Abusive relationships are characterized by a demeaning and dehumanizing imbalance of power and control.
This can involve anything from violence or the threat of harm to guilt-tripping or even constant condescension. Usually people with more social power abuse those with less, but it can happen across all genders and all types of relationships. Abuse can be subtle to both outsiders and victims, but it can have a devastating effect on someone’s life and emotional health. (For a refresher on what kind of behavior is considered abusive, check out this list.)
Unfortunately, abusive relationships don’t occur in a vacuum, and just as there are lifelong abusers, many people find themselves as long-term victims as well.
Whether you’re the one finding yourself in a string of toxic relationships or you’re watching it happen to someone else, it can be both frustrating and painful.
Why does abuse happen to us again and again?
Why do we seem to leave one abusive relationship just to end up in another?
The simple answer is because we let it happen. Now, hold on just a second. That’s victim blaming!
Let me explain. It is never someone’s fault when they were abused. Everyone is responsible for how they treat other people, including abusers. No one should be criticized for staying in an abusive relationship either– one of the hallmarks of abuse is the impossibility of leaving. Abusers design the circumstances of the relationship to make that as hard as possible.
However, abusers are drawn to people who will let them get away with their bullshit. Even when the abuse isn’t a conscious action, they are crafty and know how to manipulate people into giving them what they want. Abuse is a slippery slope, and what begins as a guilt trip by a charming friend can snowball into emotional imprisonment.
Experts say it only takes seventeen repetitions of an action to make it a habit. That’s good news when you’re trying to exercise and eat healthy, but bad news when you’re in toxic relationships. Many psychologists believe that people seek out relationships with abusers and toxic people because they subconsciously desire to fix their troubled pasts. I believe it’s much simpler than that. If mistreatment is the only thing you’ve ever known, you won’t bat an eye at its continuation. Get mistreated seventeen times (whether by just one person or multiple) and it becomes an expectation.
How do you avoid abusers in the future?
With enough practice, we can learn to stay away from toxic and/or unhealthy people. The following steps can be helpful when actively deciding to avoid abusive relationships.
Make a note of people who push your boundaries. Some boundary-pushing is healthy, (like a wallflower’s friends gently encouraging them to dance at a club) but other kinds are not (like someone pressuring someone else to drink more than they’re comfortable with). If someone makes a habit of making you uncomfortable, do your best to consistently refuse them. It may be easier said than done, but all of these steps take practice. Don’t beat yourself up if you cave– it’s not your fault that someone else is behaving inappropriately.
Practice being honest about your feelings with yourself and others. Abuse can turn our brains upside down and leave us unsure of our real feelings. It sounds like a minor problem, but my most seriously abusive relationship left me unable to discern which foods I did and didn’t like (among other lasting issues). Learning to be honest about my food feelings is a continuing process, as is more substantial issues like setting sexual boundaries and voicing my feelings if my partner upsets me.
Listen to your gut. If you feel that you are being mistreated, manipulated, or bullied by someone else, don’t wait for “proof” before you believe yourself. Even if that was not their intention, you deserve to listen to your gut and take steps to end behavior that makes you feel bad. If it’s hard for you to act on your instincts, speak with a trusted friend and get some input– maybe they’ve been feeling the same way too.
Be kind to yourself. You may have a lot of seemingly irrational habits and feelings associated with the abuse you’ve gone through. When emotions or actions manifest, firm and kind self-talk is critically important. For example, in a situation where you really want to go on a date with someone new, but you’re scared they may end up being a threat, practice being kind to yourself. Allow yourself to make an “escape” plan if it makes you feel better, but try not to let the fear prevent you from going at all. If someone ends up successfully manipulating you or making you afraid, forgive yourself because it wasn’t your fault. Be your own ideal parent.
See a professional. I recommend therapy to almost everyone. However, if you’re worried about landing yourself in another sticky situation, it can be especially helpful to have a trained ear to talk it out with.