Early Signs of an Abusive Relationship

Posted on April 2, 2018
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With spring being in full swing, love is in the air. Humans and animals alike are especially during springtime motivated to find a mate. Unfortunately, the combination of the desire to no longer be alone and the fear of rejection can make us enter into relationships, which are neither healthy nor fulfilling. According to recent statistics, 5.3 million incidents of domestic violence occur annually among US women aged 18 years and older, with 3.2 million occurring among men. This means that every minute nearly 20 people in the US alone are physically abused by an intimate partner. Considering that many people avoid admitting that they had been victimized, these numbers are in reality even higher.

Obviously, abuse in a relationship isn’t just limited to physical violence, since verbal and emotional abuse can be as painful and destructive. But what about the early stages of abuse, the more subtle dysfunctional behaviors that may be harder to detect, especially if they show up during the beginning stages of the relationship?

Having had my own share of the infamous “love makes you blind” moments, I know, how we can overlook, or even worse, justify and downplay the potentially toxic and dysfunctional behaviors of those we have fallen for. As a rule of thumb you could say, that you are probably dealing with an abusive relationship, if your partner disrespects, controls or intimidates you. Here are a few common examples of dysfunctional patterns, which should raise red flags. (While for simplicity reasons, I assigned the role of the abuser to the male partner, abusive behavior is of course not gender specific).

Sugar-coated criticism: Your partner tells you, that it would be better for you to not have another cookie, because he is concerned about your health. Or he mentions, that his mother kept their home in such great order, insinuating that you don’t. Camouflaged criticism is a form of passive-aggressive behavior, which can easily make you feel insecure and self-conscious – and thus easier controllable.

Possessiveness: While a rare bout of jealousy can be flattering and cute, the message of frequent jealous behavior is “I don’t trust you – and I don’t want you to talk to anyone I don’t approve of.” He will explain his possessiveness with just being protective of you, because he loves and adores you so much. As you tell yourself that your partner obviously means well and that you don’t want to upset him, you start to decline invitations from your friends and colleagues and gradually isolate yourself. Thus you give into what he ultimately wants – all for himself.

Disregarding boundaries: You are in your home-office answering e-mails. Your boyfriend barges in without knocking and asks you immediately, whether you can run an errand for him. Or your friend continues to read in bed with the lights on, although you have told him multiple times that you can’t sleep this way. Boundaries are natural and necessary demarcations of a person’s comfort zone. When your partner ignores your boundaries, he indicates that your needs and preferences are not as important as his, which undermines your sense of self-worth.

Excessive worry: Your boyfriend wants you to text him back immediately or to call you if you are running late. He gets upset when you don’t give him constant updates on what you are doing, under the disguise that he just wants to know that you are safe, because he cares so much about you. Your sense of freedom and power over your own choices are slowly diminished, as you begin to accommodate his needs to keep tabs on you.

Neediness: “I just love you so much – but I don’t know if you really feel the same about me.” Again, who doesn’t want to be told that she is loved and adored? But messages like this aim to guilt-trip you in showing more attention and affection. Yet, no matter how hard you try, his neediness always wants more, which he shows through pouting, complaining or withdrawing. You get confused, because you thought that you gave him your best. To keep the peace, you apologize and vow to try harder, which is promptly rewarded by him being sweet and appreciative. In the end, you are solely focused on making him happy without questioning whether you feel the same.

There are certainly more examples of early onsets of abusive behavior. But no matter how someone tries to control the person he or she is with, the deeper root cause of such dysfunctional behavior is often a deep-seated sense of fear, powerlessness, and unlovability. If you are sensitive and empathic, you may pick up on the pain, insecurity and inner turmoil your partner is struggling with. And you may tell yourself, that you want to help him or her to heal and overcome those challenges, because you know that underneath awaits a beautiful person ready to be released. However, the truth is, that no matter how hard you try, chances are that your partner’s dysfunction will eventually take over your life. While I believe in the healing power of love, keep in mind that you can’t help somebody to become whole by letting them destroy you.

Listen to my episode of Empowerment Radio, and learn more about how to avoid abusive relationships.

To your health and happiness,

Dr. Friedemann Schaub