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Missing the Forest for the Trees…

How abusive and toxic relationships go unnoticed

Most of us have a pre-conceived notion of what an abusive relationship looks like. I know I did:  the drunken husband, clad in a stained “wife beater” tank top and torn pants, slumped in a battered recliner, beer bottle dangling carelessly from one hand while a half-smoked cigarette smolders in an ashtray on the side table. His wife, meek and mousy, putters around the kitchen in her modest house dress; the lines on her face etched by the constant fear she lives in that at any moment, she’ll put a foot wrong and incur his wrath and his fists.  When we think of abusive relationships, we tend to imagine those who live in financial turmoil, struggling with addiction, mental illness and a history of their own trauma and abuse as children. 

The reality is that abusive relationships are not confined to those in poverty. They often involve a partner or partners who are struggling with illness and addiction – sometimes as a result of the relationship, rather than a cause of it. An abusive or toxic relationship doesn’t always involve physical violence.  Emotional and psychological abuse are capable of rendering tremendous damage over time, eventually stripping the victim of any sense of self-worth, support network or means of escape.  It often trickles down to the children, manifesting as generalized anxiety disorder, depression, a mistrust of others, a need for control in every aspect of life and an inability to form or maintain healthy relationships as they grow older.

Abusers need power. They crave control. They need to maintain leverage over their partner, spouse and children. Sometimes this extends to co-workers,  employees or friends as well. The micro-manager. The explosive boss who’s never pleased. The passive-aggressive supervisor that always finds a way to make others feel that they can’t quite ever measure up. The friend who always seems to “one up” you when it comes to favors. (Although it’s been my experience that many abusers are also narcissists and most narcissists don’t have real friends.)

And abusers don’t always use overt deprivation or the threat of physical harm to maintain control at home. On the contrary, they may lavish their boyfriend/girlfriend/partner/spouse with gifts, expensive trips or even a lifestyle that to outsiders may appear to be the ideal relationship or marriage. They may encourage their spouse to buy the nicest home in the neighborhood, pick out that dream car they’ve always wanted, surprise them with jewelry or take them to an exclusive resort for vacation each year. But these “gifts” always come with a hefty price tag – obligation. Here’s this beautiful, big home honey; why don’t you quit your job and just stay home? Let’s go on vacation to Aruba this year, but don’t invite your parents. I got a job offer in another state; sure you’ll miss your friends and family, but it comes with a great raise.  Your boss is a jerk, you’d be better off to stay home and be a full-time dad/mom; I’ll take care of us. These gifts, this lifestyle are in essence chains; anchors that bind the victim and create a sense of indebtedness.

These red flags are so subtle, so candy-coated that we miss them – whether as a victim or a family member or friend. We may even be envious until one day we see the crack in the facade. We overhear an argument. We witness an exchange we weren’t meant to see. We notice a decline in their physical or mental health. They seem plagued with constant worry or stressed beyond what seems reasonable. 

Control and manipulation may look like:

Gaslighting – one partner never seems to be able to get it right. It’s always their fault or they didn’t try hard enough. They’re forgetful, lazy, ADHD.

Unpredictability – the abuser keeps you guessing. You never know what to expect in terms of a reaction. One minute they’re easy-going and taking things in stride, the next they go off like a cannon over something small and insignificant. They keep everyone on their toes and on edge.

Relocation, relocation, relocation – if you don’t stay in one place too long, you can’t form a support network or find a job that might offer you the financial means of escape. It’s often disguised as one great job offer after another with a signing bonus or more responsibility. In truth it’s designed to keep you off balance and dependent on them. If you’re always busy packing, moving, looking for or building a new home, unpacking, settling in, getting the kids settled and so on, you don’t have time, energy or resources to even think about leaving. And you’ve probably just said good-bye to family and/or friends that might recognize the unhealthy state you’re in or encourage you to take steps to get out.

Cycles – they may be the ideal girlfriend/boyfriend/partner/spouse for weeks or months at a time. You laugh together, enjoy outings, entertain potential friends or new co-workers. But you know it’s coming… the dark moods, the long days of sitting alone at home because they’re “working late”, the angry outbursts and rants because they had a bad day at work, the name-calling, the shaming. 

Suspicious Minds – constantly questioning your spending: watching your bank account transactions and/or your credit card transactions on a more than monthly basis; monitoring your whereabouts and calling often to see where you are, what you’re doing and who you’re with (above and beyond normal concern or curiosity); accusations of cheating, over-spending, being gone too long or too often, not spending enough time, money or attention on THEM.

Me, me, me, me… – One of the biggest red flags is that life must be about THEM. Situations, plans, conversations, where and how you live, who you spend time with, major decisions – it all revolves around their needs, wants, and desires and there always seems to be something lacking that the victim should be (but isn’t) providing. Again, it’s about manipulation and control. Making the victim feel as though they’re not quite good enough, efficient enough, focused enough, affectionate enough. The list is endless, but the point is to keep the victim feeling as though they are incapable of living life without the abuser at the controls. And it’s effective. 

If all of these warning signs were obvious, few people if any would be living in an abusive or toxic relationship.  It doesn’t happen overnight; it’s subtle and takes place over months, years. As with most grooming situations, it also involves those in the victim’s circle: family, friends, co-workers. They’re shown what they’re meant to see to make them believe that the abuser genuinely loves and cares for this person. To outsiders the abuser is intelligent, charming, the very picture of a doting partner. 

In my upcoming blog I’ll introduce tools for relationship evaluation – whether it’s your own or someone you’re concerned about – as well as some helpful resources for taking next steps. 

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