Most of us think we’re immune to the worst-case scenarios. We’d never let someone take advantage of us because we’re smart and self-assured. We’d know when we’re experiencing any kind of abuse because we’ve seen it on TV and read about the signs in magazines. The scary truth is, more often than not, when it comes to our own lives we become instinctively blind to the signs. Sometimes even to tragic ends.
Before you get defensive, hear me out. The things we put up with and accept as part of “normal relationship challenges” may in fact be the first signs you need to pay attention to before things get worse. It may not have to be a battered-blue-like-Rihanna face, because domestic abuse can take many forms. Some of which might even surprise you.
A few years ago, I was in a relationship with a man named Paul*. I had just moved to London, England, and met him on my first weekend in town. Refusing to fall into a relationship right away, I staved off his advances for as long as I could. Eventually, his persistent courting won me over and my interest in him grew. Before I knew it, I was fully ensconced in a relationship with a man who fawned over me and catered to my every whim.
What I didn’t realize was that every gesture he made came with a price, and a tiny little hook of perceived ownership had been pierced into me. I was being pegged into a corner. When I wanted to do things on my own, he would bring up the last time he had to change his plans for me so we could hang. When I wanted to go out for dinner, he’d make me feel guilty for suggesting he should spend more money on me. Meanwhile, he would shower me with random gifts on a regular basis, including clothes, which I would be encouraged to wear instead of what I already owned.
He was controlling, critical and defensive. Most alarming to me was the way I initially excused the behavior with justifications of, “Normally, he treats me like a queen!” Or, “But he’s such a romantic and always gives me little tokens of his affection.” What I was really afraid of was admitting that I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. And worst of all, I never saw it coming. It wasn’t until he gave me a literal ultimatum that I came to the realization.
The Warning Signs
It’s hard to quantify exactly what emotional abuse entails, as it can vary depending on the person and the circumstances. However, here are a few trigger warnings to pay attention to.
A lack of understanding or empathy. This kind of attitude makes you feel like you’re not being treated fairly and constantly being misheard (or not heard at all). It can start as simply as dismissing your immediate needs or desires and lead to more pronounced rejections of your character and feelings.
Emotional outbursts. Reactionary behavior and outbursts of anger are often triggered by a need to control using force or power. We see examples of dominating and militant personalities all around us, especially in film and TV, so we tend to know what the extremes look like. It’s the shades of grey that are the danger zone. Even if an outburst is followed by an apology, it doesn’t excuse the fear, shame or any other negative feeling it causes. These outbursts can subtly chip away at your confidence and self-worth, making it doubly hard to gauge what is normal and what is abusive.
Hot and cold temperaments. Push and pull tactics are often used as a way of asserting control. Saying something rude or offensive and then apologizing profusely. Showering you with positive attention and then subsequently being distant and aloof. Displaying supportive affection then retreating and critically cutting you down. This makes it very confusing to discern what is coming from a place of love, not mention wreaking havoc on an already fragile self-esteem.
Any kind of restrictions. The minute someone gives you an ultimatum, telling you whether you can or can’t do something, your inner alarm bell should start ringing. There’s a big difference between offering suggestive guidance and blatantly prohibiting or commanding something. Doubting your inner voice when you were once sure is the first step down a very treacherous downward path.
Knowing these warning signs is one thing but heeding them, and even acting upon them, is quite another. No one knows the inner workings of any relationship except the people involved. Only you can truly determine that, but at the end of the day, it’s important to always take care of you. A relationship should not make you feel “lesser than” but rather contribute to your better self.
If you think you’re in an abusive relationship, or know someone who might be affected by domestic violence, contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline on 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). For crisis support, call the 24-hour support center at the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline, on 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
*name has been changed