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By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

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No relationship is perfect. But some are so imperfect that they are more of a negative influence than a positive one. If this sounds like your relationship, you might think that you just need to fix a few things to be happy together. And, maybe that’s true. But it might also be that your relationship is abusive, and that you are better off getting out now – even if you choose at some later date to reconcile. If you are unsure whether this advice applies to you, it is important that you understand abuse.

Domestic abuse is, at its core, an issue of power and control. It can be enacted on emotional, physical, or sexual levels. So, you might be in an abusive relationship even if your partner has never physically harmed you. But, in whatever form it takes, an abusive partner is controlling.

There are seven basic areas in which power and control are exercised. As you read about them below, it is important to know that the controlling behaviors may not be apparent from outside the relationship. In fact, very often victims of abuse struggle with their partner being perceived as a “great guy” (or “great girl”). And, even from within the relationship, victims can get confusing messages. They might see their partner as being great in so many ways, and yet still feel emotionally harmed by them. If you are in such a situation, it is essential for you to pay attention to your emotions. Something about how you are being treated is not acceptable – no matter how wonderful your partner may sometimes seem.

With this in mind, the basic areas of abuse are:

Psychological and emotional abuse: The abusive person degrades their partner in many ways. They might make disparaging remarks about their appearance or abilities, call them names, or humiliate them. They might also accuse their partner of having affairs. And, it’s not unusual for them to be demanding to the point of treating their partner like a servant. All along, they keep their partner on the defensive and often accuse their partner of being the cause of their own abusive behavior.

Threats and intimidation: The abusive person acts in many ways that keep their partner afraid and anxious. They do this through threatening looks and actions, as well as verbal threats. They might essentially stalk their partner, monitoring all their actions. They sometimes threaten to physically harm their partner or children, or to destroy their possessions. When abused people finally stand up for themselves and threaten to leave, their abusers will sometimes threaten to kill themselves in a desperate attempt to maintain control.

Physical abuse: Abuse includes any physical aggression, such as pinching, shoving, slapping, punching, hair-pulling, and choking. Throwing things at a partner and harming them with weapons are certainly also physically abusive behaviors.

If you are in such a situation, it is important to understand that nothing justifies these behaviors. The person who acts in these ways is responsible for their actions no matter what has provoked them. They could have always chosen to act differently, including walking away rather than being abusive.

Sexual abuse: Even if you are married or living together, no one has the right to force sexual acts upon another person. When they do, it is abusive.

Isolation: Abusive partners often limit and control their partner’s activities. They decide what their partners can do and whom their partners can interact with. These actions alienate their partners from friends and family.

Economic abuse: Many abusive people control their partners through economic means. They will prevent their partner from getting a job and limit their access to money. In doing this, they put their partner in a subservient and dependent role.

Using children: Many women stay in relationships because their partners control them with demeaning comments and threats related to their children. Their partners might put down their abilities to parent, lie to the children about them, or threaten to have their children taken from them.

If you can relate to any of the above areas, then you may be in an abusive relationship. Take the time to learn more about domestic violence. Check out the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233). Also, talk with supportive friends, family, and professionals (such as a therapist or your primary care provider) to help sort out your relationships issues and to get the guidance you need.