Relational Abuse: From Subtle to Violent – Overt, covert, or just bad behavior — it needs to stop.

There are many types of abuse in relationships, and sometimes it’s actually difficult to know if your partner is being abusive or just behaving badly. One covert type of abuse is emotional, like passive-aggressive behavior. This is when a person acts out their anger by showing up late, not helping with chores, withholding sex or not talking to their partner. This is the most common form of emotional abuse and can be healed with deep conversation and therapy

An overt and more damaging type of abuse is verbal. This is when a partner yells and screams, may use foul language, and belittles his or her significant other. Though verbal abuse is not thought to be serious by some, I strongly disagree. If you belittle, berate, or bad-mouth your partner, you are actually beating him or her up — it just doesn’t leave marks you can see. These wounds are deeply felt and may never heal if the behavior continues. The injuries will eventually become too painful to ignore, and the abused partner will withdraw, start fighting back, seek comfort elsewhere, or leave the relationship.

People who allow verbal and/or emotional abuse to continue lose their self-esteem and find it difficult to live a balanced life. When the person you are closest to gives you no emotional support, it feels as though you have nothing in life to hold on to, and you cannot feel grounded or safe in the relationship. It also undermines the entire fabric of a family, teaching children that these behaviors tolerable and acceptable.

Healing verbal abuse requires therapy for the couple and sometimes the family. Anger management for the abuser can be helpful, and I recommend deep, emotionally focused work to get to the cause of the anger. Choosing appropriate behavior is key, and though it sounds simple, it is really a challenge to make those kinds of changes.

The victim in a verbally abusive relationship needs to learn to set strong boundaries and may even have to leave the relationship for a time in order to help the abuser understand the gravity of the problem.

Physical abuse is much more serious. If there is violence in a relationship, or even the threat of violence, the first thing the victim must do is get out. Many victims get so used to the fact that the abuser in their lives gets angry, hits them, and threatens to kill them (or themselves) that they actually become immune to it. People in these unfortunate relationships need to see that the danger is clear and present.

Counseling is a big part of dealing with healing or ending a relationship that has been violent, but safety is always the first concern. I cannot stress this enough: If your partner has hit you or threatened you with a weapon, you have to leave the house. If you can’t find a shelter or are too embarrassed to go to one, call a friend or a relative. Your place of worship may also be of help. Check into a hotel or find a short-term corporate apartment — it may even be necessary to sleep in your car for a night. All of these options are safer than spending one more night under the same roof with a person capable of injuring or even killing you. And yes, always take the children with you when you leave. Understand that you can’t let this happen anymore, and it will hurt, but you can do it with heart. At this point, the only possibility of saving your relationship is to separate and get counseling.

There are a number of centers and havens where people who are threatened with violence can go for help. The toll-free phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-700-7233. Abuse is a serious situation, and taking too much time to think about leaving can cost you your life. If the need is there, make the call now.

Abuse only grows over time, and if the behaviors are not changed and the issues not resolved, your life will become a living hell. Take responsibility for yourself and get the help that you need. Also, if you know of someone in an abusive relationship show them this chapter — by doing so, you may just save a relationship or a life.

By Barton Goldsmith Ph.D.


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