Silva Neves

Silva Neves
Psychosexual, Relationship and Couples Therapist

Friday, 30 June 2017

What is an abusive relationship?



I see many clients who talk about their relationships. They tell me that they are unhappy, they feel bad about themselves and their relationship. Couples can feel stuck and conflicted because they know the relationship isn't working and at the same time they love their partner. 
Sometimes, the unhappiness in the relationship is down to some resentment that has built up and poor communication. For these issues, couples therapy is the best way to resolve problems. 

But sometimes, a relationship is unhappy because there is abuse. 

Abuse is one of those words that is loaded and heavy. Many people do not want to face that their relationship might be abusive. Often people think that an abuse relationship is one with physical violence. They think that as long as their partner doesn't hit them then the relationship is not abusive. 

It is not so. The reality is that abuse is much more subtle than a partner being physically violent. In fact, there are seven types of abuse and they are all equally damaging.

Here are the seven types of abuse

1- Physical abuse. This is the abuse that is most easily recognised. If you partner slaps you, punches you, pushes you, kicks you, clips your ear, pulls your hair, or causes physical pain, it is physical abuse. Some people experiencing physical abuse feel ashamed to admit it or to admit to themselves that they are in a domestic violent relationship. For men, it is particularly difficult to admit to it. I hear my male clients saying: 'she punched me but I'm bigger than her, so it's not abuse'. However, it is, because physical abuse, whether you are a man or a woman makes you feel powerless in that moment, and leaves long lasting emotional scars. It is also not uncommon for physical abuse to escalate to serious violence causing permanent physical damage and even death. The statistics on domestic abuse is worrying: it
affects 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men. It leads to two women being murdered each week and thirty men per year. This year, domestic violence reporting has hit an all-time high.

2- Verbal abuse. It comes in two forms: volume (shouting) and vocabulary (abusive language). If your partner frequently raises their voice or shouts at you, it is verbal abuse. If your partner uses a language that makes you feel bad, it is also verbal abuse. Such words can be subtle calling a woman 'girl' for the sole purpose of diminishing their existence. Or it could be words like 'dumb'. And of course, there are more obvious abusive language like calling your partner derogatory names. 

3- Emotional abuse. This type of abuse is often unrecognised, and yet it is a common one. Emotional abuse is when your partner says some things with the intention to make you feel bad about yourself. It may be comments like: 'don't you want to have a nose job?' Or 'you're not good in bed' or 'you look ridiculous in this suit' or 'everybody at the party thoughts you were stupid' or 'I don't love you anymore', 'why do you have friends?', 'nobody can love you', etc. Emotional can have a long lasting damaging effect on your self-esteem and sense of self-worth. It makes people feel isolated. Over time, people report that they lost themselves and they became unaware of what is good about them. 

4- Psychological abuse. This is another form of abuse that is often unrecognised and yet common. This is when a partner intentionally is trying to make their spouse feel like they are going crazy. The popular term for this is gaslighting. This is when your partner says things like: 'you're paranoid', 'it's all in your head', 'you should go to a shrink and sort yourself out', 'you're hysterical', etc. Often these are response to enquiries from their spouse around doubts of infidelity. But it can also be enquiries of financial abuse, emotional abuse or even physical abuse. For example, you may make the following statement: 
'It was not ok for you to tell my friend I was too fat to wear this dress.' (Statement about emotional abuse). 
'What are you talking about? You're so paranoid! I never talked to your friend about that. You're not the centre of the universe, you know, we do talk about other things than you.' - This is psychological abuse because you might then doubt yourself and question if you did hear the emotional abuse comment or if it was in your head. 
Another example: enquiry of loyalty:
'I've seen those receipts for an expensive restaurant when you told me you worked late that night. Can you explain?' 
'Stop being so crazy! It's all in your head! I told you I had a network meeting with my boss that day. You never listen to me and you make up crazy ideas in your head' 
Even if deep down you know that he said he was working late in the office that day, you can doubt yourself and start to believe you're going crazy. 

5- Sexual abuse. This type of abuse is well recognised when the perpetrator is a stranger. If you are the victim of unwanted sexual contact by a stranger or a colleague or your boss or a friend, it is easy to recognise it as sexual abuse and there are a legal system in place to report those assaults. It is a traumatic experience which often leaves a physical and emotional scar for a long time. 
What is less recognised is that sexual abuse can also happen in a marriage. If you say 'no' to your spouse, it means 'no' and if your spouse forces you to have sex when you say 'no', it is sexual abuse and it is damaging physically and emotionally. 
Sexual abuse can also be the opposite: constantly withholding sex when your partner asks for the sole purpose of controlling the partner. When sex is constantly withheld, it makes people feel unwanted, undesired and damages their self-esteem. 

6- Financial abuse. This abuse often applies with vulnerable people, for example an elderly person or someone with impaired thinking. Financial abuse is when you take money from that person without their consent. It could be stealing or over-charging for a service that you know they won't know the difference. Or it could be more subtle such as keeping the change if you're doing shopping for somebody else. 
In a relationship when there is no vulnerable people, financial abuse happens when one partner earns significantly more than the other. The main earner may restrict access to money for the other one for the sole purpose of disempowering and controlling that person. 

7- Threat and intimidation. This type of abuse can be through actions like the display of aggression on an object: punching a wall, smashing a plate. This is intimidating because it is a demonstration of violence that could then be transferred onto a person. If you see your partner punching a wall when they are angry with you, it is easy to feel intimidated because you can imagine what that fist would do if it was directed on your face. Threat and intimidation can be through words like: 'I'm going to kill you', 'I'm going to tell your boss you're a drunk', 'I'm going to kill myself if you don't stay home with me'. 


It is possible to be in a relationship where there are more than one type of abuse. It is not uncommon for partners to be emotionally and psychologically abusive with intimidation and threat. 

Also, it is important to understand that when emotions are high, your partner may resort to one of those behaviours as a one-off. If it is an isolated incident, your relationship isn't classified as abusive. A relationship is abusive if one or more of the above behaviours are repeated, frequent or consistent. 

If you think you are in an abusive relationship, don't suffer in silence. There is professional help available. However, it is very important to understand that your partner's abusive behaviour can increase and become more dangerous if they know that you are seeking help or you are trying to leave them. Don't tell your abusive partner you are thinking of living to protect yourself. Firstly, identify a safe place to escape to: an organisation providing a safe house, or a friend, or a family member. Then, with the help of a professional, you can prepare a safe exit strategy. 

In a crisis you can call the Police, of course, but be mindful that they only respond seriously to physical abuse or sexual abuse. People don't tend to be prosecuted for emotional abuse, verbal abuse or psychological abuse. 

Everybody deserves to be in a warm, loving and safe relationship that enhances who we are, rather than make us feel bad about ourselves. People who have successfully and safely left an abusive relationship, after a period of healing, report that they regained a sense of self-worth, and reached happiness again.
A new life is waiting for you.