Abusive Relationships

by Recovery Man[1]

Abusive relationships are characterized by extreme jealousy, emotional withholding, lack of intimacy, raging, sexual coercion, infidelity, verbal abuse, threats, lies, broken promises, physical violence, power plays and control games.

Abuse does not have to be physical.   Emotional abuse is as damaging as physical abuse, though it is often harder to recognize, and therefore to recover from.  Emotional abuse causes long term self esteem issues and profound emotional repercussions for the partners of abusers.  Abuse typically alternates with declarations of love and statements that they will change, providing a "hook" to keep the partner in the relationship.

Abusive relationships are progressive - they get worse over time.  Emotional and verbal abuse frequently shifts to more overt threats or physical abuse, particularly in times of stress.  Abusers are generally very needy and controlling;  the abuse escalates when they feel they may lose their partner, or when the relationship ends. 

A specific relationship is not the source of the abuse - abusive patterns are part of the emotional make up of both the parties involved. Without help and outside intervention the abusive patterns will be repeated in all relationships. The emotional volatility of addicts and alcoholics can create an abusive relationship climate.   Ongoing therapy, and a 12 step recovery programme for both partners is advised.

Abusers are often survivors of abuse themselves.   Many of the attributes of abusers are documented trauma based adaptations to childhood emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Abusers act out of deep seated shame and feelings of inadequacy. They seek to pull their partner down to make themselves feel better. 

Abuse is a family dysfunction that repeats through generations. Just as addictions pass down through generations, abusers often leave their families for a family of choice - then repeat the abusive cycle from the other side.  The abused becomes the abuser and so continues the cycle. 

Abusive relationships do not change without sustained therapy specifically targeted toward the abusive relationship patterns. These relationships cannot be changed from one side, it takes mutual honesty, openness and willingness from both parties to work through these issues. Group therapy is highly recommended for abusers, as it helps them to break through the denial that is generally a part of the abusive patterns. (People in denial generally recognize their own dysfunctional behaviour in others more easily than in themselves.) This applies to the partners of abusers as well - group helps them to break through the denial by seeing the relationship patterns from a wider view. Certain personality types are more prone to abusive relationships.

If the abuser is unwilling to own their behaviour and seek help the prudent course of action is to remove yourself totally from the situation. This is painful, but is generally safer and ultimately better for both parties than allowing the cycle of abuse to continue. Be prepared for the abuse to increase after you leave - stepping out of the cycle enrages the abuser, as it shatters  their illusion of control. (75% of women killed by their abusive partners are murdered after they leave.) Learn how to protect and care for yourself.  Detachment with love is difficult, but the best solution if your partner is unwilling to work though the issues.  

Help is readily available for both parties in abusive relationships. These relationships cannot  be changed from one side.  Remember that by staying you are condoning and enabling the abuse - and helping your partner to stay sick. If your partner is unwilling to get help the only safe course of action is to totally remove yourself from the situation and seek help on your own.

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[1] Note on Authorship: this article was adapted from the website of a recovering addict and survivor, who comments: "I am not a chemical dependency therapist or mental health professional. Except as otherwise cited, opinions offered here are the result of my own life experience and a great deal of reading in the Recovery and Mental Health fields." In keeping with twelve step traditions regarding anonymity the author has asked to be identified  as Will.H.-RecoveryMan.com Webmaster"