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It is common for relationships to start off very well and then over time to turn abusive. In terms of the traditional relationship cycle that every couple goes through, the beginning stages is commonly known as the romantic/honeymoon phase which can last up to 24 months depending on the dynamics of the two people involved. In this phase there is a combination of lust, attraction, infatuation and romantic notion at play before it starts moving into the love phase.

What are some of the most common reasons behind abusive behaviour in relationships?

Upbringing and background has a large role to play in this behaviour as well as personal experiences. The foundation of our emotional intelligence is formed in childhood, particularly the first 7yrs of a child’s life. If a person grows up in an abusive environment (physical, emotional, substance abuse etc), they will potentially form a skewed perspective that this is the norm and how relationships and love is supposed to be. However this is not the case in every relationship, there are various factors that can contribute to a person being abusive. A number of social forces also plays a key role in shaping an abuser’s values and attitudes as well as creating an environment where abusive behaviour is rewarded and unpunished. In other words it is a learned behaviour and a choice to abuse.

Some of the most common forms of abuse include:
  • Financial abuse

Signs of financial abuse can be where one partner withholds money from the other as a means of control (e.g. household budget) and dictates what the money can/can’t be spent on as well as the partner having to account for every cent they have spent.

  • Silent treatment/blocking a partner out

This form of behaviour is also termed as stonewalling and according to John Gottman his research states that stonewalling is a 90% predictor of divorce in couples. This kind of behaviour includes an absolute refusal to consider the other person’s perspective and if they do attempt to listen to their partner, they do it dismissively or contemptuously.

  • Verbal attacks

Verbal abuse is usually invisible to the outside world and your family and can consist of verbal, emotional and mental abuse that eats away at you from the inside out so the signs of verbal abuse are usually felt instead of seen e.g. you constantly feel like you are walking on egg-shells or are anxious as to what your partner is going to say or how they will react when you share something with them r you find yourself having to pluck up the courage to tell them something that should seem like a regular conversation.

  • The way children are treated (especially in blended families)

This behaviour has also been termed as the “Cinderella effect” taking its name from the popular fairy tale story however that’s not to say every stepparent is abusive and not all child abuse is that obvious. Simple actions such as ignoring children’s needs, putting them in unsupervised, dangerous situations, or making them feel worthless or stupid are also forms of abuse. In all instances i.e. sexual, physical, mental and emotional – the result is serious emotional harm.

  • Restricting a partner from ‘normal’ activities/hindering a partner’s growth and development by controlling them

Partners who are abusive often have a high need for control which can stem from low self-esteem, self-worth or jealousy. In some instances, abusers come from backgrounds where women are seen as inferior/the weaker sex so they assert their dominance over their partner through abusive and controlling behaviors such as telling them what to wear, how to behave, the social activities they are allowed to participate in, who they can be friends with etc.

What is the impact of experiencing this kind of abusive treatment?
  • Financial abuse

Financial abuse can leave a partner feeling like they don’t have the knowledge, capacity of capability of managing their or the household finances and therefore the partner should do it. This can also have an impact on their sense of independence and ability to make decisions for themselves and leaving them dependent on their partner for their financial needs.

  • Silent treatment/blocking a partner out

Silent treatment/blocking a partner out or stonewalling is usually done to avoid feeling inadequate. We’re afraid we’ll be rejected if we try to engage with our partner so we shut down or shut our partner out or go through long bouts of silent treatment despite our partner’s attempts to converse with us.

  • Verbal attacks

Verbal attacks can be done in a subtle or direct way and can consist of comments such as “are you going out dressed like that?, my mother’s roast lamp is better than yours, you’re so clumsy all the time etc”. These comments slowly eat away at your self-confidence, self-worth and self-value and can leave you a shadow of your former self.

  • The way children are treated (especially in blended families)

In this instance a step parent will treat their step children differently to their own, there may be ‘two sets of rules’ where their child can do certain things whilst the step child can’t, praising their own children and belittling their stepchildren etc. Child abuse is more than bruises and broken bones. While physical abuse might be the most visible, other types of abuse, such as emotional abuse and neglect, also leave deep, lasting scars.

  • Restricting a partner from ‘normal’ activities/hindering a partner’s growth and development by controlling them

If a partner is feeling that they cannot voice their opinion or views openly without fear of retaliation, they are unable to freely participate in social activities, hobbies or their own interests and are constantly anxious or walking on eggshells when it comes to their partner, they may be subjective this type of abuse.

Is it possible to address these abusive issues and try to work through it?

It may be difficult to address this with the partner as they may not feel safe to do so. They would need to start with clearly identifying the behaviour they are unhappy with and what they need instead (e.g. I need you to stop interrupting me when I am speaking and to listen to me). They need to put boundaries in place and be firm about the behaviour they are no longer willing to tolerate (e.g. if you carry on shouting at me I am not going to engage with you until you have calmed down and we can talk calmly about things) and follow through to help the partner realise they are being serious.

What should you do when trying to address the issue with your partner is unsuccessful?

When attempts are unsuccessful it is best to seek professional help for both parties to understand the impact of the abusive behaviour and if necessary attend a rehabilitation program (e.g. anger management).

How can friends or family members help when faced with these situations?

Abusive partner needs to learn skills and tools to regulate their emotions and behaviour whilst abused partners need to learn to speak up and have a healthy sense of self and personal boundaries in place. It is possible to change behaviour but it is a process and happens over time, not overnight.

In all instances of abuse, there is, over time a breakdown of the person’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing which can cause mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and PTSD.

Low self-esteem can also lead people to stay in abusive situations, because they do not believe they deserve better or have the power to get out of the relationship.

Any form of abuse is not acceptable and should not be tolerated, it goes against basic human rights – personal safety (and that of children) comes first and if you feel you are in an abusive environment, you need to get yourself into a safe/healthier environment to begin the rehabilitation and healing process and this is applicable to both the abused and abuser.

A version of this article also appeared on women.24.co.za

Paula Quinsee: Relationship Expert, Tedx speaker and author of Embracing Conflict and Emvbacing No. Paula teaches individuals and companies tools and skills to immediately and positively enhance the quality of their personal and organisational relationships. She is a consultant to SA TV show “Married at first Sight”, conducts regular monthly workshops, writes articles for a number of platforms and hosted podcasts for Niche Radio and UK Health Radio. More info: https://paulaquinsee.com/

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