On abusive and nonabusive relationships

On abusive and nonabusive relationships. Photo by Brady. Taken at Burning Man 2016

On abusive and nonabusive relationships. Photo by Brady. Taken at Burning Man 2016

“Brady, I just don’t know. Am I in an abusive relationship?”

Truthfully, this conversation comes up so often, and I love what happens when it does. There’s so much education and personal growth opportunities in these conversations, as frustrating and scary as they may be to have, that in many ways these conversations become important and necessary.

To start, it can be difficult to honestly ask yourself if a relationship you are in is abusive or not. It’s challenging even approaching that conversation because it means admitting that things probably aren’t exactly as you’d like them to be. Importantly, there is a huge distinction between being in a relationship that is great, that isn’t exactly as you’d like, or nonabusive, and being in one that is abusive.

What is nonabusive, you may ask? Well, figuring it out means discerning the vast spectrum of neutral relational behavior that isn’t exactly abusive, hostile, or trauma inducing. Neutral, like, offering a friend hot chamomile tea when they aren’t having caffeine, asking a friend to go for an afternoon run, allowing another person to initiate a conversation, unsolicited advice, and the like. Is any of that implicitly abusive? I’d offer: not really. Now, some of those may be things someone would absolutely love, and they would probably call them healthy or loving, and for some, they would call it unwanted or abusive. However, from my vantage point, many relational actions are neutral, but are interpreted as healthy or abusive, not necessarily because they are implicitly one way or the other.

To this end, deciphering if another person’s actions in a relationship are abusive or not is more than simply figuring out what is healthy and what is abusive, but more closely determining what is done, first, and how it is felt, second. It is a two-fold process, with lots of extra subprocesses throughout, which, in many ways, people quickly want to be a singular and simple process. This is where I find a lot of people reaching for convenient answers of whether or not a relationship is abusive, convincing themselves to stay in or leave a relationship based on what they want it to be more than what is actually happening.

Many relational actions are neutral, but are interpreted as healthy or abusive, not necessarily because they are implicitly one way or the other.
Categorically, I see it as people making a quick decision to end, or stay in, a relationship without going further to figure out what is happening without what they want it to be, which would look like seeing behavior as: healthy that is felt as abusive, neutral that is felt as abusive, abusive that is felt as abusive, healthy that is felt as healthy, neutral that is felt as healthy, abusive that is felt as healthy, healthy that is felt as neutral, neutral that is felt as neutral, and even abusive that is felt as neutral. Thats a lot of angles that a relationship can be seen from, and very rarely do persons consider relational actions from all of those perspectives, which can be intimidating. With all of that, the most common thing I see is one person conveniently deciding what another person’s actions are rather than spending some time examining what is occurring and allowing the room for multiple possibilities beyond a basic dichotomy.

My caveat here cannot be made enough: those with a personal history of being in traumatic and abusive relationships have an even harder time distinguishing between nonabusive and abusive relationships. Some of this, well, a large part of this, is because of the nature of abuse and trauma. To vastly oversimplify, being in a relationship with a person that is abusive, whether physically, sexually, emotionally, socially, or financially, also is to be in a tenuous state of interpreting behavior. Anything other than overtly warm and loving actions are often felt as soon-to-be hostile or hostile; there is no grey. And there really isn’t warmth, either, only a tacit knowing that it can get much worse.

Something not bad, isn’t automatically good; nor is something actually bad because it wasn’t felt as absolutely good.
So for those that have had a history of trauma with intimate partners, it can feel like the difference between abusive and soon-to-be abusive, which is hard to unlearn, especially when nonabusive and healthy relationships are such foreign experiences. It is hard to learn what a healthy relationship can look like, and what nonabusive behavior looks like, and how to see it for what it is, when you’ve a compromised initial idea as a foundational premise.

Or as I like to think of it, it is hard to distinguish gentle touch or firm touch over deep emotional scar tissue, when you only seem to feel rough touch.

The huge challenge with all of this, then, is being able to see abuse when it is there, rather than simply convincing yourself that it must be there.
Admittedly, it is challenging to figure a lot of this out, especially without a professional to help decipher what is going on. I’m not admitting this as a professional in private practice looking for more business, but as a person that has seen many relationships implode because one party convinced themselves what was happening was abusive, or wasn’t, and couldn’t see other perspectives. The huge challenge with all of this, then, is being able to see abuse when it is there, rather than simply convincing yourself that it must be there.

But, if I’m to give generic, decontextualized if impersonal advice, it would be this: in many ways, all relationships will have boundary violations, and those need to happen, and those violations aren’t implicitly abusive. Boundary violations will exist simply because other people aren’t us, so there will be a learning curve for better understanding how to do right by others. Implicit to a learning curve is being aware that a person is trying to do right by you, and that can be difficult to see when you’ve been wronged. Ideally, in all relationships it can be seen and felt when boundary violations occur, are addressed, and greater awareness of how to do right by both parties is openly discussed. It can also be seen when those pieces aren’t there. Things only become abusive when another person consistently doesn’t care or disregards another person’s pain, avoids or denies the idea that they might be wrong, and has little concept of the consequences of their actions. That can be very hard to see, both when you are being abused, and when you are abusing.

In many ways, it’s difficult to change your response to, to change how you feel, another’s actions. Something not bad, isn’t automatically good; nor is something actually bad because it wasn’t felt as absolutely good. Which is to say: ideally, we grow to feel things as they are, and experience others as they are, and less how we want them to be.

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

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