Standard advice when you realize you are in an abusive relationship is to get out. But most of us, wisely or not, want to try to save our relationships. We love our partners, we believe they love us, and there’s probably a fair bit of sunk cost fallacy at play as well.
Whatever the reason, I’m not going to try to tell you that if you are in an abusive relationship you are wrong to want to save that relationship. I am going to tell you that you need to be smart about it.
Before I get deep into this topic, be aware: it will take both of you to salvage your relationship. If your abuser isn’t willing to own up to their behavior and do the work to fix how they treat you, you on your own will not be able to save this relationship.
First and foremost, you need to be safe. This mostly applies to situations with physical abuse, but if other forms of abuse are pushing you to self-destructive behavior that applies too. If you have any reason to believe you are not safe, you need to have space between you and your abuser. If you live with your abuser, that can mean going to stay with another partner or a friend or family for a while. If you don’t live together it can mean only seeing them with someone you trust. It can mean not seeing them at all for a while—talking over the phone or internet. It may mean not contacting them at all for a while. Whatever it will mean for you, make sure you are safe first.
Second, you need to have a clear idea of what kind of abuse is happening. Are you being gaslighted? Manipulated? Threatened? Assaulted? Coerced into sexual encounters? What is it that needs to stop?
You may not be able to identify everything right away. Abuse is insidious, and once an abuser has battered away our boundaries it can become really have to recognize some of the ways they control us.
Speaking of boundaries, step three is to define clear boundaries for yourself. Boundaries that clearly define at least some of the ways you have been abused which you will no longer accept or allow to happen. “I will only have a sexual encounter when I want one.” “I will walk away from conversations if I am threatened or manipulated.” “I am the only one who decides my schedule, I will go on dates with who I want, when I want.” “I will not spend time with someone who makes me feel unsafe.” These boundaries give you a tool to protect yourself from being controlled.
When you have done all this, it’s time to talk with your abusive partner. The word “abuse” is very polarizing in our society. So when you talk with your partner you may be better off talking about specific behavior—types of manipulation, examples of coercion, times they have belittled you, etc—rather than bringing up abuse as such. !Whether you choose to raise abuse directly or not, make it clear that you are not talking about isolated incidents but a pattern of trying to control you.
The reaction you want is something along the lines of “I’m sorry, I understand why you are upset, and I’ll try to stop it. Please tell me if I start doing it again.”
More likely your partner will get defensive because they are human and that’s what most humans do when we hear something we don’t like about ourselves. There are two broad types of defensive reactions.
1) “I love you, I would never want to hurt you!”
2) “How dare you accuse me of _____.”
The first reaction is a good one. Annoying, because they are probably too busy defending themselves to listen any longer. But it shows that their first thought on hearing they have hurt you is to be upset about it. They have heard that you are hurt and they are responding to it. Once (if) they get past the initial defensive reaction, they will want to do what they can to stop hurting you.
The second reaction is a red flag. It either isn’t registering with them that you have been hurt by their behavior, or they don’t care. In my opinion, there is nothing left to salvage from this relationship. This person is all but saying outright that they love their image of themselves more than they love you. No healthy relationship is possible with that attitude.
If they get overly defensive and the conversation starts to become all about them, you may need to get up and walk away for a while. Come back later and pick the conversation up from where you want it to continue.
Once they are listening, lay out the boundaries you have established for yourself. Tell them you will be adding new boundaries as you learn more about your needs. Make it clear that you expect them to respect your boundaries.
Be aware: abusive behavior can become a habit, so even if your partner is actively trying to fix their behavior, it will take time. Be prepared to enforce your boundaries. An abuser who is trying to stop will listen when you enforce a boundary, “Wow, I didn’t realize I was doing that, I’m sorry.” If they ignore you when you enforce a boundary, then they are not trying to fix things.
The first few times you enforce your boundaries it will be scary. You may slip a few times and not enforce a boundary when you need to. That’s okay. You are learning new habits too. Just keep working at it.
Building a healthy relationship out of an unhealthy one is hard. But sometimes it can be done.
Check here if you are the abusive partner in your relationship.
This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.