Relationship Abuse: When Romance Goes Rogue
Abuse in romantic relationships is a more pervasive and frequently occurring reality than we would like to believe. Most of us tend to think of abuse in terms of physical violence, and expect to see clear, visible signs of the same- a bruised hand or a cut on the cheek, maybe. However, abuse is often psychological or emotional as well, scarring the individual in ways that might not necessarily be conspicuous to others. Another misconception that most of us harbour is that the abuse is always committed by men against women. The truth is far from it- psychological and physical abuse is often meted out to men as well, and can exist in homosexual relationships too. Yet, the frequency and, in most cases, the intensity of abuse is much more when the victims are women than men.
What Abuse Entails
The American Medical Association (1992) has expounded on the differing forms in which physical and psychological abuse can manifest.
Physical abuse meted out by one’s partner can manifest in relatively mild forms such as pushing, shoving, and throwing things at the victim. It could take more severe and violent forms as well, such as punching, kicking, biting, choking, burning, and injury with weapons. Even forcing a partner to engage in sexual activities against her or his will is abusive behavior.
The more unobtrusive psychological abuse takes the form of public or private humiliation, intimidation, intense criticising, belittling, and name-calling, to name a few. Threatening to physically harm or abandon the partner; policing the partner’s movements in order to keep a check on them; and socially isolating them by being excessively jealous also falls under this category.
A rather insidious form that psychological abuse can take is referred to in popular-media as gas-lighting. Gas-lighting involves psychologically manipulating someone by questioning or rubbishing their feelings, memory and perception to the extent that the person begins to doubt themselves. In an abusive relationship, the gas-lighter/abuser may attempt to put forward a view of reality (“You’re over-thinking this!”) different from the one that the victim has. This eventually erodes the victim’s self-trust (“Am I over-thinking this?”). The manipulation aims to undermine the gas-lightee’s sense of self until s/he believes that they are wrong and the gas-lighter is right. The victim ends up believing that the gas-lighter is the only one who is willing to accept him/her despite the victim’s ‘faulty’ understanding of things.
Such abuse can gravely harm the individual’s concept of self and their self-esteem. Additionally, victims often experience a loss of trust in others, which in turn makes it difficult for them to function healthily in other relationships. Anxiety and depression are common, too.
How (Psychological) Abuse Works
Power plays a significant role in relationship dynamics. Abuse usually includes an ongoing pattern of behaviour, attitudes, and beliefs in which a partner in an intimate relationship attempts to maintain power and control over the other through the use of psychological, physical and/or sexual coercion. As a result, these relationships become grossly imbalanced, and this imbalance might be evident in the little things as well (for instance, your partner might be allowed to vent to and on you after a bad day at work, but you receive strong emotional backlash for complaining about a bad day).
Typically, in the initial stages of a relationship, two tactics are employed by the abuser to establish dominance: criticism of and withdrawal from the victim. As the victim’s sense of control, power and worth decreases, that of the abuser increases. Eventually, the victim becomes timid and submissive, feeling as though s/he is walking on eggshells, especially in the presence of their partner. This in turn instils a sense of fear in the victim, making him/her feel helpless. This might then perpetuate the imbalanced dynamic that the partners share and may leave the victim feeling as though s/he were “stuck” in the relationship.
It is crucial for the person to act before things get worse. If you want to learn about strategies to deal with an abusive relationship, you might find this article useful.
Being in an abusive relationship can take quite a toll on an individual. Whether you are the victim or the abuser, abuse leaves strong psychological (and in some cases, physical) scars that take time to heal. You could also consider going to a therapist to aid this process of healing.
Maier, G. J. (1996). Understanding the Dynamics of Abusive Relationships. Click here to view.
Mannan, A., Ghani, S., Clarke, A., White, P., Salmanta, S., Butler, P.E. (2006). Psychosocial Outomes derived from an acid burned population in Bangladesh, and comparison with Western norms. Journal of the International Society of Burn Injuries, 32 (2) 235-241.
Partner Violence: What Can You Do? Retrieved October 10, 2016. Click here to view.
London, W. (2016). A critical review of literature relating to emotional abuse of heterosexual males in intimate partner relationships : how such abuse develops and is maintained and the various therapeutic approaches to treatment (October), 0–19. Click here to view.
If you or someone you know is struggling to cope with abusive relationship, an InnerHour therapist might be able to help you.
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