Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Know If A Relationship is Abusive?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a 28 year old straight female who just got out of a 10 year emotional and physically abusive relationship and I realize that a lot of relationship advice hindered my ability to leave.

I woke up to the fact that what I was experiencing wasn’t “normal” and was able to extricate myself from a very harmful situation, but now in the post mortem, I’m questioning what had happened and how I stayed in something that was so obviously bad for me for so long. 

A part of it is simply not knowing what was normal. You don’t see couples fighting or making up so its hard to know what kinds of things happen on the inside. I always felt like it was normal to be yelled at and called names when my husband got his feelings hurt or was feeling stressed out, and I just felt like it was my own self control that made it so I didn’t do those things back to him. I’m actually thankful for the physical abuse in some twisted way because I KNEW that wasn’t normal and after massive bruises, I had the courage to leave. 

I also have a problem because in our cultural narrative of an abuser, they are someone who is cunning and planning. They know what they are doing and are going for a specific reaction, while my husband’s abuse seemed more about his emotions getting out of control and him reacting in a s

tty way. This convinced me that he wasn’t an abuser for a long time. 

But another part of it was reading about relationship advice. It seemed like most of what I was reading was telling people to not be so picky, that nobody is perfect, there is no “one”, that all couples fight, and it felt like maybe the types of things happening in my relationship were just the normal trials of coupledom. Wanting more felt like I was asking for too much. Yes “All couples fight” but do all couples resort to insults, put downs and swearing? 

I guess long story short, I’m starting to venture out into the dating world and I’m wondering how I can reconcile “these are normal couple fights and problems” with getting in over my head with someone who is an abuser and would take advantage of me? There were dozens of red flags and moments where alarm bells should have (and did) go off in my mind telling me to leave, but I always gave the benefit of the doubt, much to my detriment. 

Thanks for your time

Confused about ‘Normal’


t, CaN. I’m proud of you for getting the hell out of that situation. Don’t punish yourself for not knowing that you were in an abusive relationship sooner than you did. You got out  and you’ve been healing. That’s the important part. The fact that you want to make sure it doesn’t happen to you again? Also incredibly important. I’ll say it again: I’m proud of you for getting out of there.

Now, let’s talk a little about how to recognize an abusive relationship.

Yeah, people in relationships fight to one degree or another. It’s pretty much an inevitability in any relationship – platonic or otherwise – that doesn’t involve clones or stuffed animals. You have two (or more) people, which means you’ve got two (or more) opinions. Sometimes those opinions are going to conflict. Sometimes the conflict can be loud and unpleasant. For some couples, their dynamic is a more or less continual chain of explosions – big blow-ups followed by big make-ups. For others, it’s intense discussions. But there’s arguing about, say, who gets to decide what to watch on Netflix and emotional abuse.

I’ve written before about toxic and abusive relationships before, but one of the keys is simply: how do you feel about your partner? Do you feel like you can never do anything right and that they’re always blaming you for things that go wrong? Are they always undermining you, cutting you down, reminding you of how useless you are or how you should be grateful that you’re with them? Do you feel like you have to apologize for them to others because they “don’t understand”? Do they make you constantly question your own judgement and worry that you’re overreacting or making too much out of an issue? Are you afraid of them? These are all signs of abuse. You know this. Your own Spidey-sense was telling you this was a bad scene. But let’s be honest here: it’s understandable that you brushed off your own alarm bells. Women are socialized constantly to question their own judgement, to believe their instincts are wrong and to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Now let’s talk a little about your husband’s behavior and the behavior of abusers. A lot of people, men and women both, will blame their abusive partner’s behavior on their temper and say that it wasn’t directed, just them flipping out. The first thing I’d want to know – and if you want, you can write back in or tell me in the comments – is when he flipped out, did he ever break, damage or threaten his own possessions? Because I’m willing to bet a fair amount of money that no, he did not.1  A lot of abusers will use the appearance of a temper to help obscure the true meaning behind their behavior. It’s not that he’s abusing you, it’s just that he’s got a hair-trigger and you should’ve known better, etc.

Part of what makes this work in their favor is that most of us don’t want to admit that we may be in an abusive relationship. We all want to think that we’d never let that happen to us, that we could recognize it and get the f

k out as soon as we saw the first hints that things may not be kosher. This mentality – which is pretty damn universal – is part of what leads to people saying “he doesn’t mean to hurt me,” in all seriousness. We are very, very good at convincing ourselves to continue believing what we already want to believe… and nobody wants to believe that they’re in love with a monster. We tell ourselves that “this is just what relationships are like”, and that it’s not that unusual or that bad. You get used to it, you learn how to avoid it, life’s OK as long as you’re very, very careful.

Abusers know this. And they will deliberately use this against their victims. The more they can keep things murky enough, the more we will try to assume the best possible motivation behind it. It can be very hard to break out of that mindset and realize that you’re being abused.

However, let us, for the sake of argument assume that it’s true – that he wasn’t deliberately targeting you. That he really was some sort of rage-monster, thrashing about randomly whenever he Hulk’s out. This is still abuse. If he’s in such a state that he can go from zero to s

t-flinging gorilla and just smash anything within arm’s reach, then he is not safe to be around other people.  The fact that he would continue to assume that no, it’s ok as long as other people don’t piss him off – thus putting the burden on you to monitor him instead of getting help to fix himself is still abuse. “I lose control” is not an excuse for hurting people, physically or emotionally.

But let’s be real here: Bruce Banner types like this are so goddamn rare as to be rage-unicorns. Abusers may not be mustache-twirling cartoon villains or supremely calculating Hannibal Lecter types but they don’t just “accidentally” abuse people. They may not have a complete road-map about what they’re doing and why, but they know damn good and well that they’re behaving in a way that pushes their victims to do what the abuser wants. The “I just get so angry I can’t help myself” dance – usually with an encore performance of “Oh god I’m so sorry, I’m scum, I’m awful, you should get away from me” self-flagellating immediately after is a very, very common display. It’s especially insidious because even the breast-beating, cloth-rending apology puts the onus on you; it’s designed to make you comfort them for their bad behavior. They get you coming and going and keep you off balance.

And then they’re on their best behavior, convincing you that maybe this time they’re sincere. For a while. And then it all happens again.

Is this because they’ve got everything planned out to a fare-thee-well? Not always. But they know that it works and they will use it again and again and again.

In case it isn’t clear, I want to make this very, unbelievably obvious and I want you to write this down somewhere prominent so you can see it every goddamn day: it’s not your fault. Your husband was an abusive s

tbag. You didn’t make him abuse you. You aren’t at fault because you didn’t see things or listen to your instincts. You aren’t to blame because you didn’t recognize it earlier or because you didn’t leave before you did. It. Is. Not Your. Fault.  Nothing excuses abuse. “Nobody’s perfect” doesn’t mean you should put up with someone mistreating you. Not wanting a partner who puts you down, intimidates you or hurts you isn’t “being too picky”, it’s the very definition of “comes standard with all models”.  All couples may fight but insults, threats and emotional manipulation are all signs that s

t is wrong and it’s time to go.

You have your instincts, CaN and they’re clearly good ones. You just have to trust yourself and let yourself listen to them.

Good luck. And write back to let us know how you’re doing.

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