This Is How Abusive Relationships Work, And How You Can Help Fix The Problem

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I remember walking into my college's rape crisis center on the first day of my new internship. I had applied thinking that helping survivors of trauma would be a fulfilling and exciting path to take, but I didn't have a clue about the global scale of the problem I was about to start tackling.

When my peers on campus became aware that I was a representative of the rape crisis center, I was jarringly — and devastatingly — approached by several friends of mine who mentioned they had been sexually assaulted, or thought they might be in an abusive relationship.

These were close friends that I spent Friday nights gossiping with at sleepovers and chatting with during margarita Mondays. It was unsettling to realize that these women, the same women who confided in me about everything else, were hiding an important secret and hiding it well.

Before getting trained at my internship, I wouldn't have understood why these women would keep this violence a secret. Why don't they leave? Why don't they report the perpetrator and seek justice? As it turns out, there are myriad of reasons why it can be difficult to do that.

Unanimously, my friends — and later, my clients at the domestic violence shelter I would work in — agreed that near the top of the list was fear of not being believed. Worse was the fear of being blamed for the outrageous violence committed against them.

Unfortunately, it's far more common than any of us want to believe.

According to the CDC, more than one in three women and more than one in four men in the United States have experienced sexual assault, physical violence and/or stalking by a current or past intimate partner (dating, engagement or spousal relationship) in their lifetime.

Nearly half of all women and men in the US have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

This means intimate partner violence can happen to people of all genders, classes, ethnicities, ages and sexual orientations.

What does intimate partner violence look like?

The power and control wheel published by the National Domestic Violence Hotline identifies some ways that abusers might manipulate their partners. Looking at the wheel, we can see that physical and sexual violence  ( tangible, visible violence )  comprise the outer edges. But below this layer are other forms of abuse that are often overlooked by friends, law enforcement and sometimes, even the abused partners themselves.

Many victims may think that if their partner has never hit them, then they aren't really being abused. Yet, as a domestic violence advocate, I have found a nearly unanimous response from clients that the emotional abuse is far more painful than the physical abuse. Bruises heal; emotional scars linger.

It's important to bring awareness to the fact that intimate partner violence, despite its name, does not have to be physically violent in order to be abusive. The reality is, intimate partner violence is more complex and more traumatizing than the stereotypical “wife-beater” imagery given to us by the media.

How can you identify a potentially abusive relationship?

Abusive relationships generally follow a quite ubiquitous, but grossly misunderstood pattern that professionals refer to as the cycle of violence. Despite being present in almost all abusive relationships (although it is important to note that the cycle can manifest in different ways), the general public, including law enforcement and friends and often including victims themselves, does not understand that this is a pattern of behavior that is manipulative, repetitive and confusing for victims.

Abusive partners rarely, if ever, act transparently abusive early on in the relationship. After establishing trust with their partner, they slowly push boundaries until the victim experiences the tension-building phase of the cycle. To outsiders, this transition may be alarming; to the victim, it feels gradual, and is therefore much less obvious.

It can feel natural to attribute these small changes to stress, drinking habits or a specific trigger, rather than an overarching shift in a partner's behavior. As the relationship progresses and the abuser grows more abusive over time, this phase shrinks and the explosion tends to come sooner.

After a period of time with this tension, in which there are minor incidents of physical and/or emotional abuse, there is eventually a breaking point where the abuser ignites the explosion phase. It is almost impossible for the victim to gauge when their partner might hit their breaking point because the trigger might be a negligible event. Regardless, the abuse is the worst during this time.

At the end of it all, the abuser knows exactly when to apologize and shower their partner with gifts and affection in order to prevent them from leaving. For a victim who wants to get through the worst of the abuse, the honeymoon phase is a welcome change. By this point in the relationship, the victim has been manipulated into feeling like the abuse is their fault, so the temporary relief of the honeymoon phase is often enough of a reprieve to stay.

When their partner promises that the recent explosion was the last time, it can be tempting (and simply less exhausting) to believe them. After all, many victims are still in love with their partners, and want to believe that they are capable of change.

But the reality is abusive relationships follow this cyclical pattern; though the phases may develop in different ways and their time frames may change, the cycle continues. Abusive partners who exhibit this pattern of behavior do not change (unless they understand their condition and seek professional help, which is uncommon).

How can you help a friend who is in an abusive relationship?

It takes a great deal of courage to come forward about a situation like this, and it can be incredibly dangerous. As their friend, it is important for you to listen without giving unwanted advice, to believe their story. Even if their abuser seems like a kind, charming person, you may not know the whole story. Believe your friend and validate their concerns.

Don't make decisions for them. It can be tempting to ask your friend why they won't leave their abuser. But these relationships are complex, and there are many reasons why someone might stay :  shame, low self-esteem, fear of being hurt, lack of resources, fear that they won't be believed, thinking this is normal, cultural reasons, among others.

It is not our job to convince them to leave. It is our job to help educate them about their options, help them create a safety plan and support them when they decide what is the best course of action for themselves. This branch of violence is something that cannot be fully comprehended or understood by someone who hasn't experienced it, and asking someone why they stay in an abusive relationship is tantamount to victim blaming.

Connect them to resources. It can be beneficial to show your friend what a healthy relationship looks like. Resources such as thehotline.org (the National Domestic Violence Hotline website) can provide information.

Furthermore, connecting them to confidential hotlines and/or domestic violence organizations in their area can be life-changing. Many of these organizations provide free therapy, safety planning and legal counsel. Many of them also have emergency shelters if your friend is ready to leave their abuser, but has nowhere to go.

You deserve to be with someone who cares about your feelings, who accepts your flaws and your quirks, who supports you in your endeavors. Love shouldn't hurt.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, or has a partner that exhibits a pattern of these red flag behaviors, you can make an anonymous, confidential call to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1–800–799–7233 or visit thehotline.org for more resources and information.

This article was originally published here.