Abusive Relationships: Friends, Families and Intimate Partners

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Being in a relationship with someone who is alternately cruel and loving can be incredibly confusing.

Abuse often manifests as an experience of a loved one as being repeatedly critical, demeaning, controlling and cruel. Sometimes they are physically or sexually aggressive or violent, but not always.

You are often blamed for the problems in the relationship; for example, you may be told that you are ‘crazy’, ‘oversensitive’ or that you have an ‘anger problem’ as a way to invalidate your normal, human response to being treated badly.

Obviously, those around us are human, and may do and say hurtful things every so often. Emotional abuse is different; it is a consistent pattern of behaviour, and it can usually be understood as instrumental (which is not necessarily the same as conscious). This means that it is often an attempt to gain and maintain a position of power or invulnerability in the relationship.

Any kind of abuse can have profound and far-reaching effects. It often not only disrupts our relationship with ourselves, but emotional abuse in a past relationship can also affect how we experience our non-abusive relationships in the present. It can leave us mistrustful, hearing criticism when none was intended, confused, isolated, or simply not showing our authentic self to others.

The first step towards recovery is often realising that, no matter what we may have been told, we are not the problem.

As well as this, healing frequently seems to happen in relationship with another. A friend, therapist, a new partner, an internet group; we are simply treated better and we internalise this. Treating ourselves lovingly also has a deep and profound healing effect, as we internalise the kindnesses that we show to ourselves too.

If you are struggling to work out whether a relationship was abusive, it can help to have a skilled, trained professional unpick the experience with you. And if you find that you are struggling to cope with a difficult relationship, or heal from a difficult experience, therapy and counselling may well help you move forward or regain your balance.

I have extensive experience in unpicking abusive dynamics and supporting women in healing from toxic and traumatic relationships with friends, families, and intimate partners.

If you would like to book a session to talk more, please do get in touch.

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

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.

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* 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.