This is part six of a series of articles on relationships specifically written for people who have experienced abuse or trauma in their lives. You can find the list of articles on my blog under the topic heading: Relationship Coaching for Survivors of Abuse and Trauma.
In my prior articles, I have explained that there are differences between flashbacks/feeling abused and being abused. I have also explained that there are differences between not getting what you want and being abused. In a later posting, I will be explaining what I believe loving relationships look like. This article describes how abusive people approach you and entangle you into their web of abuse. I describe simple actions you can take to assess a current relationship. And a few steps you might be able to take to gain freedom.
Abusive behavior can be explained as a continuum of outrageous actions. When I explain this, I usually use my hands and expand them equally outward like maybe I’ll begin doing jumping jacks. Then I mark off space like there are increments between them identifying all the ways people can abuse others. I start with con artists and embezzlers and move onward to battering, rape, and eventually murder. There are as many variants in between as there are people who harm others.
I call these people violence addicts because I believe they get some degree of drunkenness out of their actions. They get pleasure when they hurt you. They also fit the progressive pattern of addictive disease. People who abuse others reach a place where they need more violence and harm to achieve the same high from their actions.
All these abusive people all follow the same pattern in the beginning.
This is important because you can identify them by their actions. They start small and if you don’t stop them, they will escalate until you do. And abusive, intrusive people can easily be stopped at those early intrusions. Later on, life can become nightmarish when you need to bulldoze an abusive person out of your life.
They tentatively enter your boundaries by doing something at first that is only a little teeny tiny inappropriate. Boundaries are made up of that invisible space that exists around everyone.
You own this space even if you do not know it. Your boundary protects your physical, emotional and intellectual space. I usually tell people that the physical boundary around them is one arm’s length all around them. Besides that ownership of your body, your private emotional and intellectual space includes your thoughts, feelings, wants, needs, hopes and dreams. These belong only to you and you decide with whom and when you share these parts of yourself.
Abusive behavior begins with a small, almost invisible intrusion into your privacy. Some examples are:
- Speaking to you with inappropriate intimacy
- Asking intrusive questions
- Unasked for advice
- Comments on your behavior
- Inappropriate presents
- Unasked for comments on your thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams
- Unsolicited criticism
- Uncomfortable staring
- Touching you without your permission
- Repeatedly asking you out after you have said, “No.”
- Offering you something that is Too Good To Be True
- Inappropriate comments on your Internet photos
- Inappropropriate comments to or about you on social media
People who speak to you too intimately do things like call you “Honey” or some other endearment before you know them. You can easily recognize this with telemarketers. They call you; speak to you by first name with a familiarity that is inappropriate. Then they ask, “How are you today?” Another example might be that abusive people ask you questions about your home life or feelings on uncomfortable subject. If you respond, you have agreed to an increased intimacy level with a stranger.
Unasked for advice from a stranger might be someone walking by and telling you that dress does not suit you. Or someone you have never met telling you how to discipline your child in a store. Then there are those people who walk up to you and say, “Smile.”
A man you met once brings flowers to your work. Another example is that of a woman you met at the store bringing you lunch. These are inappropriate presents. Another is that of an expensive item long before the relationship has grown to that point.
A person at work begins to tell you how to think about your job, what to wear, and how to feel about your boss. Perhaps they tell you that you should or shouldn’t want a new job. These all occur before any authentic conversation with them about those subjects.
You don’t know them that well; they don’t know you and they have made assumptions of a closeness that doesn’t exist. Suddenly, a coworker is telling you how to do your job, how to think about it, and what you have a right to hope for. Comments that are intrusive can often be combined with criticism. This is unsuitable from anyone who is not in a supervisory position to you.
Some people just invade your space visually. Guaranteed to make anyone uncomfortable, staring is a form of attack. It’s designed as a visual power play and is a very obvious clue the person staring is someone to watch out for.
When abusive behavior graduates to people touching you, it leaves the world of subtle. Yet, abusive people are clever; they will touch you in such a way as to have ready excuses. One I always notice is those folks who put their arm around my shoulders when I am being introduced to them. I usually feel childlike and uncomfortable. Unfortunately, once this happens, and I move away, they have a ready answer of “what’s wrong with you?”
Putdowns are verbal violence. Also easy to see. People can mock what you say, what you are wearing, and everything and anything they manage to come up with.
Social media putdowns are also a form of violence. Be wary of people who are too friendly and those whose comments just feel wrong.
Then there are those who seem unable to take “no” for an answer. They are related to those who bring you untimely presents before there is a relationship. They seem unable to imagine that you have boundaries or the ability to decide for yourself who you want to spend time with.
There is a reason that abusive people are able to continuously find their victims. They offer you someone you deeply want. On the surface, it’s what you always dreamed of. However, if you take enough time to examine them and what they offer you, it’s Too Good To Be True. This means what they offer you is a fantasy and not possible in the real world.
Often people give out lists of what abusive relationships look like. But really, this is up to you to describe because it changes from person to person. What makes this difficult for people who have experienced abuse early in life or any form of trauma is that your boundaries were damaged by abuse or trauma. Child abuse survivors often were not allowed to develop healthy boundaries. So when someone who is abusive tests your boundaries with a small intrusion, you might not notice.
Often what happens, though, is that you do notice. Unfortunately, too many people learned to discount their perceptions of reality. This is not your FAULT. It is learned behavior for you to simply ignore what you are seeing. You do see or feel this very small invasion and threat to your well-being.
Then you say things to yourself that you learned early in life to cope with your abuse, like:
- I take things too seriously
- I am such a complainer
- Don’t be silly, they don’t mean anything by it.
- What is the matter with me?
- I am such a B….h or B…….d
- There I go again, making a mountain out of a molehill!
- I probably misunderstood.
- I’m too sensitive
- ______________________________Add your own to this list.
After they have tested you once, they become slightly more abusive or intrusive. Then they continue their infiltration into your space over and over. Unfortunately, you do not really acknowledge the abuse until it gets really bad. By then, it has become terribly difficult to get out of the relationship.
My recommendation is that you work on yourself when you think you are entangled in an abusive web. This works to help you decide if there is in fact abuse. And then it works to help you gather the strength to get yourself out of that situation.
If you are being harmed physically in an existing relationship, pay attention. If you feel emotionally hurt most of the time in your relationship, that too is a clue. One certain way to assess your relationship is to work on yourself. If you start out giving your partner the benefit of the doubt; then work on your issues, you will find clarity. One real clue is if they increase their harmful actions when you’ve been growing and giving them the benefit of the doubt. You change your behavior, don’t react as strongly and they increase their pressure on you. That, by itself, tells you who you are with.
I wish I had a formula for leaving an abusive relationship without harm. It helps if you still have other people in your life or have some resources. If you can gather support, it is easier on you. Some people need alternate living facilities, the police or social services. Once you identify you are in an abusive situation, get help.
But the truth is, it’s easier to avoid abusive situations than to leave it. Abusive people don’t let their victims go easily. They also don’t let you go without some degree of punishment. But that punishment ends. And you live on.
For more information or if you’d like to make an appointment.
Telephone: (615) 464-3791
©2016 by Laura Coleman, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons