In my last post I linked to a helpful quiz you can go through to help you determine whether your relationship is be dangerously destructive. But what if you already know it is — then what?

Here are a few action steps you can take.

First of all, and most important, be sure you (and any children under your care) are safe. If you have found yourself repeatedly in physical danger in the past, please private message me and I will try to connect you with some materials and resources that are local to you.  

Second, build a network of trusted friends and resources you can reach out to when you need encouragement and support. If you are isolated, consider how you can start making connections again. Churches, support groups, and local domestic violence shelters and advocacy centers might be able to help you find some safe people to connect with. It doesn’t have to happen overnight, but the more you can connect with people outside of your marriage, the better.

Third, be realistic. If your relationship is characterized by repeated cycles of calm, rising tension, crisis, and then calm again, you need to recognize that the calm is only part of the cycle. It can be tempting to think the calm period is finally the improvement or resolution you have been waiting for, but in fact, the typical cycle of abuse includes a period of calm. If your partner has followed his abuse of you by saying something like, “I am sorry I treated you that way, but…(fill in the blank: “I’ve told you before that it makes me crazy when you ask me where I was and what I was doing, I love you so much I can’t restrain my jealousy, I have an anger problem, etc., etc.), then he is already justifying his behavior in his own mind, and he will do it again. Take a look at these images of the abuse cycle (HT: Psalm 82 Initiative), and see whether your experience fits into them. 

The first image shows how your relationship works. First comes a period of rising tension, next the abusive behavior (which can be violently explosive, or outwardly fairly quiet). He may demean you verbally, tear you down in front of the kids or others, use intimidation, isolate you from help by forbidding you to leave the house or call a friend, or any number of other punishing and coercive behaviors. He will then usually experience a period of remorse, and may apologize to you for his treatment of you. During this period of calm, you’ll likely feel a sense of hope. This is the period of time in which a victim is least likely to take action or reach out for help.

The second image shows how you are likely to describe your relationship to others. It might sound something like this: “Well, he’s normally a really nice guy except for when he gets stressed. I need to do better about not provoking him. He gets angry at me, but usually he repents of it, and then we have a great relationship again.” The third image shows how he talks and thinks about your relationship: “Yeah, we have a great marriage usually. Sometimes when I’m under a lot of pressure and she crosses a line, I react. I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t treat her that way. Usually we really have a good relationship, though.”

If this looks familiar, it’s time to be realistic. You are probably stuck in a repeating cycle, and it will get worse over time.

Fourth, take whatever steps you safely can to step out of the cycle. You have probably developed habits of interaction that do one helpful thing and one harmful thing for you. Your habitual interactions with your abusive partner may be helping you to survive safely, but they may also be hurting you by keeping you trapped within his cycle. If you can do it safely without fear of reprisal, find ways to create boundaries that communicate your unwillingness to put up with mistreatment, or to participate in his games. You may need to stop engaging in certain conversations, or to require that they happen via writing or in front of a trusted friend instead of privately and in person. If he uses unsafe driving to hurt or endanger you, you might need to stop riding in the same vehicle with him. If he disrespects you during sex, you may need to withdraw intimacy until he makes a change. A good boundary may involve some level of public exposure, and thus also serve as a consequence (see below). Again, only put boundaries in place if you can do so safely. Many abusive marriages would be unsafe places to try to establish good boundaries, and if that is true of yours, you need to seek more serious help. 

And finally (again only if you can do so safely), require your partner to begin working on himself. An abusive person behaves the way he does because his behavior gets him something that he wants. It may be privacy, freedom to be irresponsible, freedom to pursue his own special vices like alcohol or pornography, freedom to coerce sex whenever he wants it, or something else; but whatever it is that he gains by putting you through a cycle of calm-tension-abuse, that is considered to be his core entitlement. Because he is currently getting what he wants, you must not expect him to change until some of his entitlements are taken away. Abusers typically do not change without outside pressure. Change will happen when he becomes too uncomfortable to stay where he is. Some ways of applying pressure are social exposure, such as seeking the assistance of a trusted mentor or pastor or friend, or withdrawal of your services to him (such as the food, clean laundry, freedom from responsibility, and sexual intimacy that you more than likely supply him with right now). Do not begin the process of resistance unless you are confident you can do so safely, but if you can, look for ways to apply pressure, and at the same time, require him to start actively working on his bad habits. If you can find a good Batterer’s Intervention Program locally, that would be ideal. A good program will work intensively over the course of as much as a year, and will focus on teaching him to shed his coercive behaviors and learn responsible ways of interacting with others.

To recap what I’ve said: Most likely, him changing will require two things — one, when external pressures such as exposure, consequences, and the removal of privileges become uncomfortable enough that he is dissatisfied remaining where he is. And two, long-term, serious, self-focused work of the kind you’ll find in these materials.

Loving Abusers, Part 2

Loving Abusers, Part 1