Identifying an abusive relationship – It’s harder than you might think

With high numbers of Australians experiencing domestic abuse, some may wonder how a person can fall in love and stay with their abuser. This may in part be motivated by self-protective desire to believe “that wouldn’t happen to me, I wouldn’t let it” and a desire to believe that the world is ultimately fair. Whilst this is understandable, it is also harmful to those experiencing abuse as it places the responsibility for continued abuse on the abused, rather than where it belongs with the abuser. Below I discuss and challenge 3 common societal myths that can perpetuate abuse in a romantic relationship:

Myth 1: The abusive behaviour is clear from the beginning.

One common assumption or myth is that abuse is present and identifiable from day one. As with romance fraud, in the early stages of the relationship, abusers will often invest considerable effort in getting to know their partner, establishing trust, engaging in romantic gestures, being charming and essentially presenting themselves as an ideal partner. A delay in the appearance of abusive behaviour means that many partners are strongly committed (love, marriage, children, pets etc.) to the person engaging in the abuse before behaviours identifiable as abusive occur.  Further, abuse typically builds gradually, starting with relatively minor behaviours that morph into increasingly severe and harmful physical or non-physical actions.

Myth 2: Abusive behaviour is easy to identify.

Even if the abuse appears early in the relationship, the ambiguity of some abusive behaviours can make them difficult to identify as forms of violence. Our stereotype of abuse in romantic relationships involves physical violence (hitting, kicking etc).  However, in reality, abuse in romantic relationships takes many varied forms and can be ambiguous in intent.  Non-physical abuse, which is more common than physical abuse, can be particularly difficult to identify as actions can be framed as being romantic or protective rather than controlling. For example, abusive partners may take charge of the household finances but present this type of control over their partner as an act of care. For example, the abusive partner may tell their partner that giving them an allowance, rather than free access to the household finances is helping them by protecting them from that stressful aspect of their life.

This is not to say that having one person responsible for the household finances is diagnostic of abuse.  Rather, like all decisions in a relationship, what is important is that both partners consent to the arrangement without manipulation, duress, or coercion. If one partner voluntarily cedes control of the finances simply because they have no interest in, or have difficulties managing their money, then this is not abuse. But herein lies the difficulty in identifying many forms of abuse – the presence of a behaviour is never diagnostic in and of itself.  Rather, an awareness of the circumstances surrounding, and the motivations underpinning, particular behaviours is also required. Often it is simply unclear who is, and who is not, an abuser.

Myth 3: Abusive people are easy to identify.

Like Lombroso’s criminal man, with hindsight and media portrayals, it’s all too easy to picture abusers as monsters, easily identifiable to all.  In reality, however, abusers are rarely so easily recognisable. Abusers are not constrained by gender, age, sexuality, race, wealth, education, religion, or even temperament. Abusers can appear charming, caring, romantic and very devoted to their partner. They can be can be well-spoken, skilled manipulators, convincing everyone they are the perfect partner, often disguising controlling behaviour as romantic gestures. Alternatively, they can be unaware of their own abusive behaviour, controlling their partner through a misguided, narcissistic belief that their way is always the right way. Any violations of their control over their partner is seen as a personal attack on them. This is not to excuse their behaviour, but it simply highlights why looking for the monsters may blind us to the reality, and allow abusers and abuse to continue unrecognised.

Believing these myths about abuse in romantic relationships has damaging effects on victims and on our broader society.  We may blame victims for failing to recognise their abuse and underestimate the harm caused by more ambiguous, non-physically abusive behaviours. Recent campaigns by the Australian government have attempted to challenge our acceptance of behaviours that are non-physically abusive and undermine the harmful beliefs that allow abusive behaviours to thrive unchecked in society. Whilst these moves to improve our recognition of non-physical abuse are positive, especially in the context of growing rates of use of non-physical forms of abuse, these campaigns often fall into the trap of only portraying the more overt, unambiguous behaviours, such as shouting, name calling, and ridiculing.  What they fail to present are the more subtle controlling behaviours like monitoring and isolation which can be easily dismissed as being motivated by protectiveness and romantic passion, rather than by anything more sinister. Only when the breadth of abusive behaviours is recognised can the work to challenge these false beliefs and prevent abusive behaviours really begin.

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