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Abusive Relationships: Part I

View profile for Liz Headley
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What is an Abusive Relationship?

If someone mentions the word abuse a whole range of mental images appear in people’s minds usually depicting physical maltreatment of some description, where victims are bruised, battered and left considerably visually damaged by the perpetrator.

The images are usually quite shocking and because we have been programmed to visualise abuse in this way, sometimes it’s difficult for individuals to recognise they are in an abusive relationship, they can dismiss the idea out of hand.

When I feel I have to introduce the idea of being in an abusive relationship to clients, I regularly get the response; “Oh no, he/she doesn't hit/kick/punch me” or “ it never leaves any marks” or “ no, it’s definitely not abusive, he or she isn’t like that”. So what is abuse, when can some forms of negative behaviour be defined as abuse, do bruises, scratches, scalds or burns have to be evident before that particular label is offered?

Professionally and personally I don’t believe that there needs to be any visual evidence to support the idea that a relationship can be abusive. If an individual bears physical signs that their partner has deliberately hurt them, then that can simplify matters, surely there can be little defence against such an act.

If the acts of abuse aren’t evidenced by physical injuries then that can be more complex, the effects of the cruelty are far less obvious, harder to describe and usually easier for the victim to minimise. However, emotional abuse is equally debilitating, the insidious nature of it can leave victims damaged for a lifetime, feeling helpless and worthless.

In the great majority of cases that I have worked with, emotional abusers can appear nice, plausible, charming people, leaving their victims concerned that they won’t be believed if they disclose their partners have a darker side. The emotional abuser has a need to dominate, and to do this they need to reduce their partner’s confidence and self worth, leaving them feeling diminished and powerless in the relationship.

This can be done in a variety of ways, some more subtle than others, sometimes it’s not a direct threat it’s more of a suggestion, leaving the recipient feeling unsure and on edge. When I hear a client say, “It’s like walking on eggshells…” I always have alarm bells ringing, for me it suggests that one partner feels that they have to modify their behaviour and responses in order to accommodate the other’s needs. There could be an expectation that one partner’s needs will always take priority over the other’s needs and that does not suggest a healthy relationship.

There are other forms of abuse of course, including sexual and financial abuse, although one might think these should be fairly easy to identify, for some victims the abuse has become a way of life for them so they don’t think of it as a form of maltreatment.

Whatever form the abuse takes, it is unacceptable and unhealthy and if you feel that there is even a small chance that you might be a victim of an abuser please do talk to someone about it. Brethertons Family team regularly work with clients who have been subjected to controlling and abusive behaviour, if you feel it might be helpful to have a chat with someone who will understand then please do contact a specialist in our Family team using the details below.

Liz Headley, Family Consultant Therapist - Rugby

Kim Lehal, Senior Associate - Rugby

Gemma Kelsey, Senior Associate - Banbury