Recognising Domestic Violence

When you think of domestic violence or abuse, what comes to mind? Can you recognise abuse that isn’t physical violence? If your partner makes all the decisions and you have no power in the relationship, would you consider yourself abused?

Abuse in a romantic relationship can involve much more than just physical violence. Abuse is any sort of behaviour that destroys someone’s self-esteem so the abuser gains power and control.

Many people will ask a friend or relative who says they have an abusive partner if their partner has ever gotten physical. This question is appropriate, but it shouldn’t be the only question people ask when they learn someone is experiencing domestic violence. Physical violence has shocking and immediate effects, but other types of domestic violence abuses are just as damaging. But the damage is harder to see. Black eyes and bruises are easy to spot and assign blame for, but mental suffering caused by abuse is much more difficult to recognise.

Although it doesn’t leave marks and won’t land you in hospital, non-physical domestic violence needs to be taken just as seriously as physical harm. If your partner is abusive, there will be consequences for your mental health – you can develop a number of different conditions from stress and internalised trauma. There is also a risk to your personal safety as even partners without a history of physical violence can seriously injure or kill their partner, often without warning or ‘provocation’.

Everyone deserves a relationship where they feel safe, free and valued. There’s no excuse for being abusive, no matter how a partner may try to justify or minimise their behaviour. If you’re being abused, you may feel powerless to stop it or improve your situation, but you can change your life for the better. The first step is seeing your partner’s behaviour for what it is to understand the reality of your relationship.

Recognising abuse won’t stop it, but if you can recognise abusive behaviour you’ll be more capable of taking control of your life and improving your situation. You could encourage your partner to change so you can have a healthy relationship. Or you can leave. What you choose to do is your decision, but you should understand that all forms of abuse are dangerous.

Domestic Violence

Feeling controlled by your partner is a sign of abuse

What is domestic violence and abuse and why is it harmful?

Domestic abuse, also known as domestic violence or intimate partner violence, is a pattern of behaviour that causes you to lose self-esteem and gives your partner power and control over you. This can be done through intimidation, manipulation, humiliation, blame, or terrorising. Anyone can become the victim of abuse regardless of their background, income, age, gender, or sexual orientation. Abuse can begin at any stage of the relationship from dating to marriage.

Many people think of domestic violence as a problem that has largely been overcome now that society doesn’t think a man is allowed to beat his wife and women are given legal protection from their partners. (The definition of abuse now includes more than just physical violence as there is a greater appreciation for the harm that other types of abuse can cause. However, many people believe non-physical violence, stalking, manipulation and control aren’t abusive – or even problematic – behaviours.) While psychical abuse is less prevalent, domestic abuse still occurs in many homes throughout Australia. Every day, police respond to hundreds of calls reporting domestic violence.

Abuse includes much more than being hit or beaten. People can also be abused psychologically, financially, sexually and through coercive control. Abuse limits your freedom and destroys your self-worth; it keeps you from living a fulfilling life and robs you of the confidence needed to take action to improve your situation.

Abuse can be overt and obvious, like yelling, threats and insults. But some abusers are more subtle. Put-downs and sarcastic comments can be delivered neutrally, or even as jokes. You might not think of these comments as being abusive since they’re such small incidents. But these build up and can destroy your confidence.

Abuse can come as an occasional flood or a constant trickle. Either way, the results will be the same – you’ll lose your self-esteem while your partner gains control. The immediate effects of these forms of abuse aren’t as noticeable as physical abuse, but they still have severe and long-lasting consequences.

  • People who have been abused can experience:
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Moodiness
  • Various aches and pains
  • Chronic pain
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Loneliness and challenges with social interaction
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

As you lose more and more self-esteem, you’ll be less capable of meeting the demands of the relationship or able to change your situation, which can lead to more abuse.

Domestic violence isn’t about you

If you don’t recognise abuse for what it is, you’re less likely to leave or challenge the way you’re being treated. People can stay in abusive relationships for years or even lifetimes because they don’t realise that their partner is using a pattern of behaviour designed to make them feel powerless and incapable of an independent life. They can think that they just need to be less sensitive to their partners’ rude comments and moods, more attentive to their partners’ needs so they won’t upset them, or be a better partner who isn’t such a disappointment. But you’ll never be able to please an abusive partner because they don’t expect you to make them happy – they want you to feel weak and inferior.

Most survivors of domestic violence are told that the abuse wasn’t their fault. This also means the abuser is responsible for their actions alone. You can’t act in a way that will stop the abuse because you aren’t the reason your partner is abusive. They don’t want you to be a ‘better partner’ – they want you to feel powerless and controlled. They could start a new relationship with someone else but they would still treat them the same way since they’re the reason they’re abusive.

You can take action to improve your situation, but you can’t change your partner’s behaviour by changing yours. They need to realise what they’re doing and to want to change before the relationship can improve.

Types of non-physical domestic violence and abuse

Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse, also known as emotional abuse, makes you feel afraid, confused and doubt yourself. You’re made to believe you’re not good enough and you’d be nothing without your partner. Abusers use tactics like criticism, manipulation and shame to make you feel weak and incapable of functioning on your own.

This type of abuse can be subtle, so people don’t always recognise it as abusive. But this is intentional behaviour designed to make you lose confidence in yourself and look to your partner as the capable one in the relationship who deserves to make all the decisions. People are easier to control and manipulate when they have a low opinion of themselves and doubt their own abilities.

How this abuse takes place varies greatly depending on your relationship. Some common tactics used by psychological abusers include:

  • Calling you names, like “idiot”, “failure” or worse
  • Giving you hurtful ‘pet names’ that are actually just name-calling disguised as a joke, like “my big loaf” or “hippo”
  • Dismissing your feelings or ignoring you when you need support
  • Mocking you through your appearance or your hobbies
  • Yelling and violent displays
  • Giving you the silent treatment
  • Accusing you of being unfaithful or looking for someone else
  • Luring you into an argument so they can play the victim
  • Blaming you for their problems or their mood – if they had a bad day at work it’s your fault for upsetting them and if they’re still upset when they get home you should have done a better job cheering them up
  • Damaging your property – ‘accidentally’ breaking things, being rough with fragile items you value, losing things on purpose, or breaking things intentionally

Some people with psychologically abusive partners think that they’re just too sensitive or need to work harder to please their partner. But your partner doesn’t act this way to teach you how they want to be treated – they intend to hurt you. If you get tougher, they’ll find more hurtful things to say. If you become more attentive, they’ll just get more demanding. You can’t be good enough for an abuser because they don’t want you to be better – they want you to be under their control.

Sexual Abuse

Some abusers believe they have an unconditional right to your body. They aren’t concerned with when you want to have sex, what you want it to be like, and what you’re comfortable with. If a partner pressures you to have sex in a way that you don’t want and/or makes sexual demands from you, you’re being sexually abused.

They could:

  • Demand sex whenever and wherever they want it
  • Decide how sex takes place – such as having rough sex when it isn’t wanted
  • Order you to perform certain sexual acts, such as oral sex

Sexual abuse also includes controlling someone’s reproductive rights by choosing if someone does or doesn’t become a parent. This can be done overtly – by ordering someone to go off the pill or get an abortion, or more covertly by secretly taking off a condom or lying about taking birth control.

No matter how long you’ve been with someone or how close you are, your body is always yours. No one has the right to use it in a way you don’t want or make demands you aren’t comfortable with.

Financial Abuse

Financially abusive partners control your access to money and/or how you can spend it. Because abuse is characterised by a need for control, using finances to manipulate and bully a partner is very common. Approximately 99% of domestic violence cases include financial abuse.

When partners are financially abusive, they make their partner more vulnerable to other forms of abuse because leaving is more difficult without access to money. The number one reason people return to abusive relationships is because of financial insecurity. When someone doesn’t have financial independence, they become dependent on their abuser.

The most common tactics used by partners who are financially abusive include:

  • Preventing you from accessing money you’ve earned or saved
  • Spending money or getting in to debt without telling you
  • Ruining credit by not paying bills
  • Feeling entitled to your money or possessions
  • Expecting you to pay their bills or help them financially
  • Not letting you know about the household income and expenses
  • Pressuring you to quit your job
  • Sabotaging your job by turning off your alarm or hiding your keys to make you late
  • Criticising your spending decisions
  • Expecting you to share your income without doing the same
  • Giving you an ‘allowance’
  • Making you account for any money you spend
  • Putting purchases like a home, car or phone in their name only

There are many different ways someone can be financially abusive. If anyone is acting in a way that takes away your financial independence or ability to decide how money you earn or share is being spent, they’re being financially abusive.

If you can recognise the signs of financial abuse early, you’re less likely to become trapped in a relationship where you’re dependent on your abuser as a provider. This will make leaving an abusive relationship easier, or give you a stronger voice when trying to convince your partner they have to change their behaviour.

Spiritual Abuse

Abusers can also attempt to manipulate and control you through religious beliefs – theirs or your own. This type of abuse shares characteristics with psychological, financial and sexual abuse.Because religion often relates to deeply held and incredibly meaningful values and beliefs, this form of abuse can have devastating consequences while being a highly effective form of control.

There are two types of spiritually abusive partners – those who share your beliefs and use them to abuse you, and those who aren’t religious and target what you believe. Both of these approaches are used to make you feel ashamed and therefore easier to manipulate and control.

A common feature of spiritual abuse is the use of shame. Spiritually abusive partners are likely to shame you for what you do or don’t believe, whether they’re mocking your faith or demeaning you for refusing to share their religious convictions. Shame makes you less likely to challenge your situation or reach out to others for help because it sends you the message that you’re at fault and deserve to be hurting and isolated. Being made to feel ashamed about your religion is a sign your partner could be abusing you spiritually. This is an often-powerful attack on your sense of self as they’re depriving you of a very meaningful aspect of who you are, while also subjecting you to their control.

Abusive partners can also use a shared religion as a tool to control you. This is most common in religions that have strict and specific rules about how people should behave, especially in relationships.

Examples of spiritual abuse include:

  • Taunting you and ridiculing your religion
  • Preventing you from practicing or observing certain rituals, such as attending services or wearing religious symbols or clothing
  • Forbidding you from teaching your children about what you believe
  • Use religion to justify controlling or parental behaviour, such as limiting what decisions you can make, dictating how you raise your children, or controlling shared finances
  • Intimidate you into behaving a certain way by claiming it’s required by your religion, such as being submissive or making large donations
  • Claim that if you question their behaviour or ask them to change, you’re defying your beliefs

Spiritual abuse can have severe consequences on your mental health, especially if you’re being made to believe you aren’t properly following your religion. In addition to being more vulnerable to additional types of abuse and control that are justified by religion, you can experience depression, anxiety, worthlessness, and struggle in relationships with other people and yourself. This is very effective in making you feel unable to change your situation and puts the blame on you for not being happy in a religiously-authorised type of relationship.

Coercive Control

Coercive control is typically a combination of all of these types of abuse, as well as being a form of abuse itself. It’s a pattern of behaviour that’s made of many small, often unspoken instances rather than large specific events, although these can happen as well. Coercive control is slowly introduced so it can be difficult to identify, even by the people experiencing it. This makes coercive control a highly insidious form of abuse that is only recently being recognised for the harm it causes.

There are many different ways someone can control their partner. They can monitor your time and movement, attack you psychologically, control your finances, claim ownership of your body and more. Most use a combination of different types of abuse.

Abusers often try to frame their behaviour as affectionate and adoring. They can claim they love you too much to be apart from you. They worry about you so they need to know where you are and be able to get in touch with you all the time. They’re afraid of losing you so they get jealous. But this isn’t love and affection. It’s toxic and abusive behaviour that robs you of your freedom and independence.

Controlling behaviour usually emerges slowly – if you woke up to a partner suddenly giving you rules and deciding everything for you, you would leave. So demands and limitations are introduced gradually, giving you the chance to get used to them before new requirements are introduced.

Not every type of behaviour that limits your ability to do exactly what you want is abusive. Compromises and small sacrifices are essential in healthy relationships. But when there’s a pattern of you always giving in to demands and being criticised for your mistakes while your partner is free to do as they please, then their behaviour is controlling and abusive. This is why describing coercive control without being vague is difficult and each controlling situation is different. But there are some types of behaviour that should be considered abusive if they happen all the time.

These include:

  • Demanding you account for all your time spent alone. Anything you do away from your partner makes them suspicious. You could be expected to ‘check in’ when you get somewhere or they could unexpectedly show up to make sure you’re where you’re supposed to be.
  • Lecturing you or disciplining you as if you’re beneath them and need to be taught how to behave.
  • Giving direct orders, such as demanding you cancel plans or make them a snack.
  • Using gaslighting to make you doubt your sanity and abilities. This makes you more likely to stay and gives them power over you since you trust their memory more than your own.
  • Threatening you if you disobey. This could be threats to you, your property or children, or more vague suggestions of consequences for disobeying them.
  • Trying to distance you from your friends and family. They might say that they dislike certain qualities about someone so they don’t want them around you, or they can simply forbid you from seeing them. They might do this by claiming they want to spend as much time with you as possible or that certain people make them jealous. But really they don’t want you discussing your relationship because you might realise how unhealthy it is.
  • Controlling your health and/or your body. They might demand that you eat a certain amount of food each day or order you to exercise more or less. They can also tell you how you should look and/or behave when going out.
  • There are many more ways someone can be controlling depending on the circumstances. If you feel like your partner makes too many decisions for you, never seems to let you do what you want to do or won’t leave you alone, you need to ask yourself if they’re trying to control you. By recognising controlling behaviour for what it is, you can leave or hold them accountable before they’ve come to see you as powerless and beneath them and the behaviour escalates further.

The consequences of a controlling relationship can be drastic. In homicides where someone was murdered by their partner, 99% of victims were being controlled before they were killed. Some people don’t think they need to worry about their safety if their abusive partner hasn’t gotten physical. But sometimes the abuse is “only” controlling until it is fatal. Hannah Clarke and her three children were murdered by Hannah’s husband after years of coercive control, but never any physical violence.

Australian legal experts want to introduce laws that criminalise coercive controlling behaviour. New South Wales is currently in the process of introducing these laws. The current laws for domestic violence only protect people when there has been physical violence or stalking. This leaves people vulnerable to other forms of abuse and unable to access legal assistance.

Don’t dismiss or underestimate coercive control – it can feel normal if you’re used to it, but it isn’t normal. Being controlled and manipulated on a regular basis has severe consequences – for your mental health and potentially even your safety.

Domestic Violence

Coercive control can be hard to recognise, but it’s a dangerous form of abuse

Domestic violence puts your safety at risk

Don’t underestimate the danger of an abusive relationship. Your mental wellbeing is at risk and your life could even be at risk from an abusive partner.

If you’ve been in an abusive relationship for some time, you may have forgotten what a safe relationship feels like. You’re used to being on guard all the time so it feels natural. But when you have to be alert for threats and ready to respond to stressful situations, your brain becomes completely focused on survival. This comes at the expense of skills such as emotional regulation, problem-solving, critical thinking and decision making.

If you’re living in survival mode, making good decisions and practicing sound judgement becomes very difficult. Struggling to know what you should do in most situations can cause you to doubt yourself. You can even start telling yourself you don’t deserve any better.

There can also be very real danger to your life. In Australia, a woman is murdered by her current or former partner every week. In the majority of these cases the relationship was abusive. In about a quarter there had never been any reports of physical violence.

The danger isn’t to partners alone – in 71% of cases where a child is killed there was domestic violence present in the home.

Sometimes there are clear warning signs that your partner may soon harm you – such as making threats or getting weapons ready – but this isn’t always the case. Partners can seriously injure or kill their partner at any point in the relationship and there aren’t always signs.

Deciding to leave increases the levels of danger. The majority of murders and serious acts of violence between partners – 75% – happen when the victim is planning to leave or has left within six months.

If you’re in an abusive relationship, you need to take the threat to your safety seriously. For too many people, their home is the place where they’re in the most danger.

Do they really mean to be abusive?

Not everyone understands healthy relationships so some people can make relationships unhealthy or toxic without realising. Partners can act in ways that cause tension, anger, hurt feelings, and occasionally fear. But this isn’t done with the goal of destroying your self-esteem and gaining power over you. Toxic partners still care for you and want you to be happy.

But if you feel afraid, manipulated, controlled and powerless, your partner wants you to feel that way. You can make excuses for them, and the excuses might even have some truth to them. But this doesn’t change the fact that their behaviour, no matter the justification, is strategically designed to give them power and control over you, which will destroy your mental health. They know they’re hurting you, and they don’t care.

Domestic Violence

Abuse is an intentional pattern of behaviour to make you feel trapped

Change is possible but only if the abuser understands their behaviour

Abusers are capable of changing and becoming loving partners. However, this is rare and difficult because in order to stop being abusive they need to understand their motivations for mistreating you and change their thought patterns – they need to stop wanting to have power and control.

Changing any type of behaviour is difficult – it requires digging deep into your past to uncover why you have certain beliefs, what they mean to you, and what you risk by letting them go. For someone to make lasting change (not just take a short break from certain behaviours), they need to do a lot of work, explore their emotions and open themselves up to experiencing new ways of thinking and feeling.

People can’t change by apologising and promising to improve. They need to be taught new ways of thinking while unlearning old beliefs. This can’t happen just because they regret their actions.

The vast majority of people who are able to give up the need to control others accomplish this with the help of programs and peer support. If your partner isn’t going to a program or getting outside help but says they’re going to change, they have almost no chance of succeeding. Some people are able to change on their own, but you should be aware how small their chances of success are.

Most people who are trying to change will have relapses. They’ll go back to their old ways of behaving for days or forever. Your partner may be able to change for a time, but you can’t know if their change is permanent.

Change is possible, but it’s a very long process that takes more than just an apology and a little regret. It requires effort, determination, and help from others. If your partner says they’ll change, you can support them, but be aware of how long and difficult this process is, and that there’s no guarantee they won’t go back to their old ways of thinking and behaving.

Domestic Violence

Unlearning abusive behaviour is a complex and challenging process that usually takes professional help

Abuse in any form is unacceptable and it won’t go away on its own. If you’re in a relationship where you don’t feel free and comfortable to do what makes you happy, where you always have to consider how your behaviour will affect your partner, and you’re powerless and controlled your relationship is very likely abusive.

No one should stay with an abusive partner, no matter the circumstances. If you aren’t ready to leave, you can encourage your partner to take responsibility for their actions and get help. Change is possible if someone truly wants it. But don’t waste years of your life waiting for someone to change if they refuse to try.

What you do next is your decision. Leaving an abusive partner can be incredibly intimidating and dangerous. But so is staying.

Understanding the dynamics of an abusive relationship can be difficult – you may not realise the different ways your partner controls or manipulates you. You also may question your ability to make decisions that will improve your situation and feel like you’re unable to take control of your life. But you can start to feel more capable of taking control of your situation and making good decisions if you work with a professional.

By working with a professional, you can talk to someone who is not only able to recognise the signs of abuse but can also guide you in exploring your thoughts, give you insight into your situation, help you discover and utilise your personal resources, and build your confidence.

If you’re in a relationship that’s harming your mental health, especially if it’s abusive, I encourage you to reach out to me. I’m a trained counsellor with experience in working with domestic violence and helping people navigate through challenging situations.

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