Hidden Dangers: How to Recognize Abuse in Intimate Relationships

Intimate partner violence can create or aggravate serious mental health disorders, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety, and can leave painful psychological scars even long after the abuse has ended. People who already have a mental health disorder are especially vulnerable to being in an abusive relationship, compounding pre-existing emotional distress and creating new psychological wounds that interfere with your emotional stability, functioning, and healing.

However, part of the insidious nature of abuse is that it is not always easy to recognize when you are in it, or even after you have left. While explicit physical violence is hard to deny—although not always easy to leave—less obvious forms of abuse can be harder to identify. This is particularly true if you grew up in an abusive environment in which abusive behaviors were normalized and you do not have a model of healthy, respectful relationships. As a result, you are vulnerable to painful psychological damage, self-blame, and isolation as the reality of your situation remains hidden even from yourself, leaving you unable to move forward. Learning how to recognize non-physical forms of intimate partner violence is crucial to developing a real understanding of your experiences, giving voice to your distress, and beginning to heal in meaningful ways.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse, also referred to as psychological abuse, is a particularly destructive form of abuse that can profoundly affect your emotional well-being, sense of reality, and self-awareness.[1. http://www.womenshealthmag.com/sex-and-love/emotional-abuse] It is also one of the most invisible forms of abuse and the easiest to explain away, particularly as it conditions you to internalize the view of your abuser and believe that you deserve the treatment you receive. In some cases, abusers turn the tables and cast themselves as the victim, causing disturbing disorientation and self-blame. Emotional abuse can include:

Humiliation and Degradation

  • Ridiculing or ignoring your opinions and feelings
  • Making jokes at your expense
  • Criticizing you
  • Humiliating you in front of other people
  • Using your mental illness against you

Control, Domination, and Isolation

  • Monitoring your activities, including reading your email, putting a keylogger on your computer, installing a tracking device on your car, etc.
  • Keeping you from seeing friends and family
  • Treating you as if you are inferior and incapable of self-sufficiency
  • Requiring that you ask permission before making decisions
  • Discouraging you from going to school or work
  • Keeping you from seeing health professionals, including mental health workers
  • Controlling your medications
  • Threatening to tell others sensitive personal information about you

Accusing, Blaming, and Withholding

  • Accusing you of infidelity
  • Blaming you for unwanted attention you receive from other men or women
  • Blaming you for their problems and behaviors, including their abuse
  • Withholding affection or resources if you upset them

Sexual Abuse

A healthy sex life is an important part of most relationships and can require negotiation of disparate desires. In many abusive relationships, however, victims are forced to or made to feel as if they must accommodate their partner’s sexual requests. While this may take the form of overt sexual assault, it can also be a more subtle form of sexual violence in which you “willingly” submit to sexual behaviors you do not want to participate in due to emotional manipulation or fear. However, it is important to remember that even if you do not say no, what you are experiencing is still abuse and it is not your fault. Forms of sexual abuse include:

  • Pressuring or forcing you to participate in sex acts you don’t want
  • Unwanted touching, kissing, or other sexual activity
  • Insulting or humiliating you sexually
  • Restricting access to contraceptives or refusing to use protection
  • Threatening to cheat on or leave you if you do not accommodate their requests
  • Sharing intimate photographs of you with other people

You have a right to say no at any point during sex, even if you are engaged in sexual activity you previously wanted. You do not have an obligation to have sex at any time, regardless of the nature of your relationship with someone.

Financial Abuse

Abusers often seek to limit your autonomy by seizing control of your finances to increase your dependency and destroy your ability to control your own life.

  • Keeping you from employment or demanding that you work a particular kind of job
  • Demanding that you give them your paycheck
  • Limiting your access to your own or your shared bank accounts
  • Giving you an allowance and monitoring your spending
  • Running up financial debt without your consent or knowledge
  • Using their financial status to control you and keep you dependent on them
  • Threatening to leave you, knowing that it will cause financial devastation

Financial abuse remains one of the least acknowledged yet highly pervasive forms of abuse and survivors are often reluctant to speak out about their experiences due to deep stigma and shame.[2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ginger-dean/financial-abuse-6-signs-a_b_5627463.html] Your abuser may even have led you to believe that their actions are for your own good, making it difficult to recognize the reality of the situation.

Finding A Way Out

Healing from the effects of intimate partner violence requires specialized care to help you process, understand, and recover from painful psychological damage. Regardless of the form of abuse you have experienced, seeking out holistic mental health treatment can be a critical step in your journey towards recovery, and give you the tools you need to explore the relationship between the abuse and your mental health and restore your sense of self. If your abuser has kept you from receiving treatment for a mental health disorder, it is especially important to heal in a place that honors your multiple emotional and behavioral needs, and gives you meaningful, non-judgmental support as you move forward.

Abuse is never your fault, and there is no hierarchy of abusive behaviors. You are not less deserving of recovery because you “only” experienced financial abuse, you are not in less need of support because your abuser “only” pushed you instead of punched you, “only” abused you emotionally rather than raped you. All survivors of intimate partner violence deserve to have their trauma recognized and the effects on your mental health treated with compassion and respect to allow you to regain joy, hope, and confidence.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people living with mental health disorders and histories of trauma, including intimate partner violence. Contact us for more information about how we can help you or your loved one start the journey towards recovery.