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February 28, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Are you in an abusive relationship?

A few years ago, I discovered my boyfriend of the time had cheated on me and pelted him with his belongings, telling him to take them all and leave. Blinded by anger, I hadn’t realised I was standing in front of the one exit to the room.

“I’ll go,” he cried, desperation in his eyes, “Just please, stop hitting me.” Time stopped for a moment and I saw what he must have seen in me, an ugly person feeling ugly emotions trying to get them all out at once. Shocked, I stopped and walked out. I have never been engaged in a physical confrontation since. I found something ugly inside of myself, and knew it had to go. The worst part was that in his eyes (well, both of our eyes initially), I was still the wronged party. He had done something wrong and took the consequences—my physical abuse. I recovered instantly and never slipped back into a viewpoint where I could ‘punish’ someone, but he took much longer. Coming from a broken home, he felt his role as punching bag was entirely appropriate, and our relationship as relatively normal. We were lucky. It took no longer than six months before the emotional abuse from either side ended, and our relationship ended for different reasons, with neither of us today back in an abusive relationship. But our story is not a typical one, as we were shocked into change, and changed together, without slipping back into another abusive relationship.

In New Zealand, abusive relationships (or domestic violence) involve violence towards anyone who you live with (share/shared a domestic situation with), and the violence itself can be physical, psychological or sexual. So, to broaden that up, if your partner makes unwanted physical contact with you with the intent or outcome to hurt you, that’s physical abuse, and you never deserve to be physically hurt. If your partner makes unwanted sexual contact with you, that’s sexual abuse, and regardless of the relationship, that’s not OK. Rape always ‘counts’, even if you are in a relationship—you can always say no. Psychological abuse is when your partner deliberately acts to control, manipulate, or upset you, and again, it is abuse, and it is not normal or acceptable within any relationship.

Because abuse is about control, the abused feel as if they have no ability to escape—for example, they may be threatened (“if you leave, I’ll kill you,” “Do that again and I’ll give you a hiding,” “if you leave, I’ll tell everyone you’re a slut”), made afraid for others (“tell anyone and I’ll beat up your friends,”), controlled through humiliation (being made to feel worthless), or have their money, time, car, or contact with friends controlled to maintain power over them. A common response to those who are aware of the abuse is that they ‘asked for it,’ or did something to deserve their treatment. Similarly, abuse is often justified by the abuser as a loss of control, or unintentional anger. It is a fantastic coincidence that people who are unable to deal with their frustration always believe they have found a partner who inspires anger at every turn. Anger in an abusive relationship is not treated as an ‘anger problem’ by abusers, as it would be if they treated their peers the same way. Violent abusers control their partners with violence in a cold and calculating way—not with accidental, ‘heat of the moment’ actions. Wounds are inflicted in a certain way, with a certain intent: for example, hits to the face to stop them from going out in public, or hits to the body/back of head to hide the abuse.

Further, there is simply no excuse in terms of why abuse is the chosen method of control. Children can be disciplined more effectively without violence (the American Academy of Pediatrics website has a great summary of the countless studies proving this), and hitting an adult is not only assault but morally reprehensible.

Generally everyone else notices how unhealthy a relationship is before those within it do. Abuse is about control, with one partner trying to maintain a grip over the other, and the controlling one may feel there is nothing wrong with their actions—indeed, the controlling one may feel they are in a healthy relationship! As abuse is generally gradually incremental, that is, it starts small and gets worse, the abused partner may not notice their slide into depression, or that they are adapting to a heavily controlled life, until leaving seems impossible.

The media is unhelpful when it comes to how we should behave. We regularly find scenes of men throwing women up against the wall to kiss them, where surprise and disgust turns to lust; punching the new romantic partner of your ex to show how you feel; and hopefuls never giving up on the object of their affection, who often doesn’t know they even exist, and eventually winning them over. Translated into real life, we can easily terrify and horrify our loved ones. Throwing a woman against the wall to kiss her can amount to sexual assault—acting in a way which assumes that the other partner will simply go along with your wishes is not only dangerous, but disrespectful. If your former partner’s emotion only ignites when they see you act violently, even if you do get back together, how would you resolve problems within your relationship, and how would you keep them interested? Following the object of your affection without making actual face-to-face advances can undoubtedly scare your target—in fact, stalking at American universities is so common that it is rarely reported.

The most frustrating thing about abusive relationships is the seeming lack of change. While leaving the relationship may be preferred, the abused partner has many reasons to stay, and leaving is usually more dangerous than staying- abusers become unpredictable and more violent. Violence across the board, especially murder, increases in severity and likelihood in the first few months after the partner leaves. Most commonly, the abused partner has had their money and social life restricted, giving them few places to go, and little means to support themselves.

Relationships are not like other social connections, where you choose to confront bullies or scuttle out of their way. People in a relationship have feelings, resources, attachments and, indeed, one’s life, intertwined and invested in each other. The first thing to remember is that it isn’t the abused person’s responsibility to leave—it is the abuser’s responsibility to stop abusing their partner, and the abuser needs to be confronted with their actions and options as much as the abused.

The concern with University students, and younger, is that everyone is still finding their feet in terms of what is and isn’t a ‘normal’ relationship. We are still learning the ins and outs of how to treat our intimate partners. It is important to think about what a ‘good’ relationship is to you, and what kind of a partner you are, and what kind of a partner you have. The University counselling service is a great place for talking these things through. Remember, an abusive relationship doesn’t immediately end your quality of life. Beginning a lifetime of abuse, however, will.


  • Most abusive relationships escapate in intensity: /index.php?section=29
  • Definitions: /Glossary.aspx
  • Psychological abuse quote Vachss, Andrew. 1994
  • “You Carry the Cure In Your Own Heart.” Parade, 28 August 1994
  • Reasons the abused may stay in the relationship—
  • Feelings of fear increase attraction: Dutton, D.G and P. A Andarthur, “Some Evidence for Heightened Sexual Attraction Under Conditions of High Anxiety, ” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1974) Vol. 30, No. 4. pp510-517
  • Nearly 80% of girls who have been physically abused in their intimate relationships continue to date their abuser. (Liz Claiborne Inc. study conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited; February 2005.)
  • Stalking and University students:

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