Mental Health

Mandy Kloppers

Am I a victim of relationship abuse?

It’s not as easy as you might think to identify signs of abuse. It’s quite black-and-white if your partner is hitting you or assaulting you physically. It’s a different story when the abuse is subtle, such as when emotional abuse or coercive control occurs.

Find out in this article what be signs of abuse are and whether any of these are playing out in your current relationship

Abuse takes many forms

Coercive control emotional abuse, verbal and physical abuse

Coercive control is the most subtle form of abuse. It’s so subtle that the receiver of the abuse might not fully acknowledge what is happening. They may feel something isn’t quite right without being able to pinpoint the exact cause. Coercive control doesn’t start on day one of a relationship. It’s a slow build-up and before you know it you’re living in the thick of it, wondering how you ever got there. A subtle roll of the eyes, a look or a certain stance (crossed arms for instance) can carry a lot of meaning. One woman who came to see me after an abusive relationship recounted that if they were out at a party or with friends and her husband gave her “the look”, she knew he was angry with her and she would “get it” when she got home – meaning there would be a row or worse.

The anger would usually be over something fairly trivial, like she spoke to someone for too long or didn’t agree with him when he spoke. As a result she was a bag of nerves around her husband, never knowing what would next set him off.

Constantly being vigilant is exhausting for the mind and body and keeps the body in a high-alert mode, ready for threat or danger. It can lead to sleep problems, depression and anxiety and low self-esteem is often a consequence of abusive experiences.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse erodes a person’s identity and sense of self over time. Constant comments such as: “you are a slut and a whore”, are more obvious signs of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse also includes neglect, stonewalling (being given the silent treatment as a punishment), withdrawal of affection and care, and constant criticism or contempt. If you feel that nothing you do is ever right it is highly likely that you are experiencing a form of emotional abuse.

Everyone makes mistakes in relationships but when you notice a pattern of behaviour that continues over a period of months, it’s another sign that abuse is taking place. We can all say or do the wrong thing and this is normal but behaviour tends to be a one-off and an apology will usually follow. No one deliberately wants to upset the one they love repeatedly.

Victims of abuse feel self-doubt constantly

Abusers are clever at manipulating you into doubting your own thoughts and feelings. They will deny things happened when they did, they will swear that told you something when they didn’t. These manipulation tactics cause havoc with mental and physical health and can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Gaslighting is manipulation of someone, by psychological means, that results in that person doubting their own sanity. Many people change their perceptions to fit with the narrative their partner gives them because they WANT to believe their partner and they also want to minimise conflict.

If you are questioning yourself a lot in your relationship – this might be sign that you are being gaslighted.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s fact sheet, the techniques a gaslighter might use to manipulate someone else can include:

  • Withholding (meaning he or she refuses to listen or says they don’t understand)
  • Countering (when the abuser questions the gaslightee’s memory of an event)
  • Blocking/diverting (when the abuser changes the subject or questions the victim’s thinking)
  • Trivializing (making the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant)
  • Forgetting/denial (when the manipulator pretends to have forgotten what actually happened or denies something he or she had previously agreed to)

Signs you’re a victim of gaslighting

Look for these warning signs:

  • You’re constantly second guessing yourself or have trouble making decisions;
  • You’re ruminating about a perceived character flaw (like being too sensitive or not a good enough person);
  • You feel confused about your relationship (if you find yourself thinking: “I thought I had this great husband/wife, but I just feel crazy all the time” or “I thought I had this charming partner, but then sometimes I feel like I’m losing it when we’re together”);
  • In a confrontation with the person that might be gaslighting you, you feel like you suddenly find yourself in an argument you didn’t intend to have, you’re not making progress or you’re saying the same thing over and over again and not being heard;
  • You feel fuzzy or unclear about your thoughts, feelings, or beliefs;
  • You’re always apologizing;
  • You’re frequently making excuses for your partner’s behavior;
  • You can’t understand why you’re not happy in your own life; or
  • You know something is wrong, but you just don’t know what.

How abuse affects your mental health

Relationship abuse can lead to various mental health problems. Depression and anxiety are common consequences of experiencing abuse. Trauma leaves its mark on a person’s nervous system that could lead to fear of relationships in the future, self-doubt, and loss of confidence where a person becomes meek and passive. Problems with sleep, difficulty in concentrating and avoidant coping strategies such as turning to alcohol or drugs can also occur. Each individual is different and will react in their own unique way.

Individuals who have experienced childhood trauma are predisposed to experiencing relationship abuse as an adult. There are many theories around this and some experts say that conflict and Chaos from childhood becomes normalised and the adult nervous system attaches to that which we find familiar when we are adults.

Although in its infancy, there are studies investigating the links between serious health issues and trauma, such as the possible link between cancer and trauma. Prolonged distress has a huge impact on our physical and mental health.

What to do about relationship abuse

Get an objective opinion

If you are uncertain about the state of your relationship, get another opinion. An objective opinion from a third party can be extremely helpful in adding perspective to your situation. In order to keep yourself safe, focus on building up your sense of self-worth and remind yourself of the types of behaviour you will not accept.

Create and stick to your healthy boundaries

Creating healthy boundaries is key when it comes to avoiding or limiting abuse in your relationships. By all means, give someone a second chance but be firm if you start to notice a pattern emerging.

Healthy boundaries include being spoken to in a kind respectful manner, being considered in mutual plans, having your opinions listened to and taken on board, and acknowledging that you have the right to change your mind or behave independently. You have the right to feel safe in your relationship, and to make your own decisions. You also have the right to dress the way you want and socialise with your friends and family without restriction. If you are in a long term relationship, you deserve access to the finances without reasonable limits being placed, you are entitled to have a job that you enjoy and you have the right to express yourself as an individual. If this is being stifled in any way, ask yourself why?

Healthy relationships consist of open communication, where both people listen and want to fulfil their partner’s emotional needs. Ensuring emotional needs works best when empathy exists and an individual can put themselves in another person’s shoes that’s a great sign.

Work on your self-esteem and confidence

The value you place on yourself will affect the types of behaviour you are willing to accept. If you value yourself and feel worthy, you will be less likely to accept negative behaviour from others. People with low self-esteem tend to be drawn to personality types that are abusive. This attraction exists because the behaviour of an abuser mirrors what a victim feels he/she is worthy of. We often replicate relationships from our childhood and if we were badly treated by our parents we may try to recreate the same dynamic without realising it. Your brain seeks out what feels familiar even though it may be destructive.

Seek empathy and emotional maturity in a partner

Look for emotional maturity in your partner: can they control their emotions and listen to you when it counts. Are you able to have a rational two-way conversation and problem solve issues you have? If your partner finds it hard to accept fault, rarely apologises and constantly brings up other issues to deflect away from their own behaviour – it could be a sign that your communication needs some work. A dynamic like this will lead to resentment and misunderstandings.

It might be worth seeking out couples counselling in order to get you both back on track. Couples counselling is never about blame or shame. It’s all about finding solutions to bring you closer together.

Nobody deserves to live a life of constant put-downs, fear, walking on eggshells in a relationship devoid of love, care and respect. If this is your situation, the sooner you decide to make changes the better. Accept the reality of what you have now instead of loving the possibility of what your partner might be. People do not tend to change and they show you every day who they really are. Don’t just take their word for it. As they say actions speak louder than words.


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash