A relationship, romantic or platonic, should be a positive force in an individual’s life. However, a seemingly healthy relationship can quickly turn dysfunctional or abusive, in a process that can often go overlooked by the abused individual and onlookers alike.
Jessica Hidalgo, director of the Women’s Resource Center, and Caitlin Henke, program specialist at the center, have dealt with countless cases of abuse over their careers. Hidalgo and Henke emphasize that each case is different, but there are several red flags to identify a potentially abusive partner.
- How they treat other people: “I especially like to pay attention to how they treat folks when there’s already a power dynamic established, like wait staff, or your taxi driver or the people that greet you at restaurants, because for a lot of abusers, it’s about having power over their partner,” Hidalgo said.
- Increasing tendency of control: “You might see an increasing tendency of control — time spent away from the partner, who you are hanging out with, control over electronics, passwords. Any privacy they have — taking a shower, going to the bathroom — everything starts to be an object of question,” Henke said.
- Interactions make you feel negative or shameful: “Tune into how you feel with them or after they leave. If you’re not feeling positive about yourself, if you’re feeling confused, if you feel you have to be defensive — those are all forms of gradually increasing control,” Hidalgo said.
- How they talk about previous relationships: “I think the way they talk about their exes — if someone is constantly saying their exes were crazy and horrible, that can be a red flag too,” Hidalgo said.
- Isolation: “Suddenly they’re being critical of your friends and family. Remember, there is always part of you that wants to believe it’s not happening. There is some element of love and attraction, which confuses things, so isolating a person and making it harder for them to reach out to people is a brilliant tactic (abusers use),” Hidalgo said.
Henke also warned of the cycle of abuse.
“It’s so bad, but right after it’s bad, it’s usually good. There’s sort of reparative honeymoon phases where you believe the person has changed and the relationship is going to be better,” she said. “It’s normal for couples to argue, or to not see things eye to eye. But a heated argument can turn into verbal abuse, which can turn into a heated argument where there’s a shove. It happens so slowly — then it’s often hard to recognize how it got to that place.”
For the friends or family of someone in such a contentious relationship, there are also identifiers to recognize that abuse is occurring. The person may be harder to reach, they may be constantly in contact with their partner, they may make excuses for the person or their actions, and they may start rationalizing control.
Abusers, Hidalgo warned, usually have an element of truth in what they say and aim to place the blame for any situation back on the abused person. As such, it can be very difficult for those around an abusive relationship to help.
Often, an abusive relationship can seem hopeless and impossible to escape. Traditionally, advice and resources for abused persons have focused on attempting to convince the person to leave immediately. Hidalgo and Henke, along with other experts, say this is a problematic approach.
“We almost never say, ‘You need to leave. You need to get out of there.’ Instead, we say, ‘These are some things we think might be helpful. What would you find helpful right now?’ The goal is to help them get some control back in their lives, and to help them make the changes that are the right fit for them at that time,” Henke said.
Hidalgo said that the goal is never to take away any control the abused person has.
“We’re dealing with someone who already has power and control constantly being taken away from them,” she said. “So what would it be like for a friend to do the exact same thing, saying, ‘I know better than you. You need to do this. What you’re doing is wrong.’ The agencies in Albuquerque have shifted to doing safety plans, assuming the person is staying in the relationship, instead of saying, ‘How are we getting you out?’”
While they both recognize that it is unlikely for an abuser to change their ways, the primary goal of resources for those in abusive relationships is to bring some sense of control back to the abused person. Resources also exist for those in the position of the abuser, to identify the reasons for their behavior and how to change it.
Someone in an abusive relationship can seek help through the National Domestic Violence Hotline and non-reporting entities on campus.
Gabriella Rivera is a news reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter as @gabbychlamps.