At one of my empowerment training seminars, one of the participants shyly hung around me during a break. I could tell that she wanted to ask me something, but she seemed embarrassed and reluctant to speak. It was like she couldn’t find her own voice. After a few minutes, I stepped over to her and asked her if she had any questions. She cleared her throat, then proceeded timidly and cautiously to ask me this question: “How can I tell if I am in an unhealthy relationship?”
“Wow!” I thought, “What a great question!” This is a question that we should be boldly asking ourselves and, not only that, teaching our sons and daughters the answer so they can better evaluate their relationships.
So, what’s the answer? Unhealthy/abusive relationships are generally based on two components: Power and Control. In other words, one person is dominating, or exerting power and control over the other person in the relationship. And the more power and control the one person exerts over the other, usually determines how unhealthy or abusive the relationship is.
What does this look like in a relationship? Well, someone exerting power and control over you might try to intimidate you by yelling, getting in your face, breaking things, driving recklessly, or threatening to harm you, your family or friends, or even themselves. They may even threaten to commit suicide if you don’t do what they say.
They may disrespect your privacy by reading personal notes, going through your things, or reading messages on your phone. They may try to control your decisions, for example about what you wear or how you look. They may act like your boss, trying to make all your decision for you about what to do, where to go, or who you can talk to.
Another common power tactic is to try to humiliate you by calling you names, putting you or your family down, or inappropriately touching you in public. And, as if that weren’t enough, they may blame you for any or all of the above behaviors that they do.
The man I dated in college did pretty much all of those things. He only allowed me to wear men’s Levis and sweatshirts that he bought for me at the local Army Surplus store. He told me how to wear my hair and makeup so as not to attract any attention to myself. He would become extremely jealous if another guy even looked at me. The reason he told me that worked out like a body builder was that he wanted to be able to walk into any place, look around, and know that he could beat up any guy there. That, he explained, was his way of “protecting” me. He isolated me from my family, telling me that they were no good for me. And I could only have friends that he approved of – the wives of his “buddies”. And all of that was only the beginning.
That was the man who ended up raping me, abusing me, and, temporarily, destroying me.
So, what should you do if that describes your relationship with your significant partner? My gut answer is: Run. Get out of there. Everyone, and I mean everyone including you, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
Then find counseling. Speaking with an objective, trained 3rd party can be so helpful in sorting out what is going on and what you can do about it. If you can’t find a counselor, therapist, pastor, or helpline, then contact me. But talk to someone outside of the relationship. Not someone who will try to make decisions for you or tell you what to do. But someone who can guide you and support you. Someone who can help you find your own voice.
It takes courage to look at your relationship without the sunglasses of denial. It takes even more courage to leave an unhealthy relationship. But you deserve it.