to accept him/her despite the victim’s ‘faulty’ understanding of things.

Such abuse can gravely harm the individual’s concept of self and their self-esteem. Moreover, victims often experience a loss of trust in others, which in turn makes it difficult for them to function healthily in other relationships. It is also common for victims to experience mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression.

How (Psychological) Abuse Works

Power plays a significant role in relationship dynamics. Abuse usually includes an ongoing pattern of behaviour, attitudes, and beliefs in which a partner in an intimate relationship attempts to maintain power and control over the other through the use of psychological, physical and/or sexual coercion. As a result, these relationships become grossly imbalanced, and this imbalance might be evident in the little things as well (for instance, your partner might be allowed to vent to and on you after a bad day at work, but you receive strong emotional backlash for complaining about a bad day).

Typically, in the initial stages of a relationship, two tactics are employed by the abuser to establish dominance: criticism of, and withdrawal from, the victim. As the victim’s sense of control, power and worth decreases, that of the abuser increases. Eventually, the victim becomes timid and submissive, feeling as though he/she is walking on eggshells, especially in the presence of their partner. This, in turn, instills a sense of fear in the victim, making him/her feel helpless. This might then perpetuate the imbalanced dynamic that the partners share and may leave the victim feeling as though he/she were “stuck” in the relationship.

Being in an abusive relationship can take quite a toll on an individual. Whether you are the victim (or even the abuser) abuse leaves strong psychological, and in some cases, physical, scars that take time to heal. Professional help can be extremely effective for those who are or have been in abusive relationships. Online counselling can be a viable option for those who are stuck at home and are dealing with abuse right now.

If you are reading this and have been the victim of abuse, know that you are not alone. Abuse is never okay – and you deserve better. The situation is scary and can shatter your sense of self-worth, but talking to a therapist can help you regain a sense of control in your life. A therapist can also help you think of ways to be safe and feel better. Get help immediately – if not from a professional, from a trusted friend or family member.

References

Maier, G. J. (1996). Understanding the Dynamics of Abusive Relationships. 

Mannan, A., Ghani, S., Clarke, A., White, P., Salmanta, S., Butler, P.E. (2006). Psychosocial Outomes derived from an acid burned population in Bangladesh, and comparison with Western norms. Journal of the International Society of Burn Injuries, 32 (2) 235-241.

Partner Violence: What Can You Do? Retrieved October 10, 2016.

London, W. (2016). A critical review of literature relating to emotional abuse of heterosexual males in intimate partner relationships : how such abuse develops and is maintained and the various therapeutic approaches to treatment (October), 0–19.

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