Violence in relationships is a disorienting and complicated experience, and one that is often difficult to recognize and accept.
Experiencing abuse in a relationship is commonly difficult to make sense of and due to the traumatic nature of the experience, victims often struggle to use this term when it comes to describing their own situation.
While the word abuse is often used in a singular and extreme context, the reality of abuse is that it is not defined by one behaviour, one specific incident, or strictly through physical harm.
Violence in relationships doesn’t alway leave visible scars, and often, it manifests in many forms. Victims of abuse take months, even years, to acknowledge that it has occurred because of the many areas of their lives that are controlled over time.
As we look at the different ways in which abuse can show up in relationships, it’s important for us to remember the root causes of abuse, and that is power and control.
The Power and Control Wheel, created by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, MN, is a comprehensive diagram that shows the multiple ways in which abuse can be experienced in a relationship, along with the tactics through which power is achieved by the abuser.
The dynamics of power and control
The abuser often seeks to establish a dynamic through which he or she can be in a position of dominance over the other person, to be able to dictate the victim’s sense of worth, choose their social circles, dictate their decision-making, and more importantly, to control how the relationship should function.
Victims of abuse often end up in these dynamics unknowingly because of how subtly power and control are gained in a relationship. The abuser paints their intentions and behaviours as protective, caring and assertive, and as a result operates in a manipulative way
that can lead the victim to become powerless over time. Let’s look at some examples together:
(If you find reading this activating, please make sure you take time to breathe or take a break if you need to as you read this and come back to the article)
- Overly jealous behaviour presented as a protective nature, eventually giving the abuser control over who their partner can befriend, communicate with and spend time with, and eventually isolating them from their support systems or family.
- Managing finances as a form of problem-solving, with the goal of eventually dictating how their partner handles money, which jobs they can take on (if any) and limiting or taking away their financial freedom.
- Using violent language, but emphasising to their partner that they have never laid a hand on them (note: verbal violence IS abuse).
- Making monumental decisions for the relationship with no regard for the partner’s input, and often invalidating their abilities or intelligence.
- Using anger as a form of intimidation, leading the victim, over time, to avoid conflict or disagreement out of fear.
- Limiting the victim’s support network and isolating them by choosing who the victim can befriend, what their career path should be, and what their long-term decisions can look like.
- Stonewalling or discrediting the partner’s presence, and slowing gaining control over how their partner can conduct themselves in their presence.
While abuse can be one, many or all of the above, it often becomes apparent after many years, at a time where the victim may be unable to seek help or financially support themselves.
Domestic Violence: a reality difficult to face
Given how little education on abuse has existed, victims often believe that their own experiences don’t fit the description and dismiss their suffering as a result.
They may assume that they are being treated well because they are not being physically harmed, or because they have been hurt only a few times without being injured critically.
Many victims will also dismiss instances of abuse, violence, gaslighting or intimidation, believing that they are consequences to their own actions or that they are rare, unusual outbursts from their partner.
It is important to seek support and community care from family, friends and professional organizations, since understanding violence in a relationship requires compassion and safety.
Victims also hesitate to report abuse, to leave abusive partners or to seek separation. Starting a new life or leaving their situation is an overwhelming transition that seems more challenging and complicated than their current situation.
Many victims will also be lured back into their relationships through apologies, gifts and false promises, as the abuser often realises that their position of power is compromised without their partner. You could be interested in learning about the cycle of abuse.
It can take multiple attempts, and many years, to leave the situation before it is done once and for all.
Resources and support
Here are some ways to understand abuse and seek support:
- Acknowledge the possibility of abusive dynamics in your relationship, especially if your well-being and safety are compromised, or if you sense fear around your partner.
- Speak to a friend, family member or a colleague, even if you have lost touch or aren’t close. Often, a person outside of your partnership can help you identify the issues you’re experiencing. Workplaces can also help direct you to helplines and services.
- Seek therapy or counselling, if finances are an issue, inquire about sliding scale options or free support services.
- Ask for financial assistance if you need to leave your partner; borrow money from a friend or look for helplines that can assist with your relocation. If you are working towards an eventual separation, open a small account to save funds to help support you long-term.
- If your life is in danger, call a friend, family member, emergency helplines or 911 for support. .
Please remember that you are neither responsible nor deserving of your partner’s disrespect or abuse, you deserve a loving, nurturing and respectful relationship where your safety and peace are prioritized.
Practice compassion with yourself when shame, a very normal trauma response, comes up. You deserve to find a safe space and partner that cares for you, honours you and protects you.
***If you suspect that you are experiencing abuse in your relationship, below is a list of resources to get started***