- How do I know if my relationship is abusive?
- To stay or to leave?
- What to do?
- How to offer support
“Intimate partner abuse (IPV) is the term used to describe any form of physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse, including financial control, stalking and harassment. It occurs between opposite- or same-sex intimate partners, who may or may not be married, common law, or living together. It can also continue to happen after a relationship has ended” (Wathen et al, 2014. p.3).
There are typically multiple forms of abuse occurring in a relationship where intimate partner abuse is present. For example, a person may shout insults and blame their partner for something that is not their fault and use guilt tactics or threats to force them into having sex. This example demonstrates psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse.
Some important facts to know about intimate partner violence:
- Domestic violence occurs in families from all walks of life.
- Abuse tends to escalate over time, becoming increasingly more frequent and severe.
- Intimate partner abuse (including dating and spousal violence) is a crime that accounts for one in every four violent crimes reported to the police*
- According to Stats Canada (2013) 80% of victims of police reported IPV are female with the highest rates in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
- Men and women alike can experience intimate partner violence in both same and opposite sex relationships. That said, men who use abuse in relationships tend to resort to more severe and violent forms of abuse over time as compared to women. Women who experience abuse in relationships often fear for their life and face greater barriers to finding safety.
- The rate of domestic violence is likely much higher than we know; it is estimated that 70% of spousal violence is not reported to the police.
How do I know if my relationship is abusive?
Recognizing the signs of an abusive relationship is not always easy or obvious. Often people doubt if what they are experiencing is abuse. Coming to understand a relationships as abusive is often a process. Feelings of shame and self-blame often accompany the realization. Comments such as “How did I let this happen to me?” or ” I should have done something to make it stop” reflect the extent to which self-blame can become internalized. Partners often feel “weak” and at fault for the condition of their relationship.
Depending on the faith tradition you were raised in, you may have heard teachings on how women are to submit to their husbands and how men are the head of the household. Too often the words of the New Testament have been used to justify abusive and controlling relationships. For a deeper understanding of the meanings of biblical passages dealing with gender relationships and marriage, please see the resource “Created Equal” or the section on “Biblical responses to difficult questions“
Jesus taught the way of non-violence, compassion, and love. And Paul, in Colossians 3, calls all people to live lives that reflect humility, patience, gentleness, compassion, and love. Controlling and abusive behaviours, such as those listed below, have no place in love. Christ calls us to treat one another with honour and respect; this includes how we treat our spouse, partner, or significant other.
The health of a relationship exists on a continuum from healthy to unhealthy to abusive. In an unhealthy relationship partners may not know how to communicate or listen well, disagree and resolve conflict, or address concerns in respectful ways. Couples that have unhealthy ways of communicating and addressing conflict can benefit from couples counselling and learning relationship skills. A relationship moves from unhealthy to abusive when one partner’s actions become controlling, scary, violent, or manipulative.
A healthy, loving, and respectful relationship demonstrates equality and mutuality. That means that the needs, feelings, and opinions of both partners are valued and are respected. Both individuals should feel free to share their opinions, boundaries, and hopes without fear.
Signs of an unhealthy or abusive relationship
- Put-downs, name-calling, blaming
- Minimizing your feelings and experience
- Verbal threats
- Silent treatment
- Feel like you are walking on eggshells; fear your partner’s reactions
- Jealousy, preventing friendships
- Controlling activities and money
- Unwanted physical or sexual contact
- Pressuring or guilting you into sex
- Pushing, grabbing, choking, shoving
- Public or private humiliation
- Lack of respect for your feelings and opinions
Signs of a healthy relationship
- Support and encouragement
- Freedom to have your own opinions
- Freedom to connect with friends, socialize, and pursue personal interests
- Trust and mutuality
- Shared decision making
- Physical and emotional safety
- Respectful consensual sex between intimate partners
- Respect for privacy
- Mutual care and nurturing
- Acceptance for who you are
To stay or to leave?
Depending on your personal beliefs, convictions, and faith you may have an opinion as to whether an individual in an abusive relationship should stay with their partner or leave. Here are some important things to consider:
Abuse in relationships is unacceptable. Christ desires all people to live in life-giving relationships with one another that are free of harm and abuse.
Abuse is not the same as conflict. All relationships involve conflict and difficulties that require commitment and work. However, we should never think of an abusive relationship as a marital difficulty that just needs to be worked out. Usually, non-abusive conflict in a relationship decreases as the partners mature, but if abuse is present it escalates.
Abuse in relationships typically follows a pattern that gets worse over time if the person abusing doesn’t get help. Click here for information on how the cycle of abuse works.
A victim’s safety is always the primary concern. Regardless of whether the person experiencing abuse stays in the relationship or leaves, their right to and need for safety is most crucial. Thus, if someone chooses to stay in a relationship, their safety continues to be the number one priority. Creating a safety plan is a good way for a person to pre-mediate how they can keep themselves safe when their partner gets escalated.
There are many reasons why someone might stay in an abusive relationship:
- They love their partner and believe he/she will change
- They are scared to be without their partner
- They have kids and don’t know how they will support them alone
- They are afraid of what the abusive partner will do if they leave
- They fear losing family, community, or church support if they leave
- They have been told or believe it is a sin to leave a partner; divorce is wrong under any circumstances.
- They are financially dependent on their partner
- They are afraid that no one will believe or support them if they leave
- They have been led to believe that the abuse is their fault
- They do not realize they are experiencing abuse because it has become so normal.
There is no clear-cut right thing to do if you are in a relationship with an abusive person. The important thing is that you know that you deserve to be treated with love, respect, and kindness. Regardless of whether someone chooses to stay or leave, support is everything! Please consider reaching out for support or help so you do not need to go through this alone.
“He says he will change”
There is help for people who use violence in relationships, and change is possible. It is important to remember that using violence in a relationship is a difficult pattern to break and typically requires at least two years of ongoing therapy and accountability support.
Those who use violence in relationships will often have justifications for their behaviour. But there are no acceptable excuses, and the victim is never at fault or to blame.
Promises to change need to be followed up with action. The person using abuse must take responsibility to seek help in making change. It’s tempting to believe that when an individual promises to stop acting violently, they will. However, without professional help the abusive pattern will likely not stop.
Some possible signs of change:
*Credit: Michael Sexton, Charlotte, NC @ TheRaveProject.org
- Has your partner completely stopped saying and doing things that frighten you?
- Can you express anger without being punished for it?
- Does it feel safe to bring up topics that you know your partner disagrees with?
- Can your partner listen to your opinion and respect it, even when disagreeing with you?
- Does your partner argue without being abusive or having to be right?
- Does your partner respect your wishes about sex and physical contact?
- Has your partner stopped expecting you to do things that you may not want to do?
- Can you spend time with friends or family without being afraid that your partner will retaliate? Can you do other things that are important to you, such as go to school or get a job?
- Are you comfortable with the way your partner interacts with the children?
- Do you feel safe leaving the children with your partner?
- Does your partner support you and give compliments?
- Does your partner listen to what you have to say?
Click here for further info on what is required for change.
What to do?
If you are experiencing abuse in your intimate relationship or marriage, you are not alone and you are not to blame! You may feel shame, isolated, and worried about what other people think. These are all common feelings to have.
No matter what your partner has told you, you deserve to be treated with respect, kindness, and love. No one deserves to be controlled through violent, demeaning, or manipulative actions and words.
If you are unsure as to whether what you are experiencing is abuse, you may want to take some time to read through the ‘How do I know if my relationship is abuse” section and look at some of the resources which may help you to better understand the dynamics in your relationship.
Here are some further steps or options to consider:
- If you are in immediate danger call 911
- Talk to someone you trust who you know will support you and listen non-judgementally ( e.g. crisis line, supportive friend or family member). Click here for a list of crisis numbers categorized by province that you can call to talk to a counsellor free of charge. Also, thehotline.org has a live chat feature.
- Develop a safety plan so that when the abuse escalates you have some strategies for keeping yourself safe.
- Be aware that the pressure on the victim escalates when she/he seeks to make change through disclosure or attempts to get help.
- If you do not feel safe in your home consider staying elsewhere such as at a friend’s home or shelter. Click here for list of shelters in Canada.
- Consider seeing a counsellor who can offer you support and help you better understand your experience. Couples Counselling is not advised. See Finding A Good Therapist for further suggestions.
- Abuse in an intimate relationship is a crime and the victim has the choice to report to the police (and this can be an agonizing decision). Typically when domestic violence is disclosed to law enforcement the police will investigate and press charges if they have enough reason to believe the violence occurred. Click here more information about making a police report.
- If you need protection from an individual who is abusing or stalking you, another option is to apply for a protection order through the court.
- Look for a support group in your community. MCC B.C. runs support groups throughout the year, and MCC Manitoba offers them to faith communities or groups by request.
Other support groups in Manitoba:
- Evolve Family Violence Counselling – Klinic Community Health
- Domestic Violence Resource Map – Winnipeg
Here are a list of websites that may offer further help and understanding:
- Learn the basics – FaithTrust
- Shelters in Canada
- Resources and services by province
Cross Cultural Resources
- Abuse is wrong in any language ( available in 10 languages)
- Telling Our Stories: Immigrant women’s resilience:graphic novel
- Recognizing and Responding to Intimate Partner Violence: Resource guide for refugee resettlement assistance programs in Ontario
- Immigrant Power and Control Wheel
How to offer support?
Often people feel like it is not their place to offer help if they recognize that abuse is occurring in the intimate relationship of a friend or family member. If you are concerned that someone you know might be experiencing abuse, it is completely okay to express your concern, name what you’re noticing, and ask if there is anything you can do to help.
For example, you may want to ask: “are you afraid?” Name specific actions; e.g. “it looks like you’re not able to make your own choices about what you wear.” You do not need to label what you see as abuse with the person for whom you are concerned. Sometimes using this language causes people to recoil and as they may not be comfortable thinking about what they are experiencing as abuse.
If someone discloses to you that they are being controlled or abused by their partner it likely means that they see you as a safe and trustworthy person. Honour and acknowledge the courage it took to disclose what for most feels like extremely vulnerable and risky information to share.
These are the most supportive things you can do:
- Listen non-judgementally, assure them that the abuse is not their fault.
- Remember that the person experiencing abuse is the expert in their situation. Rather than respond with what you think the person should do, remember that the dynamics of an abusive relationship are complex and there is no “right” thing for the person do. . Empower them to make their own choices.
- Offer to help create a safety plan.
- Refer them to an agency with further resources and staff trained in helping victims of abuse.
- Rather than assume you know what the person needs, ask them! “Is there anything I can do to help you?” “What would be helpful?”
- Sometimes when people are overwhelmed by their situation or in crisis in can be helpful to list various options of ways you could help them find support. For example, “Would you find it helpful to talk to a counsellor?”
- Respect confidentiality and privacy. It’s up to the individual who they want to tell and if they want to make a police report. Ask them if they want you to tell anyone else
- If you believe someone is in immediate danger, call the police.
- How to Help a Victim of Domestic Violence
- For Families, Friends, and Neighbors: Your support can make a difference
- Opening the Door: A Pastor’s guide to addressing domestic violence in premarital counselling
- Abigail’s Veil: A Domestic violence handbook for clergy and church leaders
- God’s Reconciling Love: A pastor’s handbook on domestic violence