Often, women dealing with abusive partners are told ‘you have no boundaries’, ‘you need better boundaries’. This ignores the simple truth; that your boundaries are not welcome in an abusive relationship.
People who abuse others don’t want to hear that they are at fault. They make you believe that it’s your fault they hurt you. Or that you’re over-sensitive, a nag, or too critical. Or a few really sadistic abusers will actually enjoy causing you pain. Either way, the abuser wants to treat you exactly how they want to treat you. They don’t want to be challenged.
There are a few key ways that abusive relationships damage our boundaries:
We are habitually treated in ways that hurt or harm us.
We are violated.
We are controlled.
We are silenced when we challenge how we are being treated. This can look like: punishment, name calling, violence, stonewalling, justification, excuses, turning the responsibility back on us/blaming or suggesting that we have done the same / something just as bad / are not so perfect ourselves.
It can be dangerous to express our hurt or anger at how we are treated, or even to show it.
Conversely some abusers enjoy causing pain, and so we might shut down our hurt in order to deprive them of this satisfaction.
We fight. Or we run. Or we freeze.
We lose trust in ourselves.
We blame ourselves for being ‘over-sensitive’ when the truth is that we are being repeatedly treated badly.
We think that if we can just find the perfect way of expressing our boundary, that we will finally be heard.
We feel a lot of anxiety.
We feel a lot of anger.
We start to believe we have an ‘anger problem’ or that ‘anger is bad’. (We haven’t, and it’s not.)
We feel no anger.
We feel shame.
We feel responsible for everything.
We hate ourselves.
We doubt our feelings.
We monitor ourselves/our behaviour closely.
Our bodies/feelings shut down.
We tuck our feelings away.
We don’t listen to ourselves because it just hurts too much.
We think other people know better, even when it comes to what we think and feel.
We place more weight on other people’s opinions of us, than our own opinion of ourselves.
Our feelings, bottled up for so long, sometimes explode out of us.
We think about escaping constantly.
We want other people to make decisions for us. (Because it’s been unsafe to make decisions.)
If you ever manage to get them to the point where they even agree they are not treating you well and accept help, inevitably you will end up responsible for ‘holding your boundaries’ rather than them holding themselves accountable for their behaviour. This is a continuation of the ‘it’s your fault I hurt you / for having feelings’. They may also place themselves as the victim of your ‘unreasonable’ demands.
Start to listen to your feelings. Practice checking into your body: are you scared, angry, disappointed, sad? Where do you feel it? Can you allow it to be, just as it is, just for a moment?
What choice would you make, if you were free to?
Watch what the abuser does to disempower you. How do they hook you into feeling guilty, ashamed, like you’re doing something wrong rather than the target of abusive, shaming or controlling behaviour?
How can you support yourself in the moment. Sometimes a mantra can help; ‘It’s okay to feel hurt/angry’, ‘I hear you’, ‘I love you’.
How can you diminish the power of their words in the moment. A mantra can help with this too; ‘It’s just a tactic’ (what the abuser is doing)
Practice working out what you think, rather than allowing the story to be defined by the other. Allow yourself the space for your own opinions.
Research ‘boundaries’ and ‘how to be assertive’
Practice in safe ways
Don’t measure the effect of your boundary by how it is received
Expect it to be hard
Expect push back
Don’t try to get it perfect
Don’t give up
Be in your own corner, unequivocally
Part of honouring your boundaries is the internal work; the feeling and the finding of your limits and also the letting go of guilt, shame and responsibility for the other person’s part. It can be a lifelong journey.
Good luck, and take care. You are not alone.
Important: If your relationship is physically abusive – or you fear it might become so – please do seek specialist advice. It can be very dangerous to challenge a violent or potentially violent abuser.
We know the importance of healthy relationships intuitively. When we feel connected in our communities and with our friends, we feel happier, experience less depression and anxiety and find greater joy in living, even when we are on our own. We have lower blood pressure, are less likely to develop stress related illnesses and recover better from grief and trauma.
One study, for example, found that lack of close relationships in later life increased the risk of premature death by 50%, a rate comparable with smoking.
Our closest relationships have the biggest effect on our happiness. So how do we know that we are falling in love with someone that is good for us? Or whether our friendships are nourishing and strong?
Here are some signs that you are in a healthy relationship:
You like yourself
Someone very wise once asked me; “But do you like you when you’re with them?” It is easy to focus on what we like about the other person, but how do they make us feel about ourselves?
You feel good (mostly) after you connect with them
Watch how you feel after seeing them; do you feel happy, energised, sad, peaceful, ashamed, depleted?
You have your own space
There is room for you to pursue your own life, interests and relationships outside of the the main relationship. And even more than that, it is actively encouraged; both of you understand that your lives ‘outside’ draw nourishment into the relationship and keep it, and you, healthy.
You both prioritise the relationship
Togetherness is important to you both. You like spending time together and take care of each other’s feelings.
You can say ‘No’
Your partner respects your boundaries. You can say ‘No’ without being coerced, threatened, shamed or manipulated.
You can talk about the difficult stuff
It is ordinary to need to have conversations that are tricky; in a relationship, you are navigating two people’s different experiences, wants and needs. Life can be complicated, with children and parents and finances and work, and all the other various complexities that we experience as we go along. You need to be able to have the difficult conversations in a way that is constructive.
There is room for both of you in the relationship
You both, reasonably speaking, should ‘count’. Although of course there will be times of stress where one partner needs more, there should ordinarily be room for each of you to draw on the supportive presence of the other.
You can argue
This follows on from the last two points; you should be able to argue, or at least disagree, knowing that this will not break your relationship. And you do this (mostly) in a way that is not destructive. And if you do err, there is space for you both to apologise and move on.
You feel/are safe
This is a big one. There is no room for physical, psychological or sexual abuse in a loving relationship. If you are, or you fear you might be experiencing any of these, seek more information and specialist support if necessary. A good relationship is one where you feel safe. Where you feel kindness, rather than contempt, both for and from your partner.
(This is said with the caveat that sometimes, when we have experienced abuse in a previous relationship, we can experience current relationships as more threatening then they are. We become wired for protection rather than connection. It might be appropriate to seek specialist support if you feel that this is the case so you can unpick what is past and what is present.)
The above is not to suggest that we should be perfectly happy and perfectly balanced at all times in our relationships. Life can be hard and wearing, and inevitably, these times have an impact on our closest relationships.
But despite that we should know that when the chips are down, those closest to us have our backs.
Take a look at why it might be so hard to change that behaviour, and some tips that might help
Sometimes, we might have a behaviour that we want to change, but never quite manage to actually do it. It could be that you have never taken actual action, have tried repeatedly but keep ‘relapsing’ or that you manage to change for a while but it doesn’t stick.
You might have a habit of people-pleasing, or struggle to give yourself a rest from working too hard. Maybe you find that you don’t reply to your correspondence in a timely fashion, or repeatedly don’t do a particular task Or it may be something bigger; smoking, over or under eating, or drinking too much.
If so, read on.
It can be easy to focus simply on how good it will feel when we do finally get around to doing that thing, how free we will feel, how light. How competent. How clean. How much time or money we might have. How we will feel better.
Now, I’m not saying that all of those things will not be true. If you smoke and you want to give up, for example, there will likely be a myriad of benefits when you finally do; you’ll feel healthier, your lungs will start to recover, you’ll reduce your chance of getting a number of cancers, your clothes won’t smell, you won’t have to plan your day around smoking, you’ll be able to go out for dinner without sneaking off to have a sneaky fag (or wanting to). And so on.
In fact, it is important to know these things. Being able to imagine them gives you a powerful incentive to change.
List these. Hang onto them. REMEMBER them.
The Costs of Change
However, chances are, there will also be a hidden cost to giving up that you might not have spent so much time considering. If this is the case, it might help to look at the following too:
What might I lose if I give this up / do this thing / don’t do this thing?
What will I need to face if I do change?
Make a list: it might be that all your friends smoke, and you’ll miss their company. Or that you’ll miss the break and the silence in the noise of socialising, the opportunity to dip out for a moment and collect yourself. It might be that you smoke to curb your appetite, and you’ll need to face your hunger, or you’re frightened you’ll put on weight.
List them all. Every one.
Make a plan
So now you know what you’re frightened of, avoiding, or worrying about. You can make a plan, or sit with the grief of whatever it is you’re losing.
You might find that you don’t smoke with your friends, but that you find other ways of connecting with them, over coffee or dinner. You might find you need to factor in time out into your socialising, if you’re an introvert, or that you need to find another way to de-stress. You might need to enlist specialist support around your fear of putting on weight.
Some questions to ask yourself in this stage are:
What skills might I need to learn in order to get where I want to be?
What support might I need to enlist?
Are there other changes that I can make that will make it easier to achieve my goal?
Can I break it down into ‘mini’ goals?
It’s fine to fail
This might seem a funny thing to say, but I mean it. Sometimes, we can’t quite know what we are avoiding until we actually stop the thing we want to stop.
So you don’t need to give up, or beat yourself up for not doing it this time. You can use it to learn more about what you’re struggling with, and adjust accordingly. It can take repeated attempts to change, particularly if it’s something really big or difficult.
When to get professional help
You don’t have to be at rock bottom to seek help. It is valid to reach out for support if you’re finding something tricky, or you’d like a professional opinion. Or indeed, it is fine to go the self-help route if that’s what appeals.
However, if you find whatever you’re struggling with is causing you serious unhappiness, distress or worry or is escalating badly, it is worth considering getting some more specialised help. Particularly if it is beginning to get in the way of you living your life; going to work, having close relationships with families and friends, etc.
There are lots of brilliant resources out there; therapists and the like, groups, charities, internet forums… seek out what meets your needs practically, emotionally and financially. It’s fine for this to change as your needs do too.
One of the hardest things about emotional abuse is that, through a campaign of blame, undermining, criticism and gaslighting, it can cause you to lose trust in yourself.
This is true evenif you are aware of what is happening. I have met many people who were aware of some (although usually not all) of the tactics their partner was using, but because of the drip, drip effect of emotional abuse (and the isolation that often co-exists with an experience of abuse) it affected them anyway.
This manifests in a few key ways:
You may not trust your feelings, because they have been so frequently invalidated or dismissed. Equally, it may actually have been dangerous (emotionally or physically) to express certain feelings, such as anger.
You may not trust your perceptions: gaslighting is key here, when the other has control of what reality is (e.g. says they said / did something when they didn’t and blames you for being crazy / wrong / bad, frames reality in a way that doesn’t allow for you to have your own perspective), then you learn that you cannot trust your own mind, what you see and experience, as real.
You may feel overly guilty / responsible: this is because you have been blamed so often for things that you couldn’t reasonably be held accountable for.
You internalise the idea that you are ‘less than’ other people, and automatically take the ‘one down’ position in relationships.
You may focus more on making sure everyone else is okay / happy before yourself: this is often learned as a way of keeping you safe, but can cause you to lose touch with what you want and need.
In this short article, there are a few things listed that might help. It is by no means exhaustive, so feel free to do your own research too!
Spotting emotionally abusive tactics
One vital tool in your tool box is to know what emotional abuse looks like, both in general and in how it manifests itself in the particular relationship/s you are in. Knowledge is power. There are many great books and articles on the topic that can teach you about the tactics and dynamics of abuse.
Surround yourself with non-abusive relationships
This will have a threefold benefit; it will increase your support system for dealing with any abusive relationships that you might still be in or dealing with, and being treated well (when we can allow this in) is in itself enormously healing. Plus it will also give you plenty of examples of how non-abusive relationships work, which you may internalise on a deep level as well as on a cognitive one.
You might want to try some or all of the following: find a support group, prioritise and nurture friendships or relationships that you have that are non-abusive, go to therapy, spend time in nature or with animals or join an internet support group (or anything else that you can think of!)
Look at your individual vulnerabilities
We all have our own particular ways of experiencing and living in the world, and in the same vein as the point above; knowledge is power.
When we know how we are repeatedly hooked, we begin to be able to unhook ourselves.
It may be that we have a fierce need to explain our side of the story, and get hooked into defending ourselves, or we like to look after others and get hooked back in via care-taking. You will have your own subtle and particular experience. Get to know it, see if you can begin to deal in a different way with the abuse. *
This is not a way of holding you accountable for the abuse; we develop ways of relating that absolutely make sense, and have probably kept you emotionally (and potentially physically) safe, but there usually comes a point where these defence mechanisms cause us to lose more than we gain. Then, it might be time to look at whether we have other options, too.
It is painful to have a boundary that is repeatedly violated, so it is common to simply become numb. Plus, your anger and discomfort have likely been ignored and/or invalidated. You may also struggle to set boundaries in other, non-abusive relationships.
An important part of healing is often to touch in with how it feels when we are treated in a way that we don’t like, and to think strategically how we can deal with it in a way that honours our feelings. Here are some things that might help:
Play around with boundaries in your imagination for a little while, think about what you might like to say, how you might say it and how that might feel.
Plan what you may need to increase your skill at setting boundaries: read books about boundaries, look for people who deal skilfully with other and see what they do. Try on their way of relating, see how it fits.
If you’d like to, when you’re ready, you can start with the easy relationships, the ones that feel safest. Work on this, and increase your levels of difficulty slowly. Even if you need to start by saying ‘no’ in the supermarket, every boundary is a win. Or, start with what hurts most. Whichever makes sense for you.
When it doesn’t work out how you wanted it to, evaluate what went wrong, learn what you need to learn and move on.
Celebrate your achievements! It takes enormous courage to change old patterns, particularly ones developed in such difficult situations. You are doing amazingly just to engage in the process.
Setting boundaries with people who do not listen can be infuriating, saddening and crazy-making, so it is fine to find this challenging and also to reach out for support if you need it. Particularly with people who use abusive tactics or tend to respond defensively, it’s not necessarily that helpful to judge your boundary by their reaction.
Dealing with shame
A common experience when you’ve been in an abusive relationship is to feel frequently ashamed and guilty / overly responsible. Shame can be hard to look at and stay with, but it is best healed by showing it to the light of safe, non-judgemental relationship.
Honouring what feels good
For me, this is as important as getting in touch with what is uncomfortable. This might be physical; exercise can often be important to healing, or wearing clothes that feel good; either your favourite pair of pyjamas after a rubbish day, or a clean shirt; whatever feels right. Eat as well and as nourishingly as your budget and time constraints allow. Read a book, watch something good (or terrible but enjoyable!) on television. See people that nourish you. Spend time in nature.
Allow yourself to treat yourself well. Explore any internal blocks to this, and see if you can move through them.
You are valuable simply because you exist.
If there are any areas that you are particularly struggling with, there is plenty of support out there. If you can’t afford therapy, there are often low cost services that will be able to help.
* It is important to note that if you are in a dangerous situation or relationship, please act in the way that best ensures your safety. There are places that can offer you specialist support to deal with what you’re experiencing, or help you to find a way out if you want that: please call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
Ellen Hendriksen writes in her book on Social Anxiety, ‘How to Be Yourself’, that part of what drives social anxiety is a kind of social perfectionism.
Perfectionism. Well, it’s all about being perfect; impossibly high standards that one rarely manages to quite meet, leaving you in a cycle of unsteady highs followed by shame, self-criticism and depression, all against the backdrop of ever-increasing anxiety.
Hendriksen contends that Social Anxiety is insecurity in social situations in part because you experience particular social situations as a sort of test, or a performance. This, combined with the expectation that you will ‘perform’ perfectly; be witty, charming, perfectly attuned, graceful, and never, ever make a social faux pas, or be boring or boorish, creates an impossible double bind.
The pain of this is twofold, how we feel about ourselves (shame, self-hatred etc), and how incredibly, heartbreakingly lonely it can be to feel disconnected from our fellow humans.
How we (unwittingly) keep ourselves stuck
We make our anxiety worse for ourselves in a number of ways; we over-prepare, rehearsing late into the night to the point of insomnia, and imagine catastrophic outcomes (thinking, of course, that all of these things will help us).
Actually, research shows that for social anxiety, instead of helping us prepare, thinking about all the ways that things can go wrong actually causes more anxiety. Which in turn, causes us to be even less okay in social situations, causing more shame and self-criticism and then again, more attempts to prepare and cover up our awkwardness, leading to more anxiety, and so on..
Some tips; release the pressure
Social anxiety is something that can be healed. It is not a life sentence. That doesn’t mean that you will reach a point that you will never feel anxiety (I believe that is called a ‘psychopath’!) but that you can reach a point where you are not ruled by your fear. Where you can tolerate, manage it, and where it also reduces to a manageable level.
You could start by Daring to be Average (thanks again Ellen Hendriksen!). I appreciate this might sound odd, but where perfectionism is keeping you stuck, you could begin to experiment with letting yourself off the hook a little. Reducing your expectations by half, maybe. Allow spaces to happen in the conversation, allow yourself to be boring, self-absorbed, quiet, imperfect; whatever it is you’re scared of. You could even try to be boring!
The most skilled socialisers don’t socialise flawlessly, they are just not thrown when they make a ‘mistake’, if they say the wrong word or can’t find what they mean, if their story meanders, or their joke doesn’t land as they thought it would. They can smile, maybe joke about it; “that was longer than I thought; phew!” or “haha, it was definitely funnier in my head!”. They dare to ‘fail’, and usually, people like them for it.
What you will probably find, by daring to be average, is that you are more natual, and that people will like you more, not less.
Another tip is; Stay Out of their Heads. Whatever you think other people are thinking, it’s probably not true. And it’s likely to be a lot more positive than you think it is.
For example, when you think about the last time you met someone who was visibly anxious, what was your response? I would imagine it’s somewhere on the empathy spectrum; you might feel sympathy for them, knowing how hard it is when you’re anxious, or you might feel a desire to put them at ease or help, you might be rooting for them to come through it. You are unlikely to be thinking they are an idiot, or weird, or disgusting, or whatever it is that you think that people are thinking of you.
Fourthly; Don’t go down the Rabbit Hole. (Whatever your particular rabbit hole is.) Whether it’s an unrelenting post-mortem of all the things that you said or did ‘wrong’, the conviction that you have nobody, that everyone thinks you’re strange, that you have no friends; whatever it is, try not to go there. Anxiety drives anxiety. The more you worry, the more anxious you’ll get, and the more you will therefore feel you need to worry. It starts with the first thought.
Or before you do something difficult try and remember a time (or more than one) where you were authentic, strong, spoke from your values. Research shows us that much more than affirmations, remembering a time when were stood up for something we believed in (even if it’s entirely unrelated) helps us to be more ourselves in social situations.
And lastly, increase your feelings of general security and connectedness and think of three relationships, be they people (fictional, imaginary or real), or animals that exemplify nurture to you, warmth and joy and love, and think about those. Think on each in turn. Allow yourself to luxuriate in the feeling of love and connection, allow yourself to feel what it would feel like to be accepted, treasured, you could create an imaginary person who would be your perfect support. If it brings up sadness or loss that is overwhelming, try a different attachment figure. Do this repeatedly, and not necessarily when you’re already shaky. It’s likely to be easier to settle your system when your feelings are heightened if you practice first when you’re in a calm place.
If you find yourself stuck, it can be worth enlisting support on your journey; a therapist, a therapy group, a support group, an internet forum. Whatever it looks like for you. Good luck. Go well.
An almost universal response to being abused is to turn the blame and sense of responsibility inwards. Sometimes, we internalise the abuser’s words, the names that we are called, the negative qualities that are attributed to us. Or we may feel responsible as a way of giving ourselves back some power in a situation where we had little, or none.
This happens in two ways; we develop ways of relating with the world and ourselves that cause us problems in our lives, and/or we can develop pockets of trauma or shame. I’ll look at both of these separately, and also look at how you can help your own healing from self-blame if you have been in, or still are in, an abusive relationship.
The abuser blames the other; “it’s your fault, you made me do this”. We may hear this either said explicitly or it may be subtler; implied instead of spoken. The look, the sigh, the eye roll. In my experience, even if you can see this happening, it still has an effect on you (although not as big an effect as if you are not aware of it).
The abuser takes our healthy, pro-social process of taking responsibility for ourselves, and turns it into a way of gaining and maintaining control over us.
We then start to believe that we are responsible for the feelings and actions of others; we actually start to relate to other people in the way that we relate to the abuser.
You may not even be conscious of blaming yourself; this is the tricky bit, you may feel that you are actually at fault. It may even feel wrong to not hold yourself responsible in this way.
Healing can be scary, because to do this we probably have to face why we adjusted our behaviour in the first place. It involves beginning to trust people again, to believe that the rules that we learned in our abusive relationship are not, actually, transferable to the ‘real’ world, and that we will need to learn or relearn how to be *vulnerable again in a way that is healthy.
(*Vulnerable means different things to different people, I think. For some, vulnerable means just that, learning to be soft where it is appropriate to be, but for others, to be vulnerable means to be assertive. You’ll know best what you habitually find hard.)
Triggered into shame
Another way that we continue to be hurt by an abusive relationship is when we are ‘triggered’ back into the trauma. Someone says or does something that reminds us of what our original abuser did to us (we may or may not be conscious of being triggered), and we find ourselves flipped right back into those excruciating feelings of shame, self-hatred and guilt.
A useful process for unpicking this is:
What was the trigger? See if you can separate the past from the present, sometimes this is enough to allow you to respond appropriately in the moment. Saying to yourself ‘it’s a memory’ in a gentle, reassuring tone can help.
Take a moment, breathe deeply, steady yourself if you can, or excuse yourself if you need to. Give yourself some choices about how you respond.
Let yourself be scared/hurt/ashamed. It may not feel appropriate to the present situation, but it’s real that you feel it, and it likely makes sense in the light of your past. When you’ve allowed it, it might help to put your hand on your heart, gently, and say to yourself – either aloud or in your mind – whatever it is you need to hear; ‘it’s not your fault’, ‘you’re safe now, even if you don’t feel it’, ‘I love you’. (Try and come from a gentle, loving place, or imagine a dependable other – real or imagined – saying it to you with great, real compassion.)
Let yourself off the hook if you weren’t able to respond in the moment as you would have wished; being triggered can make it really hard. Your body kicks into a trauma/survival response that is beyond your conscious control (fight / flight / freeze), plus the shame you’re feeling probably was part of the original trauma anyway.
*Write about it / talk it through with a safe friend or therapist. If you’re writing about it, see if you can call to mind a compassionate other and let yourself open to their compassion and understanding. (Even if you feel nothing, or feel sad, or angry, that’s fine; breathe, sit with it, allow it to flow through you. What’s important is that you are allowing yourself to be held in your hurt.)
Imagine how you might successfully respond to being triggered, then let it go. Just imagining yourself navigating it well can begin to strengthen different neural pathways, as the brain doesn’t really differentiate between internal and external experiences. This will give you a better chance at dealing with it differently next time.
*A word about safety; with trauma, sometimes it is far more appropriate to distract and comfort rather than engage with the trauma head on. So if you find yourself getting too dysregulated or overwhelmed when trying to unpick it, drop it and find a way to soothe yourself. Call a (safe) friend, watch or read something comforting, imagine yourself held in a gentle, healing light or by a gentle, healing other – imagined or real. Investigate and experiment with what makes you feel comforted, and under what circumstances.
If you find yourself consistently being triggered and aren’t able to navigate it yourself, therapy can be a useful tool.
Other ways to help yourself heal
Knowledge is power
Read about emotional abuse, how it happens, what it looks like. If you know what is happening, you can at least begin to unpick it. There are lots of amazing resources out there; books, articles, podcasts, internet forums.
When we are in an abusive relationship, their perspective tends to dominate; it is a process similar to that seen in cults, for example. You usually have access to limited information, so as well as researching abuse, you could start talking to safe friends, or a therapist, or a helpline, or an internet support group about what is happening in your relationship. Try and allow yourself to consider these other perspectives, and see if you can figure out what you think too (if you don’t already know).
Give the responsibility for the abuse back
You can give the abuser back the responsibilty for their actions, and you can understand your reactions (at least in part) as a response to living in a confusing, frightening and sometimes dangerous situation.
Humans are wired to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli; there’s nothing wrong with you for responding however you did; whether that was to fight back, to argue, to use emotionally abusive tactics yourself, to dissociate, or however else you protected your vulnerable spot.
This also means that you can look for where your choices are; what is actually in your power to do and change.
Try and access some self-compassion
Watch how you talk to yourself; would you talk to a friend like that? How can you understand your feelings and actions in a gentle, non-blaming, non-shaming way?
Sharing with a safe other can really help. If you are feeling particularly ashamed or churned up, therapy can be really useful as a way of gaining insight into yourself, your responses and your actions. The increased understanding of yourself often aids self-acceptance, if you can allow yourself to take it in.
Set boundaries / take appropriate responsibility for yourself
People who have been bullied, shamed or coerced in abusive relationships often really struggle to stand up for themselves; they either go into fight or people please mode. So you might want to work on becoming more assertive and less passive, aggressive, or passive aggressive. (These are all responses to not being able to state your wishes, feelings, thoughts and needs openly and having to hide or fight for these things.)
If you are still in your abusive relationship, do be thoughtful about setting boundaries in this relationship. Often abusers will escalate their abusive behaviour in order to regain control. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make changes if you want to, more that you might want to make sure you are prepared for a difficult road if you do, and get enough internal and external resources to support you.
Note: If your relationship is physically abusive – or you fear it might become so – please do seek specialist advice. It can be very dangerous to challenge a violent or potentially violent abuser.
I put this at the end, not because it is the least important, but because it is the most important part of your journey. Treat yourself as valuable, use your time wisely or watch terrible TV if that’s what you need. Move your body in a way that makes you feel good, invest in relationships that make you feel good, take care of yourself in relationships that don’t. Follow your dreams, pay your bills, take care of your responsibilities or let go of the responsibilities that you have picked up unnecessarily. Say yes more or say no more, be more present for your loved ones or be more present for yourself. Grieve. Laugh. Take up a hobby, let one drop. Let yourself off the hook, or hold yourself accountable (kindly).
Sometimes simply to survive is all we can do, at others we will feel we can reach the moon. Only you will know what self-care looks like in any given moment for you, and what looks like self-care for one person can be the opposite for another. Find your own way, according to the needs of the moment.
And last but not least: Build yourself a network
Everyone needs a network. As social creatures, I think that we all need to feel rooted in some way, so deepen (or find) your tribe, in person, online, a support group, and connect with them in a way that suits you. It will help you not only feel grounded, but also gives you more opportunity to ‘take in the good’ of other people’s kindness, to allow yourself to feel loved and valued and safe in relationships, and safe and held in the world.
It can be so hard to watch someone that you love being treated badly by their partner, and harder still to understand why they stay. You may find yourself frustrated, sad, angry, depressed, irritated and feeling powerless.
The truth is, they also may not understand why they stay. Or, they may be torn, caught between loving their partner, but also hating the way that they are sometimes (or frequently) treated. They may be financially dependent, or had their self-esteem chipped away little by little so they have no strength to leave, or they may truly struggle to believe that they can make it on their own.
So, my first principle is: Meet them where they are at
By this, I mean: let them be where they are. If they want to leave, support that. If they want to make it work, accept that too. You don’t have to like it, but if you can, try to support them in their decisions as best as you are able.
Abuse is essentially a relational power-grab; their partner is likely to be undermining and controlling, and so, although it may seem counterintuitive to support them in their decision to stay, you need to behave differently to the abuser.
Trust them. Allow them space to make their own decisions. Be supportive. But be careful not to step into the role of rescuer. It’s a fine line, but an important one.
My second is: Be genuine
This may seem to contradict the above point, but I mean; you don’t need to lie about your concern for them.
In fact, it may be really important for you to express your genuine misgivings about the way that they are being treated. In this way, you can help provide a barometer of what is normal and healthy behaviour in a relationship.
Do be careful not to be too vocal in your condemnation of their partner though; a good rule of thumb is to comment on their behaviour, not them as a person.
Understand that they will likely have positive feelings for their partner
It is likely that they experience both positive and negative feelings for their partner. This can be really hard to tolerate, but if you shut out their positive feelings they may find it harder to talk to you.
Be a positive, loving force
Don’t feel that you need to talk about ‘the problem’ all the time. You can be a space for them to breathe, to laugh, to be free. It might be really important for you to provide some much needed relief from what they are dealing with at home.
The relationship is about you too, allow yourself to be as free and authentically you as you can be with them.
Keep yourself safe
Depending how dangerous their partner is, you may need to think about your own safety. If you witness an act of violence, absolutely call the police.
It is also important for you to look after your emotional needs too; you are not responsible for your loved one*, so it is fine for you to engage as much or as little as you are comfortable with and if it becomes too much, it really is fine for you to back away.
Your presence may itself threaten the abuser’s control
One tactic abusers use frequently is isolating their victims from sources of support in order to better keep control. Therefore, be aware that your presence in your loved one’s life may undermine the control over the abuser, which may in turn cause them to try to undermine your relationship. This may make it tricky for your loved one to see you.
They may never leave
As much as you would like them to, sometimes people never leave their abusive relationships; or they may leave, only to return again. This can be sad and painful, and difficult to see, but it doesn’t make your presence any less important in their life. In fact, your very presence holds a door to the outside world open, and may even make it more likely that they end the relationship in time.
If they are thinking about leaving
Encourage your loved one to seek specialist advice; leaving, and the months immediately afterwards is known to be the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship. Seeking expert advice will help them to plan for a safer exit.
Look after yourself
Keep a focus on your life, the activities and people that bring you joy and that give your existence meaning and vitality. Tend to your affairs. You need to be steady before you can be someone else’s rock.
If you find yourself struggling to deal with your anxiety for your friend or loved one, there’s no shame in seeking support for yourself. There are plenty of professionals out there who will be able to support you, which may in turn make it easier for you to support your loved one.
* Unless they are a child or a ‘vulnerable’ adult due to learning difficulties or severe mental health problems, in which case I would recommend seeking specialist advice around safeguarding.
The terms victim and abuser are very imperfect, and I acknowledge that. You may also note that I tend to define the abuser as male and the victim as female. I use these terms for readability, but please do substitute your own language if this doesn’t fit with your preference or experience.
It is a common misunderstanding that abuse is an issue with anger, and if an abuser could gain control of their anger, they would no longer be abusive. However, this explanation misses something crucial;
Abusers have abusive expectations, and then they get angry when these expectations are not met. Abusers are coercively controlling, using anger as a means to gain and maintain power and control in their relationship.
Anger, acted out in an abusive relationship, can therefore be more usefully understood as a problem of entitlement and a need to be in control rather than a problem of anger.
Anger in this context can be displayed in two ways: passive aggressively, or aggressively. It is often easier to spot the more obvious displays of anger; violence, threats, destroying possessions and yelling, to name a few. Harder to spot are the subtler displays of anger; the criticism ‘for your own good’, the sulking, the mess left ‘accidentally on purpose’, and the kids who have not been put to bed yet, even though it’s well past your bedtime.
Aggressive or violent displays of anger
If my partner punches me because I have not done the washing up to his standards, it might seem that he lacks control of his anger (indeed, he may actively encourage me to think this), however:
His anger arises from the ‘abusive expectation’ that he should be the one who decides how the washing up needs to be done.
His belief (conscious or not) that he is entitled to use force / violence / coercive tactics to get me to do what he wants.
A wider relational dynamic where he believes he is entitled to be in charge, or that I need to be controlled.
That it is my responsibility to prioritise his feelings (in this instance, his wish to have a clean kitchen) at the expense of my needs and rights within the relationship (in this instance, my personal autonomy, and my human right to live a life free from violence and fear).
Passive aggressive / emotionally abusive displays of anger
They may display their anger in a variety of ways: sulking, manipulation (drawing on your empathy, making you feel sorry for them), pressure, love-bombing, stalking, harrassment, or punishing you in a variety of other ways.
If we take the example of a man who doesn’t want his partner to go out (jealousy is common in abusive relationships); he might tell her he’s fine with it, but his behaviour will demonstrate otherwise: he might tell you he doesn’t like your friends, they’re not good enough for you, come back in drunk the next night to punish you because he knows you don’t like it, ‘have’ to work late on the day when you share a car so you can’t go without him being home, text you incessantly when you finally get out, and then sulk for days afterwards but deny that he is sulking.
What makes it a problem of entitlement and control is the following:
His ‘abusive expectation’ that he should be the one to decide where you go, who you see, and what you do
The idea that he is entitled to use underhand & coercive tactics to achieve his aims
A wider relational dynamic where he feels entitled to be in charge, and;
That it is your responsibility to look after his feelings (in this instance, jealousy) at the expense of your needs and rights within the relationship (in this instance, personal freedom)
I use the example of an intimate partner relationship, but obviously abuse can take place in all sorts of other relationships too. For example, issue of entitlement can be complicated in the case of parent-to-child abuse where the parent’s ordinary responsibility for taking care of, ensuring the safety of, and disciplining their child can sometimes be hard to separate from coercive control and abusive expectations. However, at the heart of all abusive relationships is the issue of power and control; abusers try to dominate their victims using a variety of methods, including manipulation, violence, aggression, blackmail, criticism, gaslighting and (faux-)kindness. In contrast, to use a Winnicottian phrase, ‘Good enough’ parents try to take into account their children’s desires, needs and feelings and do their best to act from a place of empathy when they have to set boundaries, rather than use blame and criticism (although they certainly don’t always get it right).
Therefore, displays of anger can be both understood in the context of the wider use of abusive tactics, and also as arising out of inappropriate expectations of the other.
Some abusers really do have hair trigger tempers, and could usefully engage with anger management techniques, but this would need to be within the context of a specialist Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programme and not an anger management course. (Anger Management course can actually escalate abusers’ behaviour because of their emphasis on shared responsibility for conflict.)
Controlling, but not taking responsibility for their feelings
Interestingly, where abusers so often take control within relationships, they usually also don’t take responsibility for their abuse or their anger. A common justification that an abuser will use is ‘I just saw red’ or ‘I couldn’t help it, my jealously was so strong’. Or they will blame their victim ‘you shouldn’t have gone out / talked to that man / looked up from the floor’.
This reallocates the responsibility towards the victim for managing the abuser’s feelings, while keeping the locus of control firmly in the abuser’s hands. So, they have the control but none of the responsibility, and the victim is left looking to the abuser for how she should think, act, feel and behave.
In contrast, for an abuser to have a meaningful recovery from being abusive, there must be a consistent, repeated attempt to take responsibility for one’s own actions while letting go of their control over their victim’s thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviour. Most abusers are very good at saying sorry; meaning it, and undertaking a consistent and sustained change in their behaviour is usually another matter entirely.
If you are in an abusive relationship, as ever, focus on your safety first. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline can be contacted on 0808 2000 247, they should be able to point you in the direction of some suitable help if you are in an abusive relationship or struggling with the after effects.
Good luck, and take good care of yourself.
Please do note that violence does not need to be a part of an abusive relationship. Emotionally and psychologically abusive relationships can be extremely damaging in and of themselves. Seek appropriate help if you are struggling, therapy can be a useful resource, the internet can be a good source of information and enable you to find online and offline support networks.