Identifying Abusive Behaviors: Potential Warning Signs and How to Get Help
16th March 2023
By Megan Brown
I originally wrote this piece anonymously 2 years ago as I was scared of my abuser finding out I wrote about him, but now, I know he cannot do anything. I hope this will also offer a feeling of hope for anyone who reads this.
Recognising abusive behaviors in any relationship, be it familial, platonic, or romantic, has always been difficult. Discussions regarding these behaviors has always been faced with a collective reluctance in society due to a long running social stigma that has been in place since the late 19th century; a stigma that has prevented so many abuse victims seeking help for fear they will be shamed for “accepting” the abuse, for feeling embarrassed that they “allowed” this to happen to them.
However, this past decade has seen the confrontation of the outdated idea of abusive relationships being a taboo subject. Campaigners and representation in popular media, such as nightly soaps, has had a crucial impact upon the conversation regarding abuse and domestic violence. Social media has furthered the conversation online, with pages on Instagram, Twitter and Reddit dedicated to offering advice and support to relationship abuse survivors, encouraging those affected to speak up, and giving advice on which behaviors are red flags in a relationship. These all help in further chipping away at an ingrained social stigma.
But, it is the unfortunate truth that many people don’t know they are being abused or have experienced abusive behaviours until after the fact.
I was one of these people.
From the ages of 15-18, I was in an abusive relationship with a man we will call X. At first, everything felt normal, there was no screaming or hitting, X was my best friend. Then, my only friend. Then, the only thing I could think about, and suddenly I wasn’t having fun anymore. I wanted my mum to help, I wanted to tell my grandmother something was wrong but I didn’t know what, and I had no idea why I was so scared and depressed all the time.
Looking back now in my twenties, I realise I was in an abusive relationship and knowing what I know now, I’m going to tell you the behaviours I wished I had questioned at the time, as these were indicators of abuse.
The first thing I wish I had picked up on was how X acted towards my family. To some, this may seem incredibly obvious, but for me this is something I wish I had questioned. I didn’t understand why X had such a dislike to my grandmother, why he badmouthed her to me and expected me to be okay with him insulting her. I didn’t understand why those two never got along and why the living room was so frosty when X visited my home after school. However, hindsight is 20/20, and I now realise it’s because she would not let his questionable acts towards me go unnoticed – when she would stop him from “jokingly” calling me names, it was her way of saying she noticed, that he was not as unseen as he thought. Out of the pair, she had the most control over me, as my guardian, and he despised her for that. I believe his negative attitude towards my grandmother was the beginning of my isolation. She was not good for me, he said, she was cruel, and she didn’t understand me, not like he did. That only pushed me closer towards him and pulled me away from the people I loved most.
If your significant other doesn’t like your mum and it doesn’t make sense, ask yourself what’s the reason? If they try to turn you against your family or pull you away from your support network, you are at risk. That is abusive behaviour, and it is not healthy.
Another thing to pay attention to is how you feel around your significant other when they are frustrated, irritated or angry. While any advice on abusive partners usually focuses on how your significant other shows negative emotions, I find it important to also register how you, yourself, are feeling in these moments. Whenever X was angry, it was never loud, he was always quiet and, in some ways, I found that worse. I didn’t know what he was thinking during his moments of anger and there was always an unknown threat in the air. He’s so much bigger than me, what if he hurts me? Where do I run to? He won’t, but what if he does? What do I do? Dread and panic like a damoclean sword ready to fall on my head at any given time. X never went for me in his quiet moments, he only ever hit the walls, but the feeling and the threat was always present. What if one day, I’m there instead of the wall? These moments made me hate silence of any kind and, even to this day, I need to hear something, or that familiar feeling of dread will return and sit heavy in my chest.
If the thought of making your significant other angry or frustrated scares you or makes you worry in any way, register that feeling and ask yourself is this okay? Is that normal? From my experience, it isn’t.
Lastly, one behaviour to look out for is how your significant other reacts to being joked about or challenged. This one may seem strange; however, this is something I found myself noticing time and time again in my previous relationship. X always took himself seriously, you couldn’t joke about him or make him feel foolish, he didn’t like it. At the start of our relationship, he’d roll his eyes or pointedly ignore any jokes I made about him. As time progressed, however, his responses became crueller with him insulting me in response, no humour or light in his tone like there was mine. He’d always laugh whenever my smile dropped, then told me to stop being so serious. That way, I was always the problem, I could never take a joke. In the end, it was a poor choice to challenge him. I once made a joke and referenced Lord of the Rings, you have no power here. Instead of laughing, he sent me a text ten minutes later with every intimate picture and video I had ever sent him, and a picture of my mother’s contact details. He threatened to blackmail me over a harmless reference. When I let X know how angry and upset I was, he only mocked me and said next time watch what you say. That is when I knew something was wrong, for the first time in 3 years I acknowledged that this wasn’t right and that is when I told my best friend. Being overly controlling and dominating to the point of harm is not harmless fun, it can turn nasty quickly.
If your significant other seems to go “too far” all the time, start to consider the possibility they are trying to break you down or show that they will always be in control. This is abusive behaviour.
While there are so many more behaviours I could list, from my experience, these are things that I wished I had registered sooner as it could’ve prevented me from going through 3 years of abuse.
I wasn’t the one to end the relationship, X was. I only got out because he decided that he didn’t want to be with me anymore, and at first I was angry and upset, it was like my entire world had been ripped away. But, when I started to think about it a huge sense of relief washed over me. I didn’t understand why I felt relief, it was only in the coming months having discussed it with my best friend and later my grandmother, that I realised the behaviours I experienced were not normal and that the relief I felt came from the knowledge that I would no longer be under his control, that I wouldn’t have to stop everything I was doing to answer his texts, to tell him what I was wearing while I was in the middle of a lesson. These feelings have left a lasting impact upon me and how I view myself, how I respond to anger and any change of tone in conversation and that is something I still need help with.
If you need help in any way – talking about your experience, asking questions on what is healthy in a relationship, reporting abuse – there is always help available.
If you are in immediate danger, contact the emergency services – you can set up a text relay with the police by registering your phone number at https://www.emergencysms.net/. This allows contact with police without the need to speak.
Something to remember: you can always talk to your friends and family about what you have experienced. They’ll want to help you and make sure you’re okay, it may feel embarrassing to do so but having this support network will make processing what has happened less of a challenge.
On campus at Kent University, we have Student Support and Wellbeing who will make sure you get the help you need; they can be reached online through the university website, we have the community action group Respect The No that can offer advice and support regarding the reporting process, talking about your experience or just answering your questions. Respect The No can be reached on Instagram, someone will always answer your message.
Off-campus resources are available if you would feel more comfortable reaching out to them; charities such as Women’s Aid, Refuge, ManKind, the Men’s Advice Line are all available online 24/7.
The Beech House offers support for those that have been the victim of sexual abuse, they work specifically in the Kent and Medway area and can be reached online, you can also reach out to your GP or to any sexual health clinic, they will make sure you are safe.
I hope that if you need this, it helps. There is always support available, that is something I wish I had realised at the time; you don’t have to go through this by yourself.