Thursday, 15 November 2018


TRIGGER WARNING: *This article contains sensitive topics and discusses abusive relationships, physical abuse, and suicide. I am not a counsellor, therapist, or professional in this field. All of the advice given is optional and based upon my own experiences.*

Please read: The gender roles in this story are based on real-life happenings. By no means am I implying that men cannot also be victims of this type of manipulation, or that women are not able to be the abuser.

Mid-way through a lunch date with one of my closest girlfriends, she brought up someone that I shall rename for privacy reasons: let’s call her Ellie. When I asked how she was, my best friend’s face dropped. She told me that Ellie was having seriously bad relationship troubles. This isn’t anything new -- she has had her fair share of “bad” boyfriends over the years, all to varying degrees. Regardless, they all treated her with disrespect.

Ellie's current boyfriend is physical, but also emotionally and verbally abusive. From what my friend has told me, he threatens suicide if she considers breaking up with him, he has been physically aggressive towards her during arguments (which he excuses later by blaming drugs and alcohol), and controls who she sees and where she goes to the extent of making her take a picture of herself to prove who she is with and another one when she gets home.

I want to clarify that abusive relationships are not always as explicit as this real-life example. There are lots of forms of abuse: each with different signs to look out for and each has varying impacts on their victims. (Please click here to learn more about the varying forms of manipulation and abusive behavioural patterns). Not all abusive relationships involve physical mistreatment. The 'abuser' may control what their partner does, says, and how they behave without showing signs of aggression at all.

A common form of manipulation is the threat of leaving. Statements like: “if you didn’t wear make-up every day, I would not [fancy you/ be with you],” or “if you loved me then you would do [insert something you do not feel comfortable/ enjoy doing]”, or “I love you, but… [insert criticism or negative comment]” are micro-comments that may be brushed off as unkind words. Actually, this is exactly the kind of emotional abuse that slips under the radar. Ultimatums are a form of blackmail; either comply or fail. Like a lot of manipulation, it starts with meaningless or petty demands but easily escalates into something more severe. Eventually, the expectations become unsustainable. These 'small' compromises become the ‘terms and conditions’ of the relationship and when the victim is unable to achieve the ‘standard’ that they have been set, they are left feeling low and even worthless.

I would also like to highlight that although the signs and patterns of abusive behaviour (emotional or physical or both) may be obvious from an outside point of view, victims, however, often cannot see it. Abusers are extremely manipulative and able to convince their partner that, perhaps, they deserved their poor treatment, or that they were the cause/provocation of it. This results in the victim genuinely shaming themselves for their own actions, instead of recognising the manipulative behaviour of their partner.

I left the catch-up with my best friend feeling angry, frustrated, and totally useless. I wanted to be there for Ellie, but what could I do to help? We haven’t spoken in years. Her best friends were telling her to break up with him and, although she was starting to admit that the relationship was unsustainable and she wouldn't be with him forever, their advice was not getting through to her. 

At the beginning of this year, I left a relationship that heavily impacted my mental health and wellbeing. I will not go into any details, but I, like Ellie, had people around me advising me to leave my, then, boyfriend. They told me I needed to get out of the relationship and although I agreed, I really didn’t know how to, but, more importantly, I didn’t feel like I had the choice, or authority to make it.

From going through similar circumstances, I know that it is counter-productive to tell someone in this situation to “just break up with them”. This advice is not incorrect but, for the victim, it is not as easy as that. It is also misleading to suggest that by ending an abusive relationship, that will end all of the woe and grief they’re currently experiencing. Remember that maybe, it is not that the victim does not want to break off their relationship, it is that they are scared of what would happen if they did.

So, what is useful advice? What can you do as a friend/family/bystander?

Remind them of their value. They are important, they are worthy, they are loved. Until self-worth has been restored, it is likely they will excuse their partner’s abusive behaviour by, consciously or subconsciously, thinking that they deserve it. Remind them that everyone deserves to feel valued and happy in their relationships. And that they are not an exception to that rule. 

Remind them of love. Probably, their understanding of love is distorted. Their abuser may tell them that they love them but their actions say otherwise. This often lowers the victim’s self-esteem, which creates feelings of worthlessness. This lowers their expectations of a relationship. Love does not have to mean abuse. One good way to clarify their viewpoint is to ask them to imagine that their partner is just their friend. Would they still be friends with them after the horrible things they have said to them or the things they have done to them? Point out that if they wouldn't put up with it in a friendship, you shouldn't in a relationship. 

This is crucial: do not shame them. They probably are already feeling ashamed about themselves. Being opinionated will only alienate them further, and sometimes you must bite your tongue and refer to points 1 and 2. Show support, not judgement.

Encourage them to visit a professional counsellor. The danger is that this sounds drastic, but remind them that it isn’t. It is healthy to talk about oneself and their experiences within their relationship. Often victims will lie or pretend to avoid creating personal tension between the abuser and loved ones: a counsellor offers external, unbiased support. They will also be able to assist them in areas that, as an untrained friend/family member, you will not be able to.

Listen. It is hard to talk about. Never make damning comments about the situation: they probably want as little drama as possible. Instead, create a dialogue about the abnormality of the experience in contrast to a healthy relationship. Remind the victim that they are right to believe that what happened is wrong – it is important to reassure them that they are not imagining the immorality or unjustness of the situation.

Support their decisions. Even if that is frustrating for you, it is best to hold your tongue on the ‘Do’s’ and ‘Don’ts’ approach to advice. By outwardly telling them what they should or shouldn’t have done in their situation, you are only affirming what their abuser tells them: they are at fault for their partner’s behaviour. It also may prevent them from speaking up again. Rather than blunt disagreement, attempt to guide them, and help them see things objectively. It is also not your responsibility to make them make the right choices – refer to point 4 – suggest that they see a counsellor who can provide a professional perspective on their situation.

Be persistent with them. Often, victims feel disconnected from the people they are closest to because of what they are experiencing. Their partner is likely to be telling them things to alienate them from their friends and family, they could even be lying to them by saying that their friends are better off without them anyway. If they are slack with meeting up or messaging, don’t cut them off. Be the one that makes the effort.

Remind them that you’re always there for them, and be there for them. Companionship is one of the best medicines for heartbreak. If they decide to leave their partner, keep checking in, physically or on the phone. This is often when the relationship can become the most toxic and the partner, the most manipulative. It is important that they know that what their partner decides to do is their own responsibility, not the victims. Again, it would be best for you to suggest for them to see a counsellor to help them regain emotional strength and understanding themselves through the break-up process.

If you are genuinely worried about the safety of the victim, please call 999. It is important that they are aware so that they can help in the best way that they can.

Look after yourself. As a bystander, friend, and family member, it can be exhausting, emotionally draining, and upsetting seeing somebody you love go through this. Try to be enough of a background support that you feel as though you are helping your friend/family through this, but do not make it your responsibility to stop them from seeing this person. There is a difference. Don’t be disheartened if your friend still chooses to be in their relationship even after you have supported them. It’s not your fault or problem. They will be grateful in retrospect and even for just being there when, probably, few people were able to be.

It can be incredibly difficult to know how to help or who to turn to for extra support when you know someone that you deem to be in a “bad” relationship. If you have read this post and it does not apply to your own relationship or anyone you know, thank you for reading. Perhaps it will be useful one day, and by spreading awareness it may help prepare potential victims to recognise this very under-addressed issue in the future. 

If you have read this post and recognise yourself in any of what I said, please take a look at the resources below for more information and guidance. 

You can call 0808 2000 247, a free national domestic abuse helpline, open 24 hours a day.

Read up on the varying forms of domestic abuse:

You can take this questionnaire if you are not sure if you are in an abusive relationship:

The government has listed all of the helplines that you can call for support, emergency help, and advice: 

Spread awareness and stay safe.

George xxxx


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