October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, dedicated to unifying and supporting victims
of abuse. As we come together to raise awareness about this important subject, let’s first talk
about what abuse really means and how to identify it.
When most of us think of the word “abuse,” we picture physical violence. We may discount the
term if we have not been assaulted. This is unfortunate because many are threatened and
intimidated by their partners, but do not realize that it fits an abusive pattern and therefore, do
not seek help.
If it feels more comfortable to replace the word “abuse” with “bullying,” go right ahead. What
is important is to understand and to digest the information, not the word you choose to use.
In addition, I am referring to the abusive partner as “he” and you, the reader, as “she.”
However, many men find themselves in abusive relationships and experience difficulty in
standing up to their partners, though the reasons for staying in an abusive relationship often
differ between the sexes. The behavioral patterns described here can apply to men or to
anyone who finds themselves in an abusive dynamic.
So, how do we identify abuse?
The most important thing to consider is if there is a pattern of pathological or abusive behavior.
In a healthy relationship, if your partner lashes out in anger, he is not intending to disempower
you by “putting you in your place.” In fact, he is likely to feel remorse (taking responsibility) for
his or her behavior and how it made you feel (empathy) after the fact. There is typically some
attempt made toward reconciliation. Your partner’s actions consistently match his words.
In an unhealthy relationship, there is a clear pattern of lashing out at you, blaming you for the
lashing and not taking responsibility for the abusive behavior. An abuser makes you pay for
confronting him by punishing you in the way he knows will cause you the most distress. The
things your partner tells you are often inconsistent with the way he behaves. The pattern is
cyclical and is usually apparent across multiple areas of an abuser’s life, not just with you.
If you’re in an unhealthy relationship, it is common to not want to rock the boat by speaking up
for yourself. You may have tried to voice your feelings in the past, but the price was far too
high, and you’ve since decided it simply wasn’t worth it. If this is the case, it is important to look
at the bigger dynamic in the relationship. You are giving your partner the power to bully you as
you attempt to make yourself smaller and smaller. In the short term, you may save yourself a
fight, but in the long run, you lose yourself completely.
You have the right to say when something is not all right and make a clear distinction between
what is acceptable behavior and what is not. If your partner respects your right to speak up and
the boundary you have set forth, there is hope that the unhealthy way of relating can change.
If your partner’s abusive behavior escalates in any way (verbally, emotionally, physically or
sexually) as you assert yourself, this is a clear indication that it is not ever going to get better. If
your partner tries to manipulate you into staying in the relationship by threatening suicide or
threatening to take the children, this is an attempt to control you. Sadly, this is significantly
more likely to be the case if you are in an abusive relationship, given the very basic nature of an
It is important to take a step back and look at what is happening to you in the relationship. Is
there room for you and for your needs? Do you feel respected and valued by your partner? Do
you feel free to really be yourself or do you have to hide parts of yourself so as not to create
disharmony? These are just a few questions to consider when evaluating whether or not you
are in a destructive dynamic.
Recognizing that you may be in an abusive relationship isn’t easy. It can be quite confusing and
painful to acknowledge that the person you love is harming you. It is normal to feel this way.
Know that you should feel supported by your partner, not that he or she is continually working
against you. You are worthy of a relationship where you are respected and valued. You (and
your children) have the right to feel safe.