My plan this week's column is to shed some light on what makes a relationship abusive, talk about some red flags everyone should watch out for, and even offer some advice on how to get out. It is my hope that someone reads this and recognizes the signs before it is too late, either for themselves or someone they care about. This isn't going to be a fun article, but it might save your life, or the life of someone you know.
What is an abusive relationship? A lot of the time, we think that abusive relationships are what happen to other people. We don't want to think that they might happen to us. Sadly, though, it's quite possible to be caught up in an abusive relationship and not realize it.
The most obvious type of abusive relationship is the physically abusive one. Sexual abuse is another type, in which the person uses force or threats to coerce sexual acts. This can often go hand-in hand with the physical. However, the abuse can also be emotional, and the abuser doesn't have to lay a finger on his/her victim to hurt them mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. We must also understand that while the majority of spousal abuse is perpetrated by men against women, any relationship can be abusive. Women can abuse men as well, and same-sex relationships can also become abusive. It's not a matter of gender or orientation, it's a matter of the abuser's actions. But, the majority of abusers are male, so for clarity here we'll refer to the abuser as 'he'.
I mentioned that abusers don't usually advertise that they plan to abuse you. However, this doesn't mean that there aren't severe red flags that will point to a person being abusive. Gavin de Beker is an expert at threat assessment and helped design the Mosaic Threat Assessment Systems that help anticipate threats. He has studied violence for years, including domestic abuse. In his book, The Gift of Fear, he identified many red flags that point to someone being an abuser.
Red Flags of Abuse (Any one is a problem. More than one means a likely abuser.)
He breaks things in anger - you might think that this is just a passionate guy, who just lets his emotions get the best of him. The truth is that people who get angry and cause property damage are likely to turn this anger onto another person. If this person starts destroying things in an argument, that's a problem. If he's ever put his fist through a wall, that's a very bad sign, because it means he can't control his temper. If he's ever destroyed photographs (torn them up, marred them) then that's a very bad sign, because soon he could go from attacking the symbolic person to the real person.
He resolves conflict by bullying - there's a difference between standing your ground and being a bully. An abuser never backs down, to the point of threatening violence if he doesn't get his way. This is a person who keeps screaming, yelling, and throwing a fit until the other person gives in. This person is not going to debate and see anyone's point of view; he's going to get his way or else.
He excuses violence with drugs and alcohol - a common excuse is that he's only abusive when he drinks or uses drugs. This is a way for him to not accept responsibility for his actions. You'll note, however, that he won't take responsibility for drinking and using drugs, and he'll get very angry at any suggestion to give them up. Even if he does only get abusive when drunk or high, he is still choosing to drink or use drugs and clearly doesn't care about the consequences to anyone else.
He has a history of violence - has he hit people before? Has be been in jail for violence? If he has a record of violence, if you know he's beaten his past girlfriend or wife, then he's going to continue the pattern. He might tell you that he's a changed man, or that everyone was making a big deal over nothing, and he'll be very charming when he does. However, such a history is a huge red flag and a sure sign that this person will be or continue to be abusive.
He's controlling with money - abusers like control, and money is a great way to be in charge. If he holds onto all the money, makes all the financial decisions, and resents that you have any financial independence, this is a sign of a domineering abuser.
He is extremely jealous - abusers don't see you as a person; they see you as property. While it might seem thrilling that someone is willing to fight for you, this isn't love or devotion; it's a declaration of ownership, and it can escalate very quickly, to the point that he may strike you if someone looks your direction.
He tries to isolate you - abusers want to be the only relationship you have. They'll often try to convince you that no one else would want you, in order to get you to stay. In addition, abusers want to sever all other relationships, including friends and family, because they can control you more if you're isolated. Any relationship you have is with whoever he chooses, and it will always be someone who takes his side over yours.
He plays down acts of abuse - if he hits you, he says that he didn't hit you that hard. He'll call you horrible names and then tell you that he was joking, and you're too sensitive. An abuser wants you to feel like your relationship is normal, and that real abusive relationships are a lot worse than the one yours.
He acts like everyone's out to get him - abusers can have a huge persecution complex. He believes that everyone is out to get him, that everyone wants to bring him down and humiliate him. He can be very paranoid, which is why he wants to isolate you. He believes that your friends and family are conspiring to take you away from him. He'll often talk about getting even with real or imaginary foes.
You feel like you're in danger when he's around - this might be the biggest red flag of all. I could list a hundred factors, but your gut is who you should listen to the most. If you have a sneaking feeling that this person wants to harm or even kill you, then that is a sure sign of an abusive relationship. A healthy relationship won't give you that feeling.
(For more information on Red Flags and signs of abuse, go here, here, and here.)
Knowing the signs of an abusive relationship is just the first step. Admitting when they pertain to you is the next. People in abusive relationships are often in deep denial about what's going on. Even when their friends and families tell them that they are being abused, even when the police are called to their house on multiple occasions, they still deny that they are being abused. If you've ever tried to get a friend or loved one out of an abusive relationship, you know how frustrating this can be.
Why do people deny that they are being abused? There are several factors according to de Beker.
First, the victim may have grown up in an abusive household. For her, this is a normal relationship. She saw her father abuse her mother and the rest of his family. Because this pattern of behavior was modeled, it's what she seeks out. The sad truth is that abusers can zero in on potential victims, and people who grew up abused often seek out people just like their abusive parents.
Another factor de Beker mentions is that the victim has a skewed sense of what is and isn't a threat. Abuse isn't always constant. Months can pass between incidents, and the victims rationalize that since they aren't in danger all the time, they aren't abused. They don't see themselves as victims, and they'll make excuses for the abuser when he does attack them. That is why it is important to recognize abuse as early as possible in the relationship, and leave as early as possible, ideally at, or even before, the first incident. The longer a victim stays, the harder it will be to leave.
After the violence, the victim is relieved that it's over and can convince herself that this was the last, or only, time. The abuser might apologize, he often does, and convince her that he'll change, get counseling, stop drinking, or do a million other things. Even more, he'll return to that sweet, charming man she met, and the next few days, weeks, or even months will be wonderful. That's a typical cycle of abuse, and often victims will simply endure the moments of violence for the relationship highs.
Other victims feel like they have nowhere to go. They might recognize that they are caught in an abusive relationship, but they fear what might happen if they leave. If her abuser has kept her isolated, made sure she has no money or other resources, she may not know what do do, who to turn to, or where to go. Sometimes there are children involved, and she'll be afraid to break up her family or to be the kind of woman who leaves her husband or takes her children away from their father.
Or she's afraid her abuser will kill her, her children, her family, and anyone who helps her. The sad truth is that this fear is justified.
Male abusers in particular can't handle rejection. It's part of what makes them an abuser in the first place, and when their victim leaves them, it's the ultimate rejection. It's not just a rejection of the relationship, it's a rejection of his manhood. He's now going to be humiliated, the kind of man who can't keep his woman in line. Remember that one sign of an abuser is someone who believes that everyone is out to get him, and if his victim leaves, it confirms it. That leaves him no choice: he must kill her.
This is not rational, this is not something he can be talked out of. It is a psychotic break, and this person has now, officially, lost his mind. This is why leaving an abuser isn't as easy as walking out the door. In fact, it's the most dangerous time in the relationship, because this is when women, if not their entire families, get killed.
So how do you leave? How do you get someone you care about out of the relationship? There are three basic steps.
Step 1: Get help
This is not something anyone has to face alone. There are many hotlines women can call for help. One service is the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Another is the Abuse Victim Hotline. There is also the Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women.
These services will connect women (and men) to shelters and means of escape. It will also give them someone to talk to, people who know what they're going through, and who've often been through it themselves. Having someone tell you that you aren't crazy, that the other person is, in fact, abusive, is a good, positive step.
Step 2: Make Your Escape
If I make it sound like abuse victims are breaking out of prison, that's the point. Escaping an abuser might take planning, from a few days to a few weeks. You'll need a specific plan, where to go, what you'll do when you get there, and making sure he can't find you. You might need to make sure you have enough money to get by, and getting enough may take time. Make sure you have all your important documents (Birth Certificate, Passport, etc.) as well, you don't want to be without them.
The best time to leave is when he isn't around, because abusers are master charmers. If you try to leave in front of him, he'll know just what to say to sweet-talk you into staying. The other extreme is that trying to leave will trigger that psychotic break and he'll explode in a violent rage and possibly try to kill you.
When you go, don't take anything that can be traced. Don't take credit cards or debit cards. Use cash. Don't bring anything that has a GPS tracking device in it, including your laptop, phone, or even your car. Abusers are very good at tracking their victims down.
Your first stop may be a shelter, and they are kept hidden to prevent you from being found. However, long-term solutions may involve relocating to a different city, if not a different state. This might seem extreme, and very unfair, but this is literally a matter of life or death. If that's not possible, then you'll need to figure out a way to remain off your abuser's radar.
It can be more complicated if there are children involved. Gavin de Beker talked about what you can do in this video.
Step 3: Once You Are Gone
After you leave, don't go back. If you've left something behind, let it stay behind, because your life isn't worth it. It's also important to remember why you left in the first place. Some women who leave do return, only to be more violently abused, if not killed. You need to stay gone.
You may need to contact the police to issue a restraining order. If you fear being tracked down, get a Post Office Box. You may need to change your routines, from where you shop to your normal routes to and from work. Alert friends and family about the situation so they know to be cautious. You definitely want to change your number, get Caller ID, and probably screen your calls. Don't give out your new number, unless absolutely necessary.
If you have a job, talk to your supervisor, coworkers, and HR department to keep yourself and everyone around you safe and secure while you work. If you work at a store or restaurant, or anywhere with open access to the public, you may have to just get a different job to keep your abuser from harassing you and your coworkers.
(You can read more about what you need to do here.)
I do hope what I've written today is helpful. If you recognize yourself or someone you know, I hope this helps you figure out what to do next. Below I have more links to resources on domestic violence, abuse, and getting help. Please pass them along to whoever needs it.
Signs of Domestic Abuse
Red Flags - Gavin de Beker presents four clear signs of abuse.
More Signs of Abuse - another website looking at signs of abuse and resources for dealing with it.
Red Flag Campaign - a long list of warning signs of an abusive relationship
Domestic Abuse Help/Hotlines
National Domestic Violence Hotline - call at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).
Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women - another resource, specializing in male victims of abuse. Call at 1-888-7HELPLINE (1-888-743-5754).
International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies - help for abuse victims worldwide.
The Safety Plan - important steps to take before and after you get out of an abusive relationship
Mosaic Threat Assessment Systems - this system, developed by Gavin de Beker, can help diagnose threats in the home, workplace, or schools.
Relationship Assessment - this can help you assess your own relationship to see if it's abusive.
Protecting your family (video) - de Beker talks about escaping an abuser when you have children to think about.
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