Most of us equate the idea of a "stable" life with the seemingly simple concept of an institutionalized relationship at the altar — aka marriage. While we celebrate couples who are bound by wedlock, we have, as a society, also come to the agreement that all marriages are inherently stifled with conflict and misunderstanding, which is why many of us strive to "make it work."
But there is a fine line between inevitable misunderstandings in a relationship and an inherently unhealthy relationship. When we hear the stories of the women and men who endure such tumultuous relationships, we can't help but wonder: "Why don't they just walk away?" But it's all too easy as observers to make assumptions. We assume that, if faced with the same circumstances as the victims telling their stories, we would've acted differently: we would have left at the first sign of trouble, right?
Wrong. Mistreatment is often the result of manipulation and exploitation, and it doesn't always have to include physical abuse. Psychological cruelty, most often excused, is equally as painful and oftentimes a gateway to physical assault. This is where talking about relationship abuse complicated. More often than not, the first signs of exploitation in relationships are so subtle that they are easily overlooked or excused. People who tend to be manipulative often use sly, even subconscious, tactics to gain control over the individuals they victimize.
Whether we are entwined in an unhealthy or potentially threatening relationship or bystanders observing from afar, it is vital that we understand the warning signs of such unhealthy behaviors. Here are eight specific patterns to look for to confirm that harmful manipulation is occurring in a relationship. Remember: there are no excuses for these behaviors.
1. They threaten you.
A favorite tool of antagonists is the threat: threatening to leave you, to hurt themselves (or you) physically, or to engage in harmful or illegal activity. Much of the time, these threats are what we call "empty threats," used with the sole purpose of manipulating the victim. At this point, even if no physical violence has ensued, it may be all too easy to pass off this behavior as a personality flaw of the abuser or weak demeanor of the victim. This is a mistake. And it's one that many of us make, as denial of the problem often escalates conflict rather than alleviating it.
2. They intimidate you.
Deliberately inducing fear — be it with words or actions — is a kind of abuse. This can involve more explicit acts of intimidation such as smashing things or harming pets or other things/people in proximity. Though perhaps more often, this behavior is often couched in less explicitly intimidating behaviors, such as trying to control or dominate situations. This dominance approach is often mistaken as "taking on responsibility" as the antagonist becomes the decision maker. At least at first, this kind of controlling behavior can seem liberating for the victim, but it often also leads to a vicious cycle of manipulation.
3. They insult and humiliate you.
This category is broad, and encompasses many of the behaviors on this list. That said, it's important to look out for even the simplest manifestations of emotional abuse: name-calling, insulting, humiliating, inducing guilt, intimidating.
For the individuals who demand total dominance in relationships, their goal is to make their partners seem "less than" by turning to insults and humiliation to diminish their partner's self-worth. After time, the victims internalize this negativity, believing that perhaps this is all they deserve. The cycle continues — unless it is stopped.
4. They isolate your relationship from loved ones.
Even though relationships involve more than one person, they can often become very lonely. This is often the result of isolating behaviors that either one or both partners impose in the relationship. In the case of an abusive relationship, the abuser may try and control his/her partner's other relationships and activities, or use jealousy as a means to deter certain behaviors.
As these tactics continue, it is easy for outsiders to catch wind, to see through the transparent facade of the "so obviously" unhealthy relationship. Yet often as a result, manipulators will slowly begin to isolate their partners further from their family and friends — ensuring that they can continue on without onlookers calling out the troubling dynamics.
5. They rely on denial and blame.
When called out on their abusive behavior, abusers often exhibit further abusive behavior, which often involves denial and blame of the initial abuse. They may laugh off the abuse as "no big deal," or refuse to admit that the abuse occurred. They may even blame the victim for their own aggressive behavior. "It was just a bad day," we'll hear from both the manipulator and victim, as the excuses slowly pile up to bury the truth that lie beneath the tales.
6. They use your children against you.
In the case of two people who have a child together, abuse can look even more complicated. The abuser may use the children as another tool of manipulation, either by threatening to keep the children from you, pitting your children against you or making you feel like you must stay "because of the kids." Kids repeat what they hear from their parents, oftentimes without even realizing what they are saying. This can be especially problematic when a spouse confronts your or insults you in front of your children. This is equally as damaging as if they communicate negative thoughts about you directly to your kids.
7. They use money against you.
This can have many different forms, but usually centers around your partner not allowing you financial freedom. How? By not allowing you to work, hiding the finances from you or giving you a restricted "allowance." You and your partner are a team and therefore should have equal rights to your financial situation. Both parties in any relationship have the right to access and assess their finances as long as the privilege of feeling financially secure.
8. They restrict your independence.
If you partner makes all of the decisions without factoring in your thoughts, he/she is abusing you, by stripping you of your autonomy. At no times should one person feel deliberately undermined in a relationship. For any partnership to work, each person must feel equally important, respected and heard.
Recognizing these patterns early on is the best way to deal with such a detrimental personality. Most importantly, educating our children about these potential behaviors of partners is the best solution to identify and effectively deal with such unhealthy relationships.
This article was derived from resources provided by the National Center for Domestic and Sexual Violence. For more information, visit the NCDSV website.