6 Subtle Signs Your Relationship Is Becoming Abusive

Written by Sajan Devshi

Working with domestic abuse offenders for the last six years as a probation worker, I've realized that a lot of the time, people don't even realize they're in bad relationships. I see up to 60 offenders (mostly men) every week on court orders, so I get to know them quite intimately.

They come to me for cognitive behavioral therapy–based programs, and I work with them for up to six months. The priority of our therapy is to make them aware of the harm their behavior can cause, and consider how it's affecting their loved ones.

Many people think abusive relationships all have obvious physical signs. Psychologically abusive behaviors are, more and more, perceived as normal or acceptable.

The shift toward abuse can be slow and insidious, and it won't always be obvious to victims that a relationship is toxic until it results in police involvement, or such depleted self-worth that they don't feel capable of leaving, despite being unhappy.

If you think you might be in an abusive relationship, you can get help. Don’t suffer in silence.

Here’s six possible warning signs your own relationship might be becoming abusive:


1. It’s all about control.

If the person you're with tries to control every aspect of the relationship and to control you, it is not a good relationship. This can be through what you both do, what you wear, where you go, who cleans up, what you eat, or even through them setting "ground rules" that you are expected to adhere to (without your input on said rules).

A relationship is a “partnership” in which both people are meant to be happy and compromise. If one person is in charge of setting rules the other is expected to follow without discussion, the rule-setter is trying to control the partner.

2. You’re constantly undermined or belittled, sometimes in subtle ways.

Often the thing that makes it difficult to leave a bad relationship is low self-esteem. When you’re in an abusive relationship, your partner chips away at your self-esteem and confidence in small, subtle ways so you become too fearful of the alternative to leave.

You might be undermined about how you complete tasks, you might be embarrassed in front of others, or you might be made to feel incompetent in some way. This is designed to lower your confidence so the likelihood of you leaving the abuser is lessened. Name-calling is another classic example. When done with intent over time, this can really lower people's image of themselves. When your most intimate partner is tearing you down, it can be difficult to sustain a sense of self.

3. It’s always your fault, and your partner can never apologize for mistakes.

A good relationship requires that people take responsibility when they're wrong. I’ve been married for six years, with my wife for nine years, and the biggest saving grace for our relationship has been our ability to genuinely apologize when we’ve screwed up.

This lets the other person know they are valued enough to deserve an apology. No relationship can survive in an environment in which people are just too stubborn to ever let the other person know they're sorry. Apologizing isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of a strong relationship with good communication.


4. Your partner is irresponsible or makes promises they can’t keep.

I’m not talking about small promises, like taking out the garbage. I'm talking about big ones that damage the relationship. If you feel as though you can’t trust your partner to do something and you always have this feeling that you will have to do it yourself, this might be a sign of an unbalanced relationship.

This issue often surfaces in money matters, vis-à-vis spending irresponsibly without discussion. Irresponsibility can even be your partner disappearing for long periods (days) without letting you know when they're coming back, just because you argued, or they "needed a break."

5. They never do things to make you happy like you do for them.

What’s the point of being in a relationship if you're always so focused on doing things that benefit you? If you find that your partner only wants to do things that suit them, you have to ask yourself how much this person actually cares about you. When a person deeply cares about someone else, they will do things they may not enjoy, simply because they want to make their partner happy.

Refusing to watch a movie you really want to watch because they don’t like it, refusing to try new restaurants or activities because “they don’t enjoy it” is a bad excuse. Think about when you first met; you would do anything just to spend time with each other because that’s what you both wanted. Spending time together should still be enough of a reason to do something — even if one person isn't thrilled about it.


6. You have to keep telling yourself “I’m fine, everything’s fine," but deep down you're unhappy.

You constantly have to keep reassuring yourself that things will change, that it will get better, to justify staying in the relationship. Instead, ask yourself — are we together because we love each other, or at this point, are we together because we're attached and used to each other? Attachment isn't love.

If you think you might be in an abusive relationship, you can get help. Don’t suffer in silence.

Speak to close family and friends. They are the best support network available to help you find the courage to leave, and then see you through the breakup.

If necessary, speak to your local law enforcement agencies to file restraining orders, as a safeguard prior to ending the relationship.

Almost every country has organizations in place that focus on domestic abuse. A simple search for “domestic abuse helpline” will provide you with support right now if you need to talk to someone.

Your doctor can also refer you for counseling with trained professionals to talk in confidence if you need it.

Help is there. You can be happy. And regardless of how you might have been made to feel, you deserve better.

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