Why your boundaries are not welcome in an abusive relationship

Women in (or after) abusive relationships are frequently 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.

So, you either fight, or submit, or a circling combination of the two. This is a normal response to living in a dysfunctional or even dangerous system. It is a trauma adaptation. You are normal.

In this article, I explore what happens to your boundaries in an abusive relationship, and things you can do that will help you heal.

HOW IT HAPPENS

  • We are habitually treated in ways that hurt or harm us. We are violated. We are repeatedly controlled, critisized, undermined, ridiculed, demeaned, humiliated, or verbally, physcially or sexually assaulted.

These are all boundary ‘violations’. They hurt. We hurt. It is painful to have a boundary that is repeatedly violated.

  • We are then silenced and blamed when we challenge how we are being treated.

The abuser has created an environment where it is not possible or permissable for us to protest about how we are treated. We are blamed for any painful feelings that we might have in response to their abuse, and then systemically silenced.

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.

Nothing we do ever seems to have an impact. Whether we say something, say nothing, try and keep the peace, we are told this is ‘wrong’. We cannot ‘win’, whatever we do. Because the only way for the relationship to change is for the abuser to cease their relentless campaign of coercive control.

Turning the blame on us actually helps them to stay in control. If we are always looking inwards, then we are always off balance, busy searching for the solution to their treatment of us inside ourselves. (It may or may not be a conscious strategy on their part, but that doesn’t diminish the impact on us.)

  • We lose touch with our own boundaries and feelings, and we turn the anger on ourselves.

We might become numb to the abuse, believing that it doesn’t matter, or that we deserve it anyway. We might stop noticing it, or minimise the impact it has on us. We might start to hate ourselves for hurting.

Horrifyingly, we start policing ourselves. The abuser has trained us well.

THE PROCESS OF RECOVERY

STARTING TO LISTEN TO YOURSELF

Because you have had to shut down in order to survive, it will be important to begin listening to yourself. Your inner wisdom is right there, in your body. You. You matter. Your voice, yourself, your feelings; they matter.

  1. 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?
  2. What choice would you make, if you were free to?
  3. 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?
  4. 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’.
  5. How can you diminish the power of their words in the moment. A mantra can help with this too; ‘It’s just a tactic’ (to control me), ‘they’re wrong’, ‘there’s nothing wrong with me’, ‘I’m not the problem’, or whatever helps you feel steadier in yourself.
  6. 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.
  7. Find ways to be around people who do listen to you. This is immensely important. We ‘take in’ how we are treated. This will make an enormous difference to your experience of yourself.

If you’re finding it hard to get in touch with yourself, feel intensely self-critical, or find yourself overwhelmed, dissociative or it feels too big or frightening, stop, take a breath and allow yourself to do something comforting. It’s fine not to press through. The trick is to find a way to feel without becoming too overwhelmed. If you are struggling, becoming repeatedly overwhelmed or having shame or panic attacks, you might want to seek professional help to support you in your journey of reconnection.

RECOVERING ‘RELATIONALLY’

Firstly, do be thoughtful about becoming more assertive in a relationship that is, or your fear may become, physically or sexually abusive. It can be very unsafe to challenge a dangerous perpetrator, so please do seek specialist help if you are at all worried.

Even if your relationship is emotionally rather than physically/sexually abusive, it is likely that the abuse will escalate if you find more of a voice. This isn’t a reason not to do it, but it is important to be prepared for some push back.

If setting boundaries is likely to put you at risk, you might practice ‘small rebellions’. Create pockets in your life – safely, privately – where you are completely in charge. Practice making decisions yourself, trusting yourself, do the things that you are not ‘allowed’ to do safely out of sight of your abusive relationship.

Always, always prioritise your physical safety. You might find that you want to practice your boundary setting skills outside your abusive relationship.

TIPS FOR SETTING BOUNDARIES

  • 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 skillfully with other and see what they do. Try on their way of relating, see how it fits.
  • When you’re ready, 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. Sometimes we need to start at the point of most pain in order to feel our way back to the subtler pains. You’ll know best where you need to start.
  • 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.

Remember that people who use abusive tactics will tend to respond defensively, so don’t judge your boundary by their reaction. They will try every trick they have to dismiss you and your feelings, and are unlikely to concede the point (and will probably punish you afterwards anyway) but what matters is how you feel about yourself.

Again, your safety is paramount, and so please, please keep yourself safe as you first priority. It is completely valid not to speak up if speaking up puts you in danger, or you or your children will be punished for it. Complying is a completely valid response, and an important one to have in your toolbox.

HOW THERAPY CAN HELP

You don’t need to be overwhelmed to seek therapy; it is completely okay to seek support just because you want support. That said, if you are finding that trauma is resurfacing in a way that doesn’t feel manageable, or that you’re finding your feelings big and overwhelming, don’t hesitate to get in touch with a specialist.

Sometimes it helps just to have another set of eyes on the task. It can be hard to change patterns, particularly those that are trauma related (they can have a lot of emotional ‘charge’ to them). A therapist will: be in your corner, know (hopefully) some of the right questions to ask, be non-judgemental as you grapple with your inner experience, help you sort through what it actually is you feel, and help you develop yourself to meet the particular challenges that you face.

REMEMBER

Getting ever closer to our authentic selves is a lifelong journey for most of us. Even situations that don’t go the way that you wanted them to will teach you a lot, about yourself and the other.

There will be missteps, and ‘mistakes’, but there will be life in all it’s messy gloriousness too. You can be in your own corner. Your own best friend. Decide for yourself what you think, and feel.

You’re recovering the most valuable thing; your relationship with yourself.

Good luck, and take care.

RESOURCES

If you’d like to speak to someone, call the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline for free on 0808 2000 247 and they will be able to direct you to resources in your local area.

Learning to trust yourself after an emotionally abusive relationship

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One of the hardest things about emotional abuse, I think, is that the campaign of blame, undermining, criticism and gaslighting causes you lose trust in your own self.

This is true even if you are aware of what is happening. I have met many people who were aware of the tactics their other was using, but because of the drip, drip effect of emotional and psychological abuse (and the isolation that often co-exists with an experience of abuse) it affected their relationship with themselves in deep and profound ways.

In this article, I am going to unpick how the power dynamic of an abusive relationship damages our relationship with ourselves. (Of course, it also damages our relationships with others, but that’s a post for another day). I will also look at some ways you can learn to trust yourself again.

Abusers dominate. They control. Often emotional abuse is supported by other kinds of abuse, like physical, or sexual, but it does not need to be to have a profound and disturbing effect on us. Where other kinds of abuse are present, emotional abuse always, always is.

In many ways, emotional abuse can be more complicated to heal from because you can’t see the bruises. I frequently hear people saying; ‘but it seems so petty’. But they are not hurting because their loved one said or did something awful once (which would be enough), emotional abuse is a sustained and relentless campaign of awful things, over and over again, until you can no longer believe that this is not normal. It is a pattern. Not an event.

The pattern of abuse does something profound to us; it alienates us from ourselves; we are social creatures who are excellent at adjusting ourselves in order to relate with lots of different people, in lots of different ways, all of whom will be different in their personality, background, and culture. We need to be good at this to move about in the world with any kind of ease.

In an abusive relationship, we do what we do well; we adjust, but then we adjust again, and again, and again… until we entirely lose ourselves.

You might see this manifest in a few key ways:  

  • You lose trust in your feelings and perceptions, 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 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.

Regaining trust in yourself

We move through the world using information from those around us, as well as our own inner sensing. When we’ve been dominated, controlled, belittled and dismissed, this balance can become disrupted, leaving us either overly reliant on others (either other’s perception of us, or we think they know best), or reliant only on ourselves (because it seems that nobody else will ever reliably be there). Or we may switch between the two, stuck between a shame filled rock and a lonely hard place.

In my experience, healing happens in two stages: We learn to hear our inner wisdom, and then we learn to trust it. Below I explore some things that might help. As you go through, I invite you to listen to your body wisdom; which ones speak to you?

Get creative

A private, creative space – however that looks for you – can be the perfect way of learning to trust that wise, inner voice. Draw, write, collage, sew, sing. It doesn’t matter how it looks, what matters is the leap into the unknown. You can’t fail at this.

Get to know what it’s like to be in your body

Feelings are in our bodies, so reconnecting with our bodies can help strengthen and stabilise us. If you’ve learned to disconnect / dissociate this can be enormously challenging.* Therefore, go slowly, ease yourself in.

Start with kindness, good sensations. A hot shower or bath, exercise (however that looks for you), a soft jumper, a good pair of socks, running your hands through your hair, ice cream, the wind on your face, an ice cube on your tongue on a hot day… whatever feels good for you in your body will help you reconnect. And when we reconnect through one avenue, we deepen our whole connection with ourselves.

Experiment! Be playful, and creative.

* A note about trauma; if you find yourself becoming flooded or overwhelmed, or if you begin to dissociate, stop, regroup, and steady yourself as a priority.

Trust yourself in the ‘small things’

Start by making what feel like small decisions, but really listen for what you want. It might be just asking yourself what you would like for dinner, or whether you would like to read a book or watch TV in this next moment. Then, when you think you have an answer, try it out.

Watch your process. Do you feel scared to commit yourself to the decision in case it is ‘wrong’, or that judgement will rain down on you for it? Or does it feel unbearably vulnerable, or do you feel guilty, ashamed, or do you second guess yourself. Practice breathing through the feelings, letting them wash over you. Sometimes it can help to speak reassuringly to yourself as you would a small child; ‘it’s okay sweetheart’, ‘it’s fine to do x or choose y’, ‘whatever you choose will be right’ or ‘you can’t do this wrong’.

Let yourself experiment. It’s about getting to know yourself as a decision maker, how you like to make decisions, and what it brings up for you. And it gets easier with practice, I promise.

Cultivate non-abusive relationships

Wherever you can find them, cultivate relationships with people that listen to you and want to know what you feel and what you like. People who treat you as an equal. We ‘take in’ how we are treated, so if we surround ourselves with people that treat us as an equal, who don’t judge, criticize, undermine or gaslight us, then we internalise – on a deep, implicit level – that we are worth listening to. We heal by osmosis.

This can be where therapy is particularly useful, as it gives us a chance to practice in a safe relationship. One where we are (hopefully) in charge, listened to, where it matters what we think and feel. And we can work through all the feelings, the grief and the anger and the everything, that this brings up, as we go, in the safety of the therapeutic relationship. (For guidance on how to choose a counsellor when dealing with issues of abuse, please see my post here.)

If you can’t afford therapy, there are often low cost services that will be able to help.

Finally

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.

Self-blame and emotional abuse

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An almost universal response to being abused is to turn the blame inwards.

Sometimes we internalise the abuser’s words, or the names that we are called. Or instead we believe the negative qualities that are attributed to us. Or because we are told ‘it’ is our fault, over and over again, we begin to feel responsible for whatever ‘it’ is.

The results of this play out 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.

Relational dynamics

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 unbearable trauma-feelings of shame, self-hatred and guilt.

If you find yourself triggered in this way, take a look at the list below. Some of this might help. Different things will help at different times, so experiment and see what works for you:

  • 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 yourself (physically or emotionally).

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.

Self-care

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.

Good luck, and take care. You’ve got this.

Supporting a friend or loved one who is experiencing intimate partner abuse

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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.

Why abuse isn’t an ‘anger’ issue

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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 their 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.

Spotting a potentially abusive partner

Common characteristics of people who go on to become abusive to their partners

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I have compiled a list of the common characteristics of people who go on to become abusive to their partners. It is not exhaustive; please do feel free to add your own experiences to your personal list. It is also worth noting that not everyone who displays these characteristics will become abusive.

Jealousy

Showing signs of early or severe possessiveness and jealousy. Questioning your motives for going out, trying to control what you wear, becoming suspicious of you talking to members of your preferred sexual preference. They may tell you that it’s only because they love you so much.

Going Fast

Speeding into a relationship, not giving you time to catch your breath. Wanting to move in quickly or making you feel bad if you don’t want to go as quickly as they do.

Charming

Are they charming? This is different from authentically kind; charm is superficial and can hide an underlying narcissism.

Love-bombing: this is a technique that cults use to recruit; you will feel special like you are their whole world.

Something similar happens in a healthy relationship too. When you fall in love it is normal to idealise your partner somewhat, the difference is the extent and the fall from grace. In an ordinary, loving relationship, your connection will deepen and strengthen as your relationship matures, however with an abusive relationship you will experience a confusing alternation between idealisation and devaluation.

Idealisation or denigration of previous partners

Obviously, most of us have been in relationships where we were unhappy, but do they have a string of ‘crazy’ exes? Are they critical, denigrative, and undermining? Or at the opposite extreme, are their ex-partner’s perfect; incredible, amazing individuals who can do no wrong and who you feel you can never live up to? A non-abusive person should have a coherent and balanced narrative that generally includes empathy for the other and also takes responsibility for themselves.

Controlling

Do they take charge of the decisions, seek to control your actions, where you go, what you do, and who you see? What you wear? What you eat? How you speak? Abuse is all about power and control.

Emotional and physical violence

  • Do they call you names in an argument?
  • Have they ever been accused of domestic violence in the past?
  • Have they hit you?
  • Have they broken your possessions or threatened to?
  • Have they been cruel or abusive to animals or children?

Blame

Do they take responsibility for themselves and their lives, or is everything everyone else’s fault?

Admitting fault

Can they admit their part? Can they see where they are at fault if you have a disagreement, and do they make appropriate amends?

It is common for people who are abusive to apologise, sometimes excessively, after they have been abusive. In a healthy relationship, you should expect someone to make an amend – they might change their behaviour to take into account your feelings, without expecting you to be excessively grateful, or they might suggest something else that they could to in order to rectify their mistake, or for you to both be able to reconnect.

Hearing your boundaries

Can they hear you say no without them undermining it with persuasion, force or with flattery? Do they make you feel bad when you do say no or express feelings that are different to theirs, maybe even framing it as something wrong with you?

Substance misuse

Do they abuse alcohol or other substances? Many people who do are not abusive, but alcohol and drugs can loosen inhibitions in people who have the potential to be abusive making it more likely that they will become abusive. Moreover, it is common for people who become abusive under the influence to blame the substance for the abuse. Don’t be taken in; if they cannot drink safely then they have a responsibility to either not drink or, if that is not possible, to get help with their drinking.

Isolating you

They might begin to speak badly about your friends and family, undermining your relationship with them in that way, or punish you (either subtly or overtly) for seeing them, or expecting to see you all the time. Do you feel under pressure not to work, or pursue education?

Coercive or forceful sex

Forceful or unwanted sex (maybe when you are ill, tired or asleep); manipulating you by sulking or anger if you don’t do what they want.

Where do I go from here?

You have some good tools at your disposal that will help to keep you safe:

Analyse the past

If you have been in an abusive relationship before, how did the abuse develop then? It can be useful to analyse what happened and what information you might have discounted about your ex that you would understand differently now (that’s not to say you could have done any differently at the time, it is just that it can be helpful to look again at our experience with the benefit of hindsight).

Do you feel uneasy?

Having looked at the above list, can you see any warning signs that he might become abusive? When did you notice them?

What rationalisations do you use after the abuse; e.g. he loves me, he’s not like that all the time, she said sorry and she’ll never do it again (note how close your story is to their version).

Your internal guidance system

The following are indicators that something might be amiss in your relationship and you would be wise to slow down and analyse where these feelings are coming from.

Do you feel:

  • Guilty without quite knowing why?
  • Like you can’t get anything right?
  • That you’re walking on eggshells?
  • As though your world is getting smaller?

Heal yourself

The stronger and more in touch you are with yourself, the more likely you are to trust your internal warning system and act on it. The more content you are with your life, the less likely you are to compromise and enter a relationship that is unhealthy or unsafe.

If you are still experiencing the after effects of an abusive relationship, or are struggling to heal, it can be a good idea to enlist some specialist support.

If you are currently in an abusive relationship and want help, please call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247. They will be able to direct you to your local services.

Choosing a therapist when dealing with issues of abuse

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We know from a number of studies that the right therapeutic relationship is vital to healing in counselling. This means that it is important to find the right person, both in terms of personality fit and relevant experience.

All the usual sensible guidelines for choosing a counsellor apply; you should look for someone that is non-judgemental, appropriately challenging, deals with you fairly and ethically and is upfront and clear in dealing with any questions or concerns that you might have.

In addition to this, you may also want to consider the following areas. There are some things that you may want to question your therapist about at the beginning, and others to simply think about for yourself.

The dynamics of abuse

Coercive control is at the heart of all abusive relationships and abusive systems. Your therapist should understand abuse as a way of gaining and maintaining a position of power and control within intimate relationships.

Are you believed?

Do you feel believed and supported when you talk about the abuse that you have sustained? Or do your experienced feel minimised, invalidated, judged, or not trusted?

It is fine to test out your therapist too; you can share less tender experiences to start with, and move into the more sensitive stuff when you have gained a sense of them and whether they will respond in a way that feels helpful to you.

Can you be honest?

Shame and self-blame are very common responses to abuse, and an important part of healing is often to expose these dark corners of ourselves to the light of compassion and understanding.

We can only do this in a relationship where we can see ourselves being able to be deeply, truly honest – even if you can’t right now, just the possibility for the future is enough. Take all the time you need to build trust in your therapist.

Blame and responsibility

Who does the therapist hold as responsible for the abuse?

Spoiler: the abuser is responsible for their own actions and choices.

You did not ‘provoke’ it, ‘trigger’ it, and it was not a response to your actions. Even if you have cheated on your spouse (for example), they still have a choice about how they deal with their feelings.

Watch your therapist’s language: they should use language that holds the abuser accountable and not divert responsibility onto you or other external factors.

If you are an adult in an abusive relationship

As and when you’re ready, it may be fruitful to explore what made you vulnerable to entering into an abusive relationship in the first place. This certainly doesn’t mean that you asked for it, deserved it or created it, but is simply to help you avoid similar relationships in the future.

If it is a mutually abusive relationship, it may be useful for your therapist to appropriately support you to find non-abusive alternatives to conflict resolution. After all, you may well want to have a healthy, satisfying, and loving relationship in the future, and it is important that you are able to relate to others in a way that makes this possible for you.

Do note though that in adult relationships, we often see a ‘primary’ perpetrator; one partner is often more scared or more controlled than the other. If you are scared of your partner, you are almost certainly not the primary perpetrator. Your actions can potentially therefore be understood in part as a response to living in a coercive, abusive and maybe even dangerous environment.

Understanding and unpicking your reactions should increase your ability to choose these responses, which is an important part of creating the life that you want to live.

Should I stay or should I go?

Often this is presented as a binary choice. However, for some there will be choices about different levels of contact that can be worked towards, or contact with different boundaries. Equally, for others it truly will be as black and white as stay or go.

Whatever choices life has presented you with, I feel that these are decisions that, ultimately, only you can make.

That doesn’t mean that your therapist won’t have their opinions, but therapy should be a ‘safe-enough’ environment for you to explore all your options and to take the time that you need to make that choice.

Strategies

If you want to figure out strategies (for dealing with distress, or with people in your life), are they comfortable and happy to work them out with you?

Does your therapist leave you feeling bad?

Therapy can be challenging, and there will undoubtedly be times where you leave feeling churned up or in distress. This is not unusual and can even be a sign of progress. It is not uncommon for this to particularly happen when you first access unexpressed feelings and experiences that are very painful or raw.

However, you should experience relief too, and connection, and feelings of being understood. So, if you do leave your therapist feeling bad about yourself, or needing something that you’re not getting, you can use this as a good opportunity to talk to them about what you would like from them.

Exploration such as this can be an incredibly fruitful exercise in terms of deepening your relationship with your therapist, and also for what it can illuminate about your own trauma and relational patterns.

However, if it happens repeatedly and there feels like there’s no resolution, it might be worth thinking about whether this relationship is the right one for you. Sometimes a therapist’s style of relating is not compatible with yours, and you would do better with another style of relating.

If you do decide to change therapists, do think about what it was that felt triggering or difficult for you, and talk to your new therapist about how they might approach this in a way that feels more helpful for you.

(Although on a slight side note, if you do find yourself moving from therapist to therapist, it may be worth sticking with a ‘good enough’ therapist to see if you can get a little closer to what this is about for you. As someone once said to me, “twice can be coincidence, but three times is likely to be a pattern.”)

And finally…

Trust your gut; even if the therapist has all the qualifications and training you could possibly want, if it doesn’t feel right, absolutely trust that.

Keep looking until you find someone that you feel you can talk to.

Good luck. Go at your own pace. You’ve got this.