Today we’re going to talk about abuse in relationships.
It’s a bit of a hard-hitting topic, and one which will no doubt trigger strong emotions all round. I’m not going to look at the causes of abuse, that’s not my area, I’m sure a colleague will tackle that subject in her blog at some point. What I am going to talk about is what it is, how to recognise it and who might be affected.
This is going to be a difficult post to write, but it’s a serious issue. It’s something people need to talk about more openly. Because there are many more people affected than just those in the scary statistics and the high profile news stories.
One incidence of domestic violence is reported to police every minute in the UK (Women’s Aid). An estimated 4.6 million women have experienced domestic abuse in the UK. A whopping 20% of women will be attacked or abused at some point in their lives, and of these 90% know their attackers. Five of these women a week will die, either at their partner’s hand or because they took their own lives to escape (Refuge).
It’s not just heterosexual women who are victims. An estimated 1 in 6 men will suffer from domestic violence in their lifetimes (Mankind). The figures for same-sex relationships are all higher than for heterosexual relationships, and they don’t know how much higher. That’s truly frightening. And this is just the reported figures, it doesn’t include all the instances which are never reported.I have been a victim in the past. I’ve always said it wasn’t serious – well, I’ve never been put in hospital, so how could it be?
Wrong. Anybody harming you is serious. Even if there are few physical marks.
I’ve been hit. Once, a long time ago. I hit him right back and said if he did it again I’d leave him. He didn’t hit me again. But what I did get instead was a form of mental abuse that I didn’t recognise as being a negative situation until many years later when I was free of it. I cheered when they made mental and emotional abuse as serious as physical – because it is no less damaging than physical abuse, my self-esteem and self-worth are still recovering almost a decade later.
On another occasion, I was manhandled from a building and pushed down some icy steps onto concrete. I very nearly lost my balance and fell, and given the angle I would have hit my head. That relationship was fairly intense and even in the emotional turmoil of it ending, the relief to get out was almost palpable. Even though I loved him.
I still care about both these guys, and I forgave them both a long time ago. Neither intended to hurt me, neither started out with the intention of trying to control me, it’s just that doesn’t excuse anything they did. The fact that I stood up for myself is irrelevant, I shouldn’t have had to in the first place.
I still flinch when someone raises a hand suddenly.
And what I’ve been through barely registers on the Richter scale of abuse. I have a friend who was hospitalised because of what an ex-partner did to her. He was an abusive bastard and I’m so very glad she’s out of his clutches. But most abuse is not this bad. Most abuse does not end up with a trip to the hospital. Most abuse is never talked about.
Generally people think they know what abuse is in relationships, they think it’s physical and there are bruises to show, black eyes to cover up. Many people don’t know, or recognise that mental or emotional abuse happens as well, and most do not recognise it – even when they’re living with it.
- The on-again, off-again relationship: the girl who keeps getting back together with the guy when he begs her to, then ignores her when she’s back. So she leaves, and the cycle begins again. The guy gushes about how much he loves he, how he can’t live without her, he just wants to be with her, he can’t stop thinking about her and does everything he can to win her back. So they get back together and once the short honeymoon period is over, the guy goes back to his old ways – disappearing, not calling, not responding, only dropping by when it’s convenient. So she leaves him again and he suddenly notices her again, and starts with the gushing romance and declarations again. He’s treating her like his property and won’t let her go. She isn’t free to live her life and she’s being controlled by him even though she doesn’t want to be. She isn’t being hit, but so what? How she’s being treated is not ok.
- The eggshell relationship: the guy who constantly criticises their girlfriend; what they’re wearing, how they’re behaving, who they’re talking to. It’s the walking on eggshells feeling, where you’re never quite sure what you might inadvertently do or say so which will cause them either to leave or get angry and physically violent. And you’re never sure which is worse. The girlfriend is scared to say anything so she’s normally very quiet and just agrees with her, typically extroverted, other half.
- The ‘exclusive’ relationship: the guy who says his girlfriend ‘listens to her friends too much’ and ‘spends too much time with them’. He’s trying to control who she sees and what she thinks – this guy only wants his girlfriend to think like him, do things with him and agree with him. He resents all outside interests and wants her to focus solely on her life with him. Disagreement here ends in punches.
I know I’ve written in the guy/girl dyadic relationship – but these scenarios apply to all pairings and all sexualities, it’s just easier for me to write like that as this is mostly from my perspective and I’m heterosexual.Where there is a power imbalance in any relationship, including non-sexual friendships, and one person uses it to their advantage then something is very wrong indeed and there is potentially going to be a path which leads to abuse.
All of those scenarios above are emotional and mental abuse. They may or may not develop into physical abuse – but the psychological abuse is just as powerful and just as bad. Where there are bruises there is evidence. Where there is an absence of bruises there is an absence of evidence and people are much less likely to believe you are in a situation you need help escaping from.
There is a popular myth that abuse only happens in low socio-economic status groups; that it’s the result of men drinking, smart women would leave if it was that bad, and abusers come from a crappy home life themselves so are perpetuating a cycle. There’s a lot of myths, and the Refuge site does a good job at dispelling them.
Abusers can come from all walks of life, and so can their victims. And nobody talks about it.
I’m not stupid. I don’t come from a crappy home life. I have a good circle of friends. I have a loving family. I have had some very good relationships and some not so good ones. I have my flaws just like everyone else, nobody is perfect. I still got hit though, and I still didn’t leave until much further down the line. Years down the line, if you’re wondering.
It can happen to anyone.
If you’ve experienced any of the situations I’ve described then you’ve probably heard others say ‘well just leave then’, ‘stuff him, you can do better’, or similar. You may have watched friends go through things like this and said those same things yourself. I’ve heard lines like ‘well just stop thinking about him’, or ‘you just have to stay away from him’ coming from intelligent people who are really trying and want to help. Unfortunately it’s not that easy. For anyone who has said things like that, we know you’re trying to help and we appreciate that. But you forgot the emotional factor, the desire element, is too strong. We’re in love with the person, that is why we stay, that is why we put up with it. We don’t want to leave.
If I say to you ‘stop thinking about alcohol’, what’s the first thing you think about? Quite. If I say to you ‘chocolate is bad for you, you can’t eat it ever again’, what’s the first thing you want to do? Exactly. Being in a negative relationship is just like that. We already know it’s bad for us, we’re not stupid, remember? We know it should not be happening, we know we should leave. We’re not hearing anything from you that we don’t already know, and haven’t known long before we let you in on what was happening. Thing is we can’t, not on our own – because ultimately we want to stay. What we need are escape routes, with maps, dates, times, and good friend in a getaway car. I am so very much not kidding.
Love has a particular chemical reaction in the brain that is different from lust. When you’re in love with someone different parts of your brain are active than if you just have lusty feelings for them. At least two areas of your brain are more active when you’re in love: the media insula (associated with instinct) and part of the anterior cingulate cortex (associated with euphoria) (Bartels & Zeki, 2000). Plus there is the fact that the conscious thoughts about a romantic partner activate the brain regions involved in reward and motivation (Ortigue et al, 2007).
This is what those who are abused are up against when they try and leave their partners, when the people who hurt them the most are the people they love. The fight is not with logic, it’s with instinct. The battle is to walk away from something that provides a sense of euphoria and reward which cannot be got elsewhere. The motivation to leave is very low indeed, even when logic screams that it’s the only option. Love will always trump logic.
Abuse isn’t necessarily a conscious decision, it can happen completely by accident, but any level of abuse is appalling and unacceptable. It could be a single instance that barely registers on the Richter scale of abuse, but it’s still an incident and it’s still something that should not have happened. It could be a particular person who has certain tendencies or it could be the combination of two personalities that clash in some way.
It doesn’t matter. There’s no excuse for abuse.You can make a difference in someone’s life if you help save them from an abusive, or potentially abusive situation. I helped save my friend and she saved me right back.
Some links for more advice and the numbers of people to speak to if you’re worried and want more advice: