October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and at the start of this month, I provided a day-long training for community leaders on Intimate Partner Abuse. One of the powerful parts of the day was the testimonial shared with me by one of the community leaders. He approached me during the break to share that he was startled by my description of emotional abuse and felt compelled to call his wife to apologize for the verbal and psychological abuse he had engaged in the day before and to request resources from me on how to get help. I was reminded of the ways partner abuse is often only recognized when it manifests as physical abuse. In those cases, we are more likely to take it seriously and to see the need for intervention. It is however noteworthy that even survivors of physical abuse are often blamed and shamed. During this awareness month, I have seen several articles that centralize physical partner abuse and many articles aimed at telling victims to look out for warning signs and to create an escape plan. However, very little attention is ever given to other forms of partner abuse and very few articles are directed at those engaging in the abusive behavior. It is necessary to broaden the conversation to include the full range of abusive behavior and to directly address abusive partners. I want to take this time to share some of the less-recognized ways people have been abusive of their partners and some critical pointers for people who realize they have engaged in abusive behavior.
Sub-categories of psychological abuse include emotional abuse, financial abuse, verbal abuse, and spiritual abuse. Psychological abuse is a pattern of tactics use to dominate, control and manipulate your partner. Instead of having a partner who is happy or satisfied your partner is more likely to experience distress, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Additionally, your partner is more likely to have difficulty expressing emotions and trusting. While all relationships have some conflict and disagreement, people who have healthy relationships make a commitment to disagree without disrespecting their partner. Their interactions are guided by love not fear and control.
The following forms of psychological abuse harm your relationship and your partner and should be avoided. They destroy and do not enhance your relationship or your partner's mental health. Emotional abuse includes ignoring, isolating, humiliating, infidelity, and intentionally destroying things that are important to your partner. Financial abuse is aimed at gaining power and control in a relationship and the tactics includes forbidding a partner from working or obtaining an education, withholding resources to control your partner, limiting partner's access to assets, and withholding financial information from partner. Verbal abuse includes hypercriticism, yelling, name calling, insults, mocking, demeaning jokes, and threats. Spiritual abuse is the use of God, religious doctrine, or spiritual beliefs to control one's partner. This may occur when the abusive partner intentionally disrupts their partner's sense of confidence or trust in their standing with God apart from the abuser. The abusive partner uses "God" to control their partner and claims to speak for and represent God, while minimizing or denying the sacred value of their partner.
These abusive behaviors have been perpetrated by people across demographic lines, including gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, religion, and socio-economic status. Some people may find it easy to dismiss or minimize these behaviors by saying at least you have not physically harmed your partner. The truth is engaging in these behaviors does create harm. If you are engaging in these behaviors in an attempt to control your partner, here are some important points for you to consider. (1) Think about the possibility that relationships can be based in mutual respect instead of fear and control. (2) Reflect on what it would be like to have someone choose to be with you instead of being forced to stay with you because of fear and self-doubt. (3) Take into account that these behaviors are not your only option. You can make a different choice. (4) Recognize that change is often uncomfortable but growing in love and respect is a gift that you can give yourself and your partner. (5) Reflect on your ability to take responsibility for your past actions without casting blame on your current partner or prior partners. If you are ready to take responsibility, share with your partner your realizations and your commitment to healthy and loving communication. (6) Accountability and support can help. Confide in a family member or friend who supports the positive changes you are committed to making and schedule regular, honest check-ins with that person. (7) Consider getting help from a professional counselor with expertise in this area who can assist you in the process of choosing healthier attitudes, communication styles, and relationship-affirming behaviors. (8) If you have come to this revelation late and your partner has already decided to end the relationship, do not engage in stalking or other abusive tactics to manipulate them. Accept the consequences of your actions. If they are open to hearing it or reading it you can apologize and then give them the respect and freedom to decide if they would like further communication. If they do not want to continue the relationship, learn from the mistakes of the past and remain motivated to learning how to build a non-abusive relationship with others in the future.
Just as engaging in abusive behavior is a choice, being a respectful, loving partner is also a choice. Even if you engaged in some of these behaviors in the past, you can begin making new choices today. Change, however, is not instant and we have to be intentional and consistent to see lasting transformation. Releasing the desire to control another person creates space for you to discover the power and beauty of mutual, freely chosen love. Taking responsibility for the past and embracing today as an opportunity to learn to love better are important steps in rebuilding your life.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the NationalDomestic Violence Hotline.