How many of us have longed for the fairytale relationship we see in chick flicks or read about in romance novels where two people fall madly in love, have unbelievable sex and live happily ever after? Now, how many of us have learned that a fairytale relationship is essentially unrealistic? Can you recall when your perception of a relationship was altered and you were hit with a dose of reality? Relationships are far from fairytales and some can be more like cautionary tales if we are honest. Many of us learn what not to repeat in future relationships and what to avoid instead of learning what to continue. Nonetheless, there are times we unconsciously repeat the unwanted behaviors and attract a certain type of partner.
To have a partner who is consistently loving, supportive and understanding would be the dream! However, none of us are consistent in these behaviors as individuals! So, how can we expect someone else to be? If we take a look at a “normal” functioning relationship, there will be disagreements (including arguments). At times there will be conflicts over control of things like managing bills, budgeting, sex, who’s right or wrong and even curfews. These partners typically struggle with communicating, listening and compromising. Keep in mind this is further challenged when children are involved as “compromising” now includes how to raise and discipline them.
Let’s take it a step further and factor in a “dysfunctional” couple (uh-oh). They will have the same issues as a normal functioning couple. However, maladaptive behaviors must be factored in. These behaviors may include stonewalling, contempt, resentment and being condescending. Maladaptive behaviors are like barriers in a relationship as they reduce communication, inhibit connection and trust and limit the overall growth of the relationship. These maladaptive behaviors can also be the first signs that the relationship is on the path to destruction! HOWEVER, this does not mean the relationship will actually end and result in a break-up, separation or divorce. This is especially true when the behaviors are familiar due to childhood experiences, culture or religion. You know I’m right! We all know some unhappily married couples who are solely together because they can’t afford to break-up, for the sake of their children or divorce is culturally forbidden.
Now…things are about to get real (pause and take a breath). Let’s discuss how maladaptive behaviors can escalate to abuse. Let me be clear, the maladaptive behaviors mentioned above can be verbally, mentally and psychologically abusive. However, the internal alarm typically does not go off until the abuse becomes physical. Some partners will say “I don’t know how it got this bad” or “one day things just changed.” Yet, there is definitely a progression but we rarely pay attention to the signs. Since this is common, it is important to review what the warning signs are (a.k.a. RED FLAGS) and process/steps to confirm you are in an abusive relationship.
First, how do you identify a red flag? Many of us miss the warning signs because we don’t realize what they are. Don’t believe me? Did you know a stop sign was a stop sign before someone told you? (*sly smirk*) Red flags can be behaviors or actions that make you do the following: [a] take a pause, [b]raise your eye brow because you think it’s odd or weird, [c] feel uncomfortable (i.e. stomach drops, heart rate increases) or [d] feel bad (physically and emotionally). In case you still dismiss your reactions, you may have people YOU TRUST making comments such as, “I don’t know about him” or “It’s something about her” or “I don’t trust him” or “I don’t feel good about her” or “I just don’t like him”. I know, I know…listening to people tell you how they feel about the person you are dating or love is almost impossible! The first response is to be defensive and rightfully so! Nonetheless, if the feedback is coming from someone you trust and respect, please consider listening to them, especially when your own judgment may be clouded. If we’re being completely honest, at times the feedback is confirmation.
Second, trust your gut instincts! If you believe a behavior or action is inappropriate or upsetting, don’t negate or dismiss it. Our instincts are the best detectives! Stop looking for evidence or proof that someone is not a good person or is not trust worthy when your instincts have already warned you. Fun fact, did you know that humans are the only species that go against their instincts? If you still choose to ignore your instincts, pay attention to how you feel when you are around the person. Are you uncomfortable, tense or doubtful? If the answer is yes, this is YOUR BODY trying to communicate that something is wrong! Either you need to end the relationship or slow down the pace and pay attention. (*exhale and sigh*)
Third, believe what you saw and what you heard them say! Maya Angelou said, “When a person shows you who they are, (say it with me)…BELIEVE THEM.” Too often we disregard people’s bad or less than desirable behaviors, especially if they are loved ones. This is even more difficult when they are charming or make us feel loved or special in some way. However, these are “tactics” many abusive people use to “lure and mentally trap” their victims. Once an abuser believes he/she has established enough goodwill, they feel more comfortable pulling off the mask a bit and revealing more of who they truly are (i.e. controlling, insensitive, harsh, lack of empathy, abrasive, rigid). Unfortunately, if you attempt to call an abusive partner out on their behavior, you will likely be [a] verbally attacked, [b] blamed for their behavior or [c] told that you’re crazy and they never did such things (a.k.a. gas lighting). So it’s good practice to proceed with caution and be prepared.
Fourth, women are also capable of abuse! Like in other situations, women are viewed as inferior. However, we know we are capable of many things and in some instances, smarter and wiser than our counterparts. As a result of the systemic double standard created by society, women typically get away with abusive behavior, even sexual abuse because society simply doesn’t take women seriously and views us as fragile or harmless. This is not only disheartening but sexist! Are you aware of the abuse that happens in lesbian relationships? Due to the systemic perception, two women physically fighting has less of an effect than if it were two men. Not only can this be the perception of society but also the perception of the women in same-sex relationships. This also applies to men being abused in heterosexual relationships as the abuse can be emasculating and shaming.
Lastly, don’t be quiet and allow yourself to be isolated from family and friends. Abusive partners are likely to make great efforts to isolate their partners from their support system as they want to be the sole resource to gain control. What does this look like? Here are some of the things an abusive partner may say or do to achieve isolating a partner: [a] speak negatively about your friends and family, [b] convey messages that your friends and family are not good for the relationship, [c] make comments that everyone is jealous of the relationship or [d] create discord between you and your friends and family. Again, these are strategies the abusive partner uses to essentially gain control. So do what you can to get over the shame and reach out to trusted friends and family for support if you notice these things are happening in your relationship.
If you find yourself in an abusive relationship, find the SAFEST way to get out. This will take time as many abused partners find themselves emotionally and/or financially dependent on the abuser. Of course, the sooner you can leave the better. However, if it’s later there is still hope… just a different plan of attack. Certain situations call for drastic measures which include contacting a women’s shelter and a very well thought out plan, especially if children are involved. Additionally, attending group therapy can be very helpful in gaining courage, validation, self-esteem and overall support. Finally, if you are feeling ashamed about being in this type of relationship and how your life has changed, DON’T BE! You are not alone and many women and men are in the same situation. There is nothing to be ashamed of, just get help and remember those who judge you are typically dealing with their own insecurities and mask it by passing judgment. So do not worry or be discouraged beloveds! Remember to show yourself some love and kindness.