Abuse: Where to Draw the Line

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so I thought it was an appropriate time to address the common question as to where to draw the line between problems in a relationship versus abuse. Most people discount the term “abuse” if they have not been physically assaulted. This is unfortunate because many are threatened and intimidated by their partners, but do not realize that it fits an abusive pattern and therefore, they do not seek help. If it feels more comfortable to replace the word “abuse” with “bullying,” go right ahead. What is important is to understand and to digest the information, not the word you choose to use.

In addition, I am referring to the abusive partner as “he” and you, the reader, as “she.” However, many men find themselves in abusive relationships and experience difficulty in standing up to their partners, though the reasons for staying in an abusive relationship often differ between the sexes. The behavioral patterns described here can apply to men or to anyone who finds themselves in an abusive dynamic.

The most important thing to consider is if there is a pattern of pathological or abusive behavior. In a healthy relationship, if your partner lashes out in anger, he is not intending to disempower you by “putting you in your place.” In fact, he is likely to feel remorse (taking responsibility) for his or her behavior and how it made you feel (empathy) after the fact. There is typically some attempt made toward reconciliation. Your partner’s actions consistently match his words.

In an unhealthy relationship, there is a clear pattern of lashing out at you, blaming you for the lashing and not taking responsibility for the abusive behavior. An abuser makes you pay for confronting him by punishing you in the way he knows will cause you the most distress. The things your partner tells you are often inconsistent with the way he behaves. The pattern is cyclical and is usually apparent across multiple areas of an abuser’s life, not just with you.

If you’re in an unhealthy relationship, it is common to not want to rock the boat by speaking up for yourself. You may have tried to voice your feelings in the past, but the price was far too high, and you’ve since decided it simply wasn’t worth it. If this is the case, it is important to look at the bigger dynamic in the relationship. You are giving your partner the power to bully you as you attempt to make yourself smaller and smaller. In the short term, you may save yourself a fight, but in the long run, you lose yourself completely.

You have the right to say when something is not all right and make a clear distinction between what is acceptable behavior and what is not. If your partner respects your right to speak up and the boundary you have set forth, there is hope that the unhealthy way of relating can change.

If your partner’s abusive behavior escalates in any way (verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually) as you assert yourself, this is a clear indication that it is not ever going to get better. If your partner tries to manipulate you into staying in the relationship by threatening suicide or threatening to take the children, this is an attempt to control you. Sadly, this is significantly more likely to be the case if you are in an abusive relationship, given the very basic nature of an abuser.

It is important to take a step back and look at what is happening to you in the relationship. Is there room for you and for your needs? Do you feel respected and valued by your partner? Do you feel free to really be yourself or do you have to hide parts of yourself so as not to create disharmony? These are just a few questions to consider when evaluating whether or not you are in a destructive dynamic.

Recognizing that you may be in an abusive relationship isn’t easy. It can be quite confusing and painful to acknowledge that the person you love is harming you. It is normal to feel this way. Know that you should feel supported by your partner, not that he or she is continually working against you. You are worthy of a relationship where you are respected and valued. You (and your children) have the right to feel safe.



Avery Neal, PhD is a practicing psychotherapist, international author and speaker. In 2012 she opened Women’s Therapy Clinic, which offers psychiatric and counseling support to women. She specializes in depression and anxiety at all stages in a woman’s life.

Dr. Neal is the author of, If He’s So Great, Why Do I Feel So Bad?: Recognizing and Overcoming Subtle Abuse, which has been translated and published in twelve languages. Her articles and interviews have been published by Oprah.com, American Counseling Association, Counseling Today, BookTrib, Best Self Magazine, Hitched Magazine, Bustle, POPSUGAR and PKWY Magazine, and her courses have been taken by over 18,000 people worldwide. The International Association of HealthCare Professionals nominated her as one of the top psychologists in Houston.