Abusive Relationships: Myths, Signs, and Next Steps

Abusive Relationships

In honor of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, iTriage talked to psychologists and psychiatrists with experience in domestic violence. We asked about myths surrounding domestic violence, signs of an abusive relationship, what to do if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, and resources for the abused and abusive.

Myth: Only women in heterosexual relationships are victims of domestic violence.

Fact: While it is true that many domestic abuse victims are heterosexual women, remember that anyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, income, relationship status, race, or religion, can find himself or herself in an emotionally and/or physically abusive relationship. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, nearly 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and 1 in 4 men (28.5%) have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Studies show that rates of domestic violence in same-sex couples are the same as in heterosexual couples.

Myth: Only physical abuse counts as domestic violence.

Fact: “Abuse can be physical or emotional,” says psychotherapist Judi Cinéas, Ph.D. “The idea is not so much to hurt the victim as it is to control him or her.”

While physical abuse may leave the most obvious scars, emotional, sexual, economic and psychological abuse can do equal or greater damage to a person’s wellbeing. The United States Department of Justice defines domestic violence as “as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.” This control can be exerted in many ways. Examples include: hitting a partner (physical abuse), coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact or behavior without consent (sexual abuse), constantly criticizing a partner (emotional abuse), withholding a partner’s access to money (economic abuse) and causing fear or intimidation (psychological abuse).

Myth: Domestic violence only affects the two people in a relationship.

Fact: Domestic violence affects the people in the relationship, family members, co-workers, friends and the community at large. According to the United States Department of Justice, children who grow up witnessing domestic violence are especially affected; frequent exposure to violence in the home not only predisposes children to social and physical problems, it also teaches them that violence is a normal way of life, increasing their risk of becoming society’s next generation of victims and abusers.

The Signs

“Often, abuse starts with subtle warning signs,” says Dr. Cinéas. “Over time, the signs become more overt. It can take a short or long time for things to actually ‘blow up.”

Dr. Cinéas says that often, people who see warning signs of abuse in their partner explain or excuse them. If you suspect you are in an emotionally and/or physically abusive relationship, read the following signs of abuse from WomensHealth.gov. Do you or your partner engage in any of the following behaviors?

  • Monitors what you’re doing all the time
  • Unfairly accuses you of being unfaithful all the time
  • Prevents or discourages you from seeing friends or family
  • Prevents or discourages you from going to work or school
  • Gets very angry during and after drinking alcohol or using drugs
  • Controls how you spend your money
  • Controls your use of needed medicines
  • Decides things for you that you should be allowed to decide (like what to wear or eat)
  • Humiliates you in front of others
  • Destroys your property or things that you care about
  • Threatens to hurt you, the children, or pets
  • Hurts you (by hitting, beating, pushing, shoving, punching, slapping, kicking, or biting)
  • Uses (or threatens to use) a weapon against you
  • Forces you to have sex against your will
  • Controls your birth control or insists that you get pregnant
  • Blames you for his or her violent outbursts
  • Threatens to harm himself or herself when upset with you
  • Says things like, “If I can’t have you then no one can.”

What You Can Do

If you are abused

“People can’t change people,” says Dr. Cinéas. “You can’t love a person out of their abusive behavior. People often believe that they can change the situation, but the reality is that the abuser is the only one who really has that power. A victim in the relationship has two options: leave or stay until something happens. If the abuser chooses to work on his or her issues, change is possible, but more often than not abuse does not end in this way.”

Violence often escalates when a person decides to leave an abusive relationship. If you’ve decided to leave an abusive relationship, Dr. Cinéas stresses the importance of having a support system and safety plan in place. “You may want to keep your abuse private, but make sure to inform others about your situation. These people can provide emotional support or help you get out when you are ready.”

According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, “safety planning is a personalized, practical plan that includes ways to remain safe while in a relationship, planning to leave, or after you leave. Safety planning involves how to cope with emotions, tell friends and family about the abuse, take legal action and more.”

For more information on preparing a safety plan, visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website. There, you can find information on how to prepare to leave, how to leave, and what to do after you leave. The website also has information on safety planning.

If you are the abuser

Psychologist Kim Chronister, PsyD, says that the first thing abusive people need to do is admit they have a problem, “You may have already admitted you have a problem, but remember that your issues of abuse may be serious and even pathological, affecting your relationships, work, or ability to function in other areas of life.”

Dr. Cinéas says that the best way for abusive people to address their unhealthy behavior is to see a mental health professional. “Abusers need to understand what it is that is making them feel the need to behave in such a manner. Abusive behavior is often learned and familiar, and abusive people do not have the skills to resolve or cope with everyday issues. In these cases, there is a need for relearning.”

If you are an abusive person, know that change is possible, and that with great effort and commitment you can take steps to address your abusive behavior. The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers support to victims and perpetrators of abuse and can direct you to resources that can help you.

If you know someone who is in an abusive relationship

It’s hard to watch someone you love struggle with an abusive relationship. What can you do to help them? WomensHealth.gov offers the following tips:

  • Set up a time to talk: Try to make sure you have privacy and won’t be distracted or interrupted.
  • Let your friend know you’re concerned about their safety: Be honest. Tell your friend about times when you were worried about him or her. Help your friend see that what he or she is going through is not right, and let him or her know you want to help.
  • Be supportive: Listen to your friend. Keep in mind that it may be very hard for him or her to talk about the abuse. Let him or her know that they’re not alone, and that people want to help.
  • Offer specific help: You might say you are willing to just listen, to help with childcare, or to provide transportation, for example.
  • Don’t place shame, blame or guilt on your friend: Don’t say, “You just need to leave.” Instead, say something like, “I get scared thinking about what might happen to you.” Tell your friend that you understand her situation is very difficult.
  • Help your friend make a safety plan: Safety planning includes picking a place to go and packing important items.
  • Encourage your friend to talk to someone who can help: Offer to help find a local domestic violence agency. Offer to accompany your friend to the agency, the police or court.
  • If your friend decides to stay, continue to be supportive: Your friend may decide to stay in the relationship, or she or he may leave and then go back many times. It may be hard for you to understand, but people stay in abusive relationships for many reasons. Be supportive, no matter what your friend decides to do.
  • Encourage your friend to do things outside of the relationship
  • If your friend decides to leave, continue to offer support: Even though the relationship was abusive, she or he may feel sad and lonely once it is over. She or he may also need help getting services from agencies or community groups.
  • Keep in mind that you can’t “rescue” your friend: People who experience abuse need to be the ones who decide when it’s time to get help. Support him or her no matter what the decision.

For more information on abusive relationships, visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline at www.thehotline.org or call them at 1-800-799-7233. They provide confidential support 24/7 as well as information on how to get help and how to create a safety plan. They also have an excellent directory of national and state resources.

If you find yourself in danger, call 911.

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