12 Signs You Could Be in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship
12 Signs Your Relationship May Be Emotionally Abusive
Relationships aren't always easy - but some are just toxic and dangerous. Is yours?
All relationships go through bad patches, and almost all long-term couples irritate one another every now and again. But how can you distinguish between the normal everyday stresses and strains of living life alongside someone and toxic, damaging relationship behaviour? If you’re unhappy in your relationship or feeling controlled or insecure, here are some things to watch out for that would definitively suggest that the problem isn’t with you.
It’s often assumed that queer relationships aren’t or can’t be abusive in the same way that het ones are, which is clearly nonsense. If you have concerns about relationship abuse, physical or emotional, National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs or The Network/La Red (in the US) or Broken Rainbow (in the UK) have specialist LGBT helplines and resources.
1. Persistent unhappiness and insecurity in the relationship
Healthy relationships might be hard work sometimes – both parties are tired or vulnerable or under pressure and need support at the same time, and it’s difficult to always be kind and supportive – but if you’re continually feeling unhappy or insecure in your relationship that’s not a good sign. If your partner is *consistently, persistently* loving and reassuring, then maybe it’s worth looking into therapy or counselling to see whether there’s anything going on in your head that needs sorting out. But if they alternate being reassuring with playing on your fears, or persistently express concepts of your relationship that are alien to you, or dismiss your feelings, then they are potentially being abusive.
Abusive relationships are about effect, not intent. It’s perfectly possible for a relationship to be toxic in ways both parties bear some responsibility for – in which case, everybody concerned is better off out of it.
2 Putting you down
This is a classic warning sign. If your partner criticizes you repeatedly – anything from your appearance to your life choices – it implies contempt and manipulation, not love. It doesn’t matter quite how they do it, whether it’s direct criticism (‘You’ve put on weight, I don’t fancy you anymore’), concern trolling (‘I’m really worried about your health, why don’t you go on a diet?’), reverse compliments (‘You’d look so much like Samira Wiley if you were thinner!’) or jokes in public (‘Sarah was going to dress as Poussey for Halloween, but she’s more like Taystee now!’), it’s all the same, designed to undermine your sense of self-confidence and self-respect. (Note to concerned readers: both Samira Wiley and Danielle Brooks are equally gorgeous, but manipulative people often use bullshit culturally loaded concepts like fat as bad, women should be nurturing/be pretty/do the emotional labor, to play on your insecurities.)
If you recognize yourself doing this, stop now. If your partner’s happiness and autonomy means less to you than their size/clothing/choice of friends/particular mannerisms, they are massively better off without you.
3) Rewriting history
If your partner consistently tells you that your memories and/or feelings are wrong, and moreover acts hurt or betrayed when you tell them what you think happened or how it makes you feel, they’re demonstrating that their primary interest is in creating a version of reality that reflects well on them, not having an honest, communicative and compromiseful relationship with you. It’s incredibly disturbing to be told repeatedly by somebody you love and feel you should trust that the things you know and have experienced are wrong or mistaken, and it’s a very effective way of disempowering and manipulating someone, knowingly or otherwise. If this happens once, fair enough, but if there are often disagreements about what ‘actually happened’ and how you ‘should’ feel, get the hell out.
4) Overwhelming emotion as an excuse
If conversations with your partner – especially discussions about what you feel or want or have done – often end with them expressing overwhelming emotion and holding you responsible for it, you’re in trouble. Whether it’s anger, sadness, jealous, depression, fear, insecurity or something else, abusive people often use the overwhelming nature of their feelings as an excuse for not recognising or respecting yours. If whenever you try to raise an emotional or practical issue you are forced into having to comfort or calm your partner instead of having an adult discussion where both parties express their concerns, you’re not in a healthy relationship. (The same goes in reverse, of course. If your girlfriend comes to you to discuss something and your standard response is to explode at her or burst into tears and tell her you are an abject failure and never deserved her anyway, that’s not a very healthy adult way of dealing.)
5) Controlling your movements
If your partner reacts with disproportionate anger, panic or insecurity to you doing things independently, or tries to affect where you go or what you do, that’s a really bad sign. Everyone needs space to be themselves in a relationship, and that includes having some independent time and the freedom to come and go as you please. Obviously, you need to WANT to spend time with your partner, but if they react with either anger or insecurity every time you meet friends/go to work/ go to the gym/see your family without them, that’s neither fair nor good for you. It doesn’t matter if they’re crying and pleading with you not to go because they don’t know how to cope or shouting at you, the effect is still to curtail your movements and independence and that’s not on. If they’re genuinely insecure, by all means give them a clear time you will return or be back in contact, but remember you have the right to move freely. As do they, of course! If your insecurity, anger or jealousy is so bad you can’t manage it for three hours while your partner sees a friend, seek professional therapeutic help.
6) Pressuring you into sex
Sex should always be a mutual thing. If your partner repeatedly tries to coerce or persuade you when you’re not in the mood or tries to convince you to do particular sexual things they know cross your boundaries, that demonstrates their gratification means more to them than your willing participation, which is pretty horrifying when you think about it. A caveat: often couples have differing sex drives, and/or are happy not having sex at all. Both of these are fine, but they need to be explicitly discussed and negotiated. If you’re the partner with the higher sex drive (or a generally lower one but with particular desires that don’t do it for your partner!), don’t apply pressure that will just be counterproductive anyway. Talk to your partner, explore alternative solutions like opening up your relationship, and if you really can’t come to a compromise, it’s better to end things than have an ongoing connection where consent is an issue.
7) Refusing to admit they’re wrong
If your partner can’t admit when they’re in the wrong or take emotional responsibility for their mistakes, they don’t have the emotional maturity to be in a relationship. Like really, there are no ways that can end well, and a lot of the time you’ll have to deal with all the fallout, attempting their emotional management as well as your own. This is slightly different from simply having irreconcilably different opinions about things – it’s perfectly possible to maintain a relationship with someone whose tastes vary, although I’d argue that major ethical or ideological divides are a step too far in the long term – but I’m happy to be proven wrong. This is about refusing to behave like an adult with agency and responsibility, and that’s a thing any relationship can do without.
8) Persistently arguing with or denying your feelings
If every time you state a concern or express a feeling your partner tries to pick it apart, challenge it, deny its validity or refuse its credibility, they’re being abusive. There is a huge distinction between validating someone’s feelings and then exploring together where they come from, and repeatedly responding to said feelings by trying to argue them out of existence, shifting the goalposts, challenging decisions the person’s made, or flat-out telling them they’ve no reason to be angry/sad/upset and need to stop now. Sometimes, people are just incompatible. But if that’s the case, trying to argue them into being the person you wished they were is not the way to deal with it.
9) Lying – and refusing to admit or acknowledge this when confronted
If you regularly catch your partner trying to deceive you, about matters large or small, it’s a red flag. There’s a difference between surprises and keeping things secret from you, or lying to your face about what happened or where they’ve been or whether they’ve done x. Relationships need to be founded on trust and respect, and liars can offer neither. Bonus points if this comes with a side order of 3), and the things they’re lying about are actually things you were present for or have concrete evidence of. (Concrete evidence can be faked, of course – gaslighting is a terrible and highly relevant thing.) If you are the abused party here, and are forced to lie to protect others from violence or to protect your own relationship with them, fair enough, but lie just enough to find a safe haven and then get the hell out.
10) Persistently badmouthing your friends, family or other support networks
Abusive people need to isolate their victim from support networks who might challenge their emotional demands or the health of the relationship. By repeatedly denigrating their partner’s friends and family, they progressively isolate their victim, ensuring both greater access and greater dependence. Look, nobody’s friends and family are utterly flawless, and everyone is allowed to dislike someone, but they’re not allowed to then try and stop you engaging with them as well. Partner doesn’t like your best friend? Fine, you guys can hang out at her house regularly, or go out to eat, or meet elsewhere. Partner thinks your family are overly critical? Right, she can be right there with you when you visit them, offering sympathy and support. If you actually have terribly traumatic history with a particular person or group and your partner encourages you to cut them out of your life for your own sanity, that’s okay, but if it happens more than a few times or they then strenuously resist you connecting with new people to fill the gap, that’s an issue.
11) ‘I didn’t mean it’.
If you or your partner regularly do or say difficult and troubling things and then say ‘I didn’t mean it’, that’s a huge problem. It’s especially common with physical violence – people get angry, lash out, and then sob remorsefully all over the place whilst their partner tries to comfort them and hold an ice pack at the same time. It’s bullshit. But the same goes for all sorts of bad stuff – shouting at you? Insulting you? Throwing things? Saying they don’t love you any more? Saying they’ve had enough and they’re leaving? – it’s a common tactic for all sorts for hurtful behaviour and a classic abusive trick. No relationship is bad all the time, so abused partners stay for the good bits and try to block out or minimise the bad, and before you know it you’ve been with someone for ten years and tiptoeing around things that might upset or anger your partner is second nature and you’ve given up on all your dreams and/or you know just where they’ll hit you to hide the bruises.
12) Your partner is physically violent
I left this one till last because it’s the most obvious, but also one of the most difficult things to deal with. If someone you’ve previously loved and trusted is violent, it’s very difficult to process, and much easier in some ways to accept their promises that it’ll never happen again and carry on as before. But violence in LGBT relationships is an issue to roughly the same degree it is in het relationships, so violence from a woman or genderqueer person is still violence and you don’t have to put up with it. My personal feeling – as a veteran of consensual sexual violence – is that once is too much, but certainly if it happens more than once then it will happen again and that threat will haunt your relationship. At this point, you are entirely excused from any moral obligation towards your violent partner – just concentrate on your own survival and safety. Report the incidents if you can and get appropriate professional and legal protection if it’s an option for you. Find a safe place to stay with friends or family, perhaps think about changing jobs and/or enhancing security while you travel, arrange for the care of any dependents (children, pets, elderly relatives for whom you have caring responsibilities – make sure your partner can’t reach them or that their immediate neighbours are warned), break up with the violent partner on neutral ground and disappear. That all sounds like a big ask, so maybe sit down with a trusted friend or a professional beforehand and work out a detailed plan with timings and practical details. That way, when panic sets in, you still know exactly what you’re doing.