People downplay abuse in relationships using this simple phrase — here's why it's so damaging

Lindsay Dodgson
woman in field

Chad Madden / Unsplash


  • People often make the mistake of thinking abuse is limited to physical harm.
  • Coercive control is just as damaging, it's just harder to identify because it doesn't leave physical scars.
  • By underplaying the situation, victims are effectively being subjected to insidious psychological abuse.

 

About one in four women and one in six men will experience some sort of domestic abuse in their lifetimes.

Thanks to the representation of abusive relationships in film and television, people often think this refers to being hurt physically. However, abuse doesn't always involve someone being violent. In fact, according to Lisa Aronson Fontes, a psychology researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of "Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship," people underestimate the effects of psychological and emotional abuse, because victims don't have injuries to show.

She told Business Insider that one of the most worrying things a person can say when they're in a damaging, toxic relationship is: "but he didn't hit me."

"People underestimate the effects of abuse that does not include physical violence. And they often call non-physical abuse 'emotional abuse' which sounds trivial," Fontes said. "The term 'coercive control' does a much better job of including all the many ways a person — usually a man — can control their partner, beyond physical abuse."

Just because you don't have bruises doesn't mean you aren't being hurt by your partner. If you end up in a relationship with someone with dark tetrad personality traits — machivalleanism, sadism, narcissism, and psychopathy — they can damage you in a number of insidious ways. But abusive people can be anyone, not just those with something "wrong" with them. 

Controlling tactics include isolating you from your friends and family, manipulating you into acting exactly how they want you to, gaslighting you, depriving you of things, sexually coercing you, wearing you down, or all of the above. Some people even stalk their partners, because they don't trust them.

"Nowadays, coercive control often involves a great deal of monitoring through technology, such as monitoring what someone does online through a keystroke logger and tracking their whereabouts through a tracking device on their phone," Fontes said. "Abusers usually have the passwords to all their partners' accounts — somehow they get them."

It can be difficult to understand how anyone would let themselves fall into a relationship like this.

Abusive people don't act this way at the beginning of the relationships, when they are trying to charm their targets. During the honeymoon period they are often very attentive and affectionate. They might text you all the time and buy you gifts, but soon the mask will start to slip, and their true controlling self will be revealed.

This happens more and more over time, but when their true abusive nature is revealed, the victim is already trauma-bonded to the push and pull emotional rollercoaster, and it can feel nearly impossible to pull away. The abuser knows this, and they also know exactly what they can get away with.

"When people say, 'but he didn't hit me,' what they often mean is that they would leave if they were hit," Fontes said. "Their partners exert control one thousand ways but may stop short of hitting, if they know that would 'break' the relationship."

In other words, by making excuses for an abusive partner, you are effectively giving them the control to treat you as badly as they want to. They know there's a line, and as long as they don't cross it, they can manipulate you into pretty much anything.

If you find you are compromising on your own needs and beliefs time and time again, it could be a sign of coercive control, and an abusive relationship.

One of the signs is an inability to believe you will survive without your partner. If this is the case, to help you gain strength, try and rebuild your relationships with the people you may have been isolated from. You might be surprised to learn they know exactly what you're going through.

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