Abuse is a powerful and evocative word. Many of us may well think of sexual abuse when we first hear the word, but abuse covers physical, emotional and mental hurt too, and it can be experienced by any age or gender, by young children or senior citizens.
Abuse in an adult relationship often occurs as a slow, subtle process. If a person was rude, sarcastic, nasty or aggressive on a first meeting there would be little chance of us agreeing to meet them again. Often the abuser’s behaviour is styled as attentive, wanting to help us improve, being keen to take care of us, demonstrating support, and indeed, that may be the case initially, before things begin to change.
Here are some ways to recognise an abusive relationship:
*Abuse is often about control, fear of you leaving, not loving the other person enough, not wanting to be with them any more. Money can be a significant part of their control, buying you treats, expensive gifts, offering to take care of you. It can be a seductive process, being wined and dined, treated as special, especially if this is a new or unfamiliar experience for you. But this behaviour is often a subtle attempt to become an increasingly integral part of your life.
*Having someone else take control of the finances may be a relief at first; not having to worry about bills, knowing that side of your life is being taken care of. But gradually you may find that you’re having to justify your spending, being criticized for buying certain things, accused of spending too much, being discouraged from being independent. This can be especially problematic in cases where you don’t work and rely on them to provide an allowance, or where all income goes into a joint account which is regularly inspected and complained about.
*Having a job, a career provides a feeling of independence, satisfaction and accomplishment and this can cause your abuser to feel uneasy and insecure about their level of control. They may start to criticize your enthusiasm for your job, discourage you from applying for additional training or advancement. They may become irritated, bored, dismissive if you try to discuss your work, colleagues, problems or achievements. Company social events or training days away with colleagues can gradually become a source of argument and tension.
*Another way to recognise an abusive relationship is when you receive unwarranted criticism about the way you dress, your make up, your desire to look smart and professional at work or when socializing with others. Even your attention to personal hygiene may be treated with suspicion as being flirtatious and attention-seeking.
*Personal confidence and levels of self-esteem are gradually eroded by a bully or abuser. This can start with a raised eyebrow, a suppressed laugh, a ‘you’re not wearing that, are you?‘ or a ‘there’s no point in you applying for that job‘, all purporting to sound like concerned, helpful advice but in reality a slow process of intimidation and undermining. Some abusers will try to hi-jack any attempts to improve yourself through dieting, exercise, night school classes and so forth, by saying they are unnecessary, expensive, inconvenient.
*And yet often abusers are adept at making you feel that this is your fault, that if you were a better person they would not need to be so critical of you. Many abusers are contrite afterwards; they apologise profusely, vow never to behave that way again. This can be a seductive pattern as often the victim feels that if they loved more, tried harder, were more supportive their abuser would be more secure in the relationship and not need to behave so abusively.
*Family and friends are regarded as rivals for your time and attention. They may be ridiculed, dismissed as a bad influence. The questioning and arguments may gradually be seen as too much hassle. Or your partner may consistently offer alternative, exciting or important arrangements that conflict with times when you’d arranged to meet your friends. They gradually start to omit you from arrangements because of your unreliability.
*Turning up unexpectedly or phoning regularly may seem flattering and attentive at first, but over time ‘where are you?’ and ‘why didn’t you answer your phone/call me back?’ can become more sinister. You may find that your mobile phone is regularly checked, your phone bill is examined for patterns of calls, the mileage on your car is noted.
*Sexual coercion can also be a significant part of abuse, increasing the abuser’s sense of control while reducing your confidence and self-esteem.
This kind of abuse serves to slowly alienate you from family, friends, other people and interests. Many of us dislike confrontation and try to avoid it, especially if it becomes menacing, scary and aggressive. Abusers are often skilful at presenting their controlling behaviour as love, concern and guidance. Being vigilant about retaining a level of independence and outside support can help keep other options open and make the safest, most appropriate next step for you a little clearer.
Susan Leigh is a counsellor and hypnotherapist who works with couples in crisis to improve communications and understanding. She also works with both individuals and businesses.