What does being in an abusive relationship feel like?
Every survivor’s experience is different, so you are likely to get different answers for this question. However, it is quite common for men and women alike not to realize they are in an abusive situation. For me, it took an intense conversation with some friends to see that what was happening to me was actually abuse. I knew that my relationship was toxic and that it was hurting me tremendously, but since I’d never been educated on emotional abuse, I didn’t realize the full extent of what had happened to me. After I left, the floodgates opened, and all that pain came flowing in. But there are several ways an abuser might make us feel:
- They convince us we are not worthy of being loved by anyone.
- They confuse us and make us constantly question what’s real and what’s not.
- They label us as “needy” because we want their love, making us feel as though there’s something wrong with us, not them.
- They convince us to do things out of character to prove our love to them.
- They break us down grain by grain until we no longer recognize the person we’ve become.
- They put us at odds in important friendships and relationships.
- They involve us in their risky behavior, often putting our lives at risk.
- They drain our bank accounts, energy, and sense of self-worth.
- They cheat on us, lie to us, and steal from us repeatedly.
- They scare us into becoming someone you don’t recognize anymore.
Aren’t their red flags or warning signs that the relationship could turn abusive in the future?
For many of us who find ourselves in abusive relationships, we often don’t know what the signs of abusive behavior are, so we see those warning signs that might alert others as quirks rather than a promise of pain later. And on the occasions that something frightening or dangerous comes up, it can be too late to make any difference for us because we’ve already convinced ourselves we are in love with our abuser. Some of us think we can handle one negative aspect of someone’s character; others might fall into the trap of thinking they can change their abuser’s behavior. We might not yet realize there is much more to come.
Alone, some of these warning signs might not set off alarms, but when you put them together, they can become psychologically damaging:
- A past event or series of events with violent/destructive themes.
- A tendency to make us feel crazy when we talk about their questionable behavior.
- Details that don’t exactly add up about their past.
- Previous relationships with multiple “crazy” ex-partners.
- A lack of responsibility for their past actions.
- Love or affection that is withheld as a punishment, then given back as a reward or coercion.
- An intense or extreme honeymoon phase at the start of the relationship.
- A tendency to lie for no reason at all.
- Fake or exaggerated illnesses to gain sympathy.
- The need to always be in each other’s presence.
If it’s obvious to me that someone is being abused, why isn’t it obvious to the abuse victim?
You know that old saying . . . Love is blind. This is absolutely true here, and it can make us ignorant to what’s happening around us. As someone in a toxic or potentially abusive relationship starts to question their partners actions, their love for this partner creates a huge stop sign. It sounds like a cliché, but we can break down why this is such a powerful force through learning about love-bombing.
At the beginning of an abusive relationship, our toxic partners really turn up the dial on their charming behavior to lure their victims into their lives, whether they intend to keep them around for years or only a few days. It is like a psychological bomb they detonate inside our minds through a variety of actions:
- Pretending to have more things in common with their partner. They pick up clues in initial conversations with their future partners to find these opportunities for deception.
- Creating a sob story about their past relationships to give their future partner a chance to declare their honesty, devotion, and commitment. It gives them an opportunity to create the realization that they know their new partner would never treat them the same way. This makes the intended victim feel special and important.
- Telling stories about how none of their friends or family has ever been there for them. This also creates a similar feeling of being unlike any other relationship the abuser has ever experienced.
- Engineering a moment of feeling like you are each other’s soulmates right from the beginning. In normal relationships, this feeling of extreme connectedness takes months—or even years—to grow into; however, in an abusive relationship, it often only takes days or weeks to get there.
- Saving you from a bad (or another abusive) relationship, instilling in you that your new partner is your hero and can do nothing wrong.
- Making you feel more beautiful than anyone else in your life ever has.
- Pretending to be the man or woman their partners wants them or needs them to be to initiate and/or sustain the relationship.
Some of these things are all well and good—in their own proper time—in healthy relationships, but the danger exists when all of these things come right at the beginning of a romantic relationship. And what’s even more telling is that the abuser in question can’t keep up this persona for long. Their behavior begins to change, but their victim can only focus on the person they fell in love with at the beginning of the relationship, not who they morphed into over time. Because we know that person was there in the past, we think that if we hang on, the person we fell in love with will show up again. But it is not likely to happen. Regardless, it puts us in this vicious circle and prevents us from walking away.
But when the abuse becomes obvious, why don’t we ever leave?
This is a complicated question to unpack. In my abusive relationship, I had already left by the time I realized what I had experienced. So, this wasn’t an issue for me, but it doesn’t always happen that way for everyone. But I can give you a list of reasons that could be a factor in their decision:
- They believe their abuser when they make them feel like nobody else will love them.
- They have no money or resources to sustain life without their partner.
- They are afraid their abuser might come after them and hurt them physically.
- They feel sorry for their abusive partner and stay out of guilt.
- Their partner might threaten to spread lies about them to their friends and family members.
- They have children with their partner and want to work things out for the sake of the children.
- They literally have nowhere else to go.
- Their partner convinces them they will change.
- They feel shame about their abusive relationship and are afraid of how others might react.
- They don’t think their partner would ever really hurt them.
This is something that, as supporters of someone in an abusive relationship, is dangerous to force. Without having the proper safety precautions in place, leaving an abusive situation can quickly become volatile and deadly. According to Battered Women’s Support Services, 77% of domestic-violence-related homicides are committed after leaving an abusive situation.¹ This is why investigators so often look at intimate partners in a homicide case. It is not a cliché; it is a provable statistic.
And this is the most important reason I know to show you how critical it is for an abuse victim to leave on their own terms; however, that doesn’t mean you are useless or that your concern isn’t valid. It just means you have to be careful and prepared to face the dangers of their situation.
How can I help an abused loved one who is still in their abusive relationship?
The most important thing you can is listen without pushing an agenda for them to leave immediately. While you can make it known that the relationship is not healthy for them, if you are constantly trying to rip them from the situation, they may not feel as though it is safe to confide in you. Give them a safe place to voice their pain, concerns, feelings, and experiences. If they’re living with an extremely controlling partner, it’s likely they don’t have anyone who will truly listen to them. So, just lending your ear will mean the world to them. Listen, ask questions, and help promote their safety in whatever way they need.
Here are some other things you can do to help:
- Create a code word they can use whenever they are in danger. Their abusive partner could be monitoring their texts or phone calls.
- Check in with them periodically to see how they are doing. It is likely they may not have many people who do this for them.
- Spend time with them in person to give them space to breathe outside of their abusive situation. This also gives you an opportunity to talk about their relationship without their abuser listening.
- Lend your phone or computer to them to look up shelters, safety plans, and other resources when the time is right. Their phones and Internet activity could possibly be monitored by their partner.
- Given them a safe place to store a “go” bag for whenever they do leave their relationship. This gives them the option to walk away from their situation any moment they feel the opportunity is right.
- Avoid forcing your opinion on them if they aren’t ready to hear what you’re saying. You always want to make them feel as though they can come to you with anything.
It may sound a little like you need to walk on eggshells, but that’s not exactly the truth. If your loved in is in danger, it is an extremely sensitive situation that can go wrong at any moment. If you help them take the proper precautions in the beginning, you can help ensure they have a safe environment outside of their toxic/abusive relationship. This is something they don’t have with their partner, so you will be working over a period of time to help build them back up while ensuring their safety at the same time.
Yes, it is challenging to sit by and watch our friends and family members suffer, but with your support, they will find a way out of the physical and emotional danger sooner than if they were trying to do it alone. Being in an abusive relationship is one of the most lonely feelings in the world, but you can help ease some of that loneliness and danger by setting aside your judgment and opening your heart to them.
1: Battered Women’s Support Services. “Eighteen Months After Leaving Domestic Violence is Still the Most Dangerous Time.” Ending Violence Blog. https://www.bwss.org/eighteen-months-after-leaving-domestic-violence-is-still-the-most-dangerous-time/.