When I decided to become a counselor, I didn't have a particular interest in helping people who were in abusive marriages or dating relationships. I had no idea that, in my role as a therapist at a general counseling practice in a nice town, I would hear stories about partner abuse on a regular basis. I knew I would encounter my share of unhealthy relationship dynamics and unhappy couples who weren't exactly nice to each other. I knew I would be dealing with people who were taking childhood damage into their adult relationships. I knew abuse was bound to come up. I never imagined I would hear about it so often.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It is extremely important to raise public consciousness about this very serious problem. Domestic violence takes place in all sorts of relationships. It happens with teens, adults of all ages and races, those who are well-educated and those who aren't, homes with lots of money and homes where finances are tight. It happens with straight couples and gay couples, those who are married and those who aren't. . It happens where you might expect it and where you would never expect it.
The thing is, most people don't go from having a happy healthy relationship to all of a sudden being involved in domestic violence. There are usually other types of abuse that take place first. Other types include emotional, verbal, financial, and spiritual abuse.
In healthy relationships, partners don't try and change each other through manipulation, bullying, threats, guilt trips, or emotional blackmail. They don't demand that their spouse or date conform to their expectations or wishes. They don't pressure or badger the other person to "give in" when they're not getting their way. They don't throw tantrums, pout, turn on the waterworks, or resort to verbal "low blows." They don't insist on always getting what they want or on always being right. Words like "permission" and "allowed" do not have a place in healthy relationships. Neither does lecturing, telling one's partner what they will and won't do, or issueing threats.
These ways of relating take place in unequal relationships where one person has assumed the role of authority figure and the other has taken the "one down" position. The person being bullied has taken on the role of a child who accepts being bossed around or controlled. They don't want to be "in trouble" or to be left to fend for themselves, so they do what they need to do in order to keep their partner happy. This means they'll begin letting go of self-respect, values, and outside interests and family relationships. No adult should live in fear of being "punished" or "grounded" by another adult. This is not how grown-ups interact. At the very least, such dynamics are emotionally unhealthy. At worst, they are abusive.
Abuse doesn't have to be hitting and pushing. It can also be put downs, name calling, blowing up their partner's phone until they answer, or starting a fight so they're partner will decide not to go out with friends or visit family members as planned.
Abuse can be threatening to spread lies, relentless accusations about unfaithfulness, controlling finances, or taking the person's keys or cell phone so they can't leave or call for help.
Abuse can be withholding affection from the children just to "get back at" their partner for stepping "out of line."
Abuse can be saying it will be their partner's fault if they kill themselves or have a heart attack.
Abuse can be throwing things, breaking things that matter to the other person, disappearing for a period of time just to make their spouse worry or wonder what they're doing, leading their partner to believe they've been unfaithful or even actually cheating, or even forcing their spouse into unwanted sexual activity.
Abuse can be claiming God or the Bible told them to act this way and that their partner is sinning or in danger of going to hell if they don't do as they're told.
These may seem like extreme behaviors, but they happen far too often. When I hear about this kind of control and abuse dynamic, what is clear to me is that the dominant person has lost sight of their partner as a distinct human being. They see their partner as their personal property. This means they view the other person as existing for their amusement and to meet their needs and that they are not concerned about any needs their partner has. It is about what makes them comfortable or what makes them feel good and that's all that matters. We all own things. We own homes, furniture, cars, computers and gadgets of all sorts, clothes, books, and so on. We don't care about how our cars or computers feel about things, because they don't have feelings. They don't have souls. They are not living things. They were created by people to be used and enjoyed by people. They exist to serve us and meet our needs. They amuse us, entertain us, make us comfortable, give us bragging rights, or serve more practical purposes that make our lives easier in some way. We purchase them for specific reasons and legitimately own them because we've paid money and bought them. They belong to us and are our possessions.
Human beings are not possessions to be bought, owned, sold, or traded. They're not robots or computers that can be programmed to do things exactly the way someone else wants them to. Financial investment, marriage, or even parenthood doesn't entitle any of us to have ownership of another person. This sounds like a total no brainer, but apparently, it isn't. I am astounded how often people speak of their younger children, teens, and even their spouse or partner as if they are a possession, not a person. They'll deny this if confronted with what seems to be the truth, but the words and actions they display towards their spouse reveal their actual beliefs.
This is a deeply held thought pattern that isn't just going to go away. People who act this way can say they're sorry and promise they'll make changes, but they are usually unable or unwilling to do so. They need extensive individual and group counseling to address and take ownership of this aspect of their personality and to learn to act and think differently. Oftentimes, abusers only enter such programs because they're court ordered to do so. Unless they truly want to change, the abuse will probably continue sooner or later.
No one deserves to be treated like property. People are living things with hearts, souls, and feelings. In my belief, each one is uniquely created by God with certain characteristics and preferences. Just like snowflakes, no two people are exactly alike. Each person should have a reasonable amount of freedom to make decisions and to be who they are. I believe we each have things we were put on this earth to accomplish. Call it purpose or destiny or whatever. The thing is, that purpose or destiny is not to eat, sleep, live, and breathe to please another human being or to fulfill the every wish and whim of other people.
There is help for partners and spouses who are being abused. They don't have to stay in an unhealthy or dangerous relationship. It isn't easy to find the courage to set limits and stick to them, but people have done it and are thankful they got out of a toxic situation. With support and counseling, they are able to have perspective on what made that relationship unhealthy and dangerous and heal the wounds they're carrying that would make them vulnerable to repeating the pattern with someone else. Many people who have experienced physical or emotional abuse by a romantic partner go on to find someone who will enter into an adult to adult relationship with them. This means that person loves them for who they are and treats them like an equal deserving of respect and sensitivity.
For further information, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at