Emotionally-abusive relationships: it's a slow boil

Emotionally-abusive relationships: it's a slow boil

 

By Katie Adema

If you try to place a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump away. Why? Because the water is hot, bubbling and aggressive in appearance. However, if you place a frog into a pot of cold water, then slowly heat it, the frog will not notice the slow, subtle temperature change and will boil.

This is how Dr James Schuurmans-Stekhoven, Psychology lecturer at Charles Sturt University and practicing clinical psychologist, explains how easy it is to not recognize the signs of an abusive relationship.

You could be in one right now and not know.

Abusive relationships are more common than you might think; according to Relationships Australia’s Domestic Violence advice booklet, around 33 per cent of Australian women are affected by domestic abuse. Domestic abuse does not only refer to physical abuse, but also emotional and verbal abuse.

Emotional and verbal abuse is harder to pinpoint. It can be a partner controlling you through anger or threats, extreme jealousy, isolating you from others, making constant text messages or calls, or not giving you the opportunity to make your own decisions.

Looking in from the outside, signs such as these may seem obvious. But, to the person/s inside of the relationship, it may take months or years before they realise.

Lucy* says her partner of a year and three months displayed stalker-like behaviour during the relationship and for a period after it ended.

“From the start he was clingy, but then it turned a bit stalker-ish. I would go somewhere with my friends and he would always just rock up where we were, or if he didn’t know where I was he would call my grandparents or anyone else trying to find out where I was,” she says.

“After we broke up, he would turn up at my grandparent’s house every month or so without us being aware of his presence. He would leave little notes around the property saying, ‘just came to check up on you’, or even threats against us, which we would find a few days after.”

So why don’t people in the relationship realise it’s abusive?

Dr Schuurmans-Stekhoven says it can be much like the story of the boiling frog; the changes in the perpetrator’s behaviour from normal to controlling or abusive can be too subtle for the victim to notice.

“People don’t go on a first date and say, hi, I’m an emotional abuser,” he says.

“If someone were so obviously nasty and horrible, you wouldn’t be in a relationship with them… abusers, particularly the controlling ones, are very good at pushing the boundaries a little more each time. ”

Ultimately, what makes an emotionally abusive relationship so hard to recognise is that every case is different.

“There can be broad indicators, like a lack of respect, or the belittling of one person… but it really comes down to the person’s distress, because you can’t say that an abusive relationship always has X, and never has Y,” says Dr Schuurmans-Stekhoven.

In Lucy’s experience, her partner obsessed over anyone who had an influence over her because he was scared of losing the control.

“He would constantly try and undermine the relationship I had with my grandparents, I was living with them at the time… he would go on and on about how overprotective they were, and that they were being controlling and I didn’t see it. We would have huge fights about it. He would go on for hours and hours, and would get so upset and angry because he thought I couldn’t see how controlled I was.”

The pattern of escalating anger that Lucy describes is also identified in Relationships Australia’s Domestic Violence advice as a common pattern that an abusive relationship can follow.

It involves the gradual build up of tensions in the relationship, which leads to an explosion of violence or anger. This is then followed by an expression of remorse and regret, which brings a period of normality. Then the cycle starts all over again.

This rollercoaster-like experience can be the key reason why a victim of emotional abuse does not recognise it as such, says Dr Schuurmans-Stekhoven.

“We mentally smooth out life’s ups and downs, and that can be a defence sometimes,” he says.

“When things in the relationship get bad, it’s not immediately obvious to the person being abused because they’ve made a commitment to that person for better or worse…. If I’m in a relationship that’s a real rollercoaster, I can misinterpret that as excitement and think, this is real passion… Wow, this person really loves me.”

After excusing her partner’s angry outbursts as the normal ups and downs of any relationship, Lucy’s partner soon became even more manipulative.

“Fighting with him was exhausting. If I called him on [his behaviour], he would sulk and whinge and blame me… he would turn it back on me and say I was attacking him, and making him feel vulnerable and inadequate. He would always make it out to be my fault, that I was the one emotionally manipulating him,” she says.

“He was such hard work to fight with; it was just a matter of being with him because it was easier. It was emotionally easier on me to try and keep him happy than it was to stand up for myself and make that break.”

Think that women are always the victims of this kind of emotional manipulation? Think again.

David* didn’t notice any concerning behaviour from his partner until the relationship was on its way out.

“I didn’t think things were going to work out, so I talked to her a few times about maybe breaking things off. But each time she would pretty much threaten to kill herself.”

In David’s case, it could have been fear of losing him that drove his partner’s behaviour.

“Maybe they were abused in a past relationship, maybe they have trust issues, so in order to protect themselves, they control the other person before they actually do anything to hurt them,” says Dr Schuurmans-Stekhoven.

This fear can be a major barrier to the victim when they try to end the relationship; according to Relationships Australia’s Domestic Violence advice, it often takes six to eight attempts before a victim leaves an abusive relationship.

“I recognised the behaviour as irrational, but when the person is threatening to kill themselves, there’s not much you can do really to get out of it,” David says.

“It was just that she was young, and the relationship was ending and she didn’t know what else to do to stop it. Eventually, I got a job in a remote location, so I used that distance to say well, you’re here and I’m there, this can’t really work, so she couldn’t be mad about that.”

But do all emotionally abusive relationships have to just end? Can it ever be worked through?

“I’m sure people like that can change… in my case she was 17, and that’s still kind of young so, after a bit of life experience I’m sure everyone is fine,” says David.

Lucy, however, is less convinced.

“There would have to be a big dynamic shift within the relationship, because it’s all about power, and who has the upper hand at all times,” she says.

“For that power balance to change so dramatically… I see it as unlikely that a relationship could change that much. It couldn’t survive that.”

Dr Schuurmans-Stekhoven believes that if both parties agree there are problems and are willing to work through them, then the relationship can work.

“Sadly this is not the majority; in the majority of cases it is better for the victim to leave, because the problems are likely to get worse and may also turn physical,” he says.

Dr Schuurmans-Stekhoven names post traumatic stress disorder and a struggle with your own beliefs about yourself and others as some of the long-term effects of being in an abusive relationship.

“In some cases, a person’s authority is taken from them, and they let the other control them and abuse them. To stop this behaviour, that is to recognise it as wrong, and to admit that it was wrong the whole time,” he says.

“Which is a hard thing to own up to, because it means admitting that they had been disrespecting themselves by not standing up to the other person.”


However, not everyone is affected this way.

“I don’t think it has affected my approach to other relationships, because you can’t judge everything based on one bad relationship experience,” says David.

Lucy agrees, saying she learnt a lot about herself from the experience.

“It taught me about what I can tolerate, but also what I shouldn’t have to tolerate,” says Lucy.

Lucy speaks for all victims.

It is up to you to decide what boundaries are established for yourself and your partner; but in every relationship, you have a right to be treated with respect, to participate in decision making, to not feel intimidated or put down and to be free from violence and abuse.

* Names have been changed.

Images: J.Ronald Lee- Flickr, Katie Adema.

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