The beginning of the end started with a pointed finger jabbed into Rita’s shoulder. It was just forceful enough to knock her off balance and leave a slight bruise … but not a huge deal, right? Wrong!
Rita had been dating Mitch for a year and a half. The Dallas couple had begun their relationship with strong attraction, intense feelings, and high expectations. Mitch was a guy his friends would describe as “high strung.” He was known to get into shouting matches when discussing the latest Cowboys’ loss, and he sometimes blew his cool during fiercely contested racquetball matches. No doubt, he was hot-blooded, passionate, and emotive. Which was one thing Rita liked about him initially — he wasn’t afraid to express his feelings toward her and make a big show of how much he loved her. But as the months went by, it became more and more evident that Mitch had a hard time controlling the emotions he felt so strongly.
As their relationship settled into a predictable routine — and the ecstatic feelings of new love wore off — Mitch had begun to yell at Rita over minor mistakes. Discussions became heated debates. Soon he started regularly lobbing verbal hand grenades — putdowns, sarcastic remarks, belittling names. And then came that finger jab into Rita’s shoulder, and she knew their relationship had crossed an unfortunate threshold. It wasn’t much longer before she gently broke the news to Mitch — their relationship was over. A nasty break-up, to be sure, with accusations and threats by Mitch, but Rita stuck to her decision while being cautious to protect herself in the process.
How did Rita find the courage to end the relationship when it started to go sour — and abusive? She explains: “I’d had friends who got entangled in toxic dating relationships where they ended up being physically abused — slapped and punched by their boyfriends,” she said. “I knew that once a relationship started heading in that destructive direction, there’s little chance it will turn around. Once the red flags begin showing up, it’s best to get out and move on as quickly as possible.”
This problem is more widespread than we’d all like to admit. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, from 25 to 50 percent of all women in heterosexual relationships are abused in some way. When we hear the words “abusive relationships,” our minds immediately go to the most obvious and apparent forms — physical or sexual assault. But there is a continuum of abusive behavior that ranges from subtle to obvious. Emotional abuse can be as damaging as physical abuse, though it is often harder to recognize. This kind of “covert warfare” causes self-esteem problems and psychological damage. And this situation certainly is not unique to women — men are also the victims of abusive relationships as well.
Further, what Rita said was correct: Abusive relationships are almost always progressive — they only get worse over time. Emotional and verbal abuse frequently changes to more overt threats or physical abuse, particularly in times of stress.
Although it’s impossible to go into detail in this short space, let’s look at several behaviors that qualify as an abusive relationship:
Intimidation. Does your partner make you afraid by using menacing expressions, posture, gestures, and tone of voice? Does he make threats—or even carry them out—to harm you? Does he bully you to get his way?
Belittling. Does your partner put you down or try to make you feel inferior? Does he embarrass you or make fun of you in front of others?
Harassment. Does your partner call or text you excessively? Does he follow you or show up to make sure you are where you said you’d be?
Isolation. Does your partner try to control what you do, where you go, and who you talk to? Does he try to keep you away from certain friends or family members?
Emotional abuse. Does your partner manipulate you or play “mind games”? Does he minimize your feelings, dismiss your complaints, or blame you for all the problems? Does he exhibit “Jekyll-and-Hyde” behavior: nice one moment, nasty the next?
Unwanted sexual advances. Does your partner ever touch you inappropriately? Does he pressure you sexually for things you aren’t ready for?
Physical boundary violations of any kind. Does your partner treat you roughly—grab, shake, push, shove, or hit? Does he restrain you from leaving?
The bottom line is this: You deserve a healthy, respectful, loving relationship. Refuse to settle for anything less! If you see warning signs that your relationship is turning abusive, then do yourself a huge favor — move on to someone who will treat you with utmost care and kindness.
For more detailed information about abusive relationships, please see: The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Also see: Women’s Center at University of Virginia, Sexual and Domestic Violence Services.