I have been in a number of abusive relationships and have learned a lot from them. It was not until a particularly traumatic breakup that I began to think critically about why I had been manifesting the same kinds of relationships, and it is not until recently that I have started to notice significant improvements to the overall quality of my relationships. Most of what I’ve learned has been about standing up for myself, and standing up for myself has primarily involved learning how to identify and address abusive behaviors. I will share what I have learned with the hope that it helps you as well.
I first want to present two maxims that have guided my a lot of my success in learning how to navigate abusive behaviors. The first one is:
An abusive person will never admit to being abusive.
This is in my opinion the most important notion to keep in mind when engaging with abusive behaviors. Those who most adamantly deny being abusive are likely to be those who commit the most egregious types of abuse. An abusive person will do everything within their power to undermine your concerns, and it is through this defensive reaction that abusers also call their bluff.
Abusers feel justified in their behavior, and there is no point in trying to get them to see the error of their ways. They do not see themselves in err because doing so would expose them to repressed trauma, which leads to the second maxim:
Hurt people hurt people.
Someone who abuses probably does so because they themselves have been abused and haven’t healed from it. The abuse is probably traumatic and therefore unconscious, which is why abusive people will never own up to being abusive to themselves or anyone else. Someone who regularly tries to intimidate and belittle others might have been bullied as a kid, and is now living as an abusive adult in an attempt to symbolically “bully back.” Abusive people have chosen to ignore their pain and are instead externalizing it, which seems to them like proof of the pain being gone. It is not gone, however; it is instead being projected onto others, and others are now being involved in and harmed by the abuser’s unresolved issues. The damage abuse causes others is why abusive behaviors are inexcusable and must be both identified and addressed.
Strategy One: Stick To Your Guts
You probably feel uneasy around this person but might not be able to identify why. You must trust that your uneasy feeling is enough on its own to warrant suspicion. The more you argue with your guts, the tighter the knots in your stomach will become.
We are socialized to privilege the conscious mind over the feeling body, and so when the feeling body signals danger, it is easy to try to use the mind to override the feeling. This is especially true if you are being told by an abusive person that they have your best interest in mind. Stick to your guts: they are wiser than you think.
Human guts have been around a lot longer than the parts of our brain that humans use for decision-making and conscious deliberation. We need to think of our ancestors when dealing with people who give us “bad vibes,” and we must trust that these feelings communicate important and intelligent information that should be taken seriously — even if we have a hard time putting these feelings into words.
Do not privilege words (or a lack thereof) over gut feelings when interacting with others, and especially abusive others. If you feel uneasy around someone, then this is sufficient for warranted suspicion. If you are traumatized (or hysterical, like me!), then you might be triggered by behaviors that feel abusive but actually aren’t. If you’re afraid of wrongly accusing someone, then remember that the right people will be patient with you as you learn to trust them. You can detect an abuser more easily, though, by paying attention to how this person responds to you addressing their behaviors.
Strategy Two: Remember that Intentions Don’t Matter (Very Much)
Have these kinds of thoughts ever crossed your mind?
“I know they have good intentions and would never be deliberately mean to hurt me.”
“My friend always talks about how honest they are so I know they would never steal from me.”
“It’s my fault for doubting my partner’s character.”
It is reasonable and noble to give others the benefit of the doubt, but doing so too often can slip into making excuses for abusive behavior.
Abusive people feel pleasure knowing that they have power over you, and one of the easiest ways to give them this power is to care more about their stated intentions than their impact on you.
You need to realize that at the end of the day intentions do not matter — effects do. Even the purest intentions can lead to disastrous consequences, and disastrous consequences are what affect and linger in the memories of others.
I worked with an abusive professor at a university for a year, and toward the end of our time together I was both going to bed and waking up ruminating about him. I felt deeply disturbed by his behaviors, but because he regularly reminded me that he was my ally, I believed his intentions were good and excused his behavior. The longer I acquiesced to his demands, the more exploitative they became. I eventually had a mental breakdown that forced me to acknowledge that I was being abused.
It is tragic to me that mental breakdown is often considered an individual aberration instead of a traumatic relational experience. We do not exist on our own; we are enmeshed with one another, and a lot of us who suffer the most do so because we are being abused but do not have the resources to identify it or address it.
You can believe that someone is well-intentioned while still acknowledging and addressing that their behaviors negatively affect you. In fact, I recommend that you assume that the person does have good intentions when first examining their behaviors. If you notice patterns of behaviors that feel similarly uncomfortable, then you should focus on these patterns and shift your attention toward how and why you are feeling hurt. After doing this for as long as you need, you should then consider how (or if) you want to communicate your concerns to this person.
Strategy Three: Communicate Specific Concerns Respectfully
I understand that it is not always possible, safe, or in your best interest to confront an abusive person. If they are abusive and have power over you (e.g., this person is a boss, teacher, or parent), then you might be putting yourself in danger by confronting them. You shouldn’t assume they won’t retaliate and should always keep your safety your top priority. You deserve to feel safe in all of your relationships and you have a right to stand up for yourself.
In order to reduce the risk of retaliation you should communicate your concerns respectfully. It’s easy to feel angry when talking about hurtful experiences, but try to avoid speaking out of anger. Each time I have regretted something in these situations it was because I spoke out of anger. Anger implicates the presence of other emotions, and it is these other emotions that you should focus on when you communicate your concerns.
Avoid saying “You make me feel…”, because this not only comes across accusatorially but it is also impossible for someone to make you feel anything. Think about this in the other direction: can you make someone else feel any particular emotion? You can certainly try affecting someone in some way, but ultimately you cannot make anyone feel anything specific. Feelings are personal, inward, and subjective experiences that tell us how we are relating to others. Make sure that your word choice reflects ownership of your own feelings.
Instead of saying “You make me feel” say “I feel”: “You make me feel angry.” is much different than “I feel angry around you.” The former is accusatory and might put the other person in defense mode even if they aren’t abusing you, while the latter opens a space for the other person to ask for elaboration and is also a statement whose truth no one can take from you.
No one can take your feelings from you: they are yours, and you should protect and care for them like you would any other fragile and sensitive entity. If you feel scared, then this is a fact, and no one and prove or deny it but you. Feelings are factual, and the more frankly we name them, the more empowered we can become.
Phrases like “you shouldn’t feel that way” or “don’t feel that way” are unacceptable because no one has the right (or ability) to control how you are feeling, and phrases like these function as ways for the other person to avoid accounting for the behaviors you have addressed. When this happens I like to respond with, “Yes, but I do feel this way,” and continue seeing if the person will acknowledge the behaviors that were addressed.
It is also important that you are as specific as possible when communicating your concerns. You should describe particular feelings of yours and behaviors of the other person’s by referring to specific moments that happened or words that were said. I am a fan of quoting previous text messages or emails in order to provide evidence of what I am talking about. The person cannot deny that these words were said and should be held accountable for all of the meanings they create, including any and all contradictions that they might depend on you ignoring.
If you are not specific and the person is indeed abusive, then they will probably either deny or distort your claims in order to make it seem like you made it up or misunderstood them. Some abusers carry a sense of entitlement that I have learned to understand as an unconscious belief in the maxim, “I am exceptional — no exceptions.” These kinds of abusers will exempt themselves from accusations by trying to justify their behavior or deny that it actually happened.
This is also the time when abusive people get to show you that they are indeed abusive by punishing you for drawing attention to their abusive behavior.
Strategy Four: Prepare for Personal Attacks
If you’ve successfully identified and addressed an abusive person’s abusiveness, then this person will almost certainly become angry. This is because you have exposed their repressed trauma, and their psyche will now enter an emergency state because it depends on repressing and “correcting” this experience to prevent the traumatic nature of it from damaging the ego. If you’ve named their abusive behaviors, then this mirror will reflect back their trauma to them, and they will act toward you as they wish they would have during the traumatic event(s). This is what makes trauma a mysteriously temporal experience, as well as why you need to brace yourself. Try to not take what they say next personally, and remember to stick to your guts. I’ve found that physically tightening my core like I’m about to get punched in the gut has helped me in these kinds of situations.
The most important thing to look for when addressing abusive behaviors is an apology. If this person genuinely does not intend to hurt you, then they will probably feel surprised and sad to hear that they hurt you, and will be motivated to correct their behaviors to not hurt you again. They will apologize, and your guts will tell you that they are being sincere.
If you do not receive an apology, then you should be suspicious because it implies that the person is not experiencing remorse in response to hurting someone else (i.e., you). Displays of remorse predict higher levels of empathy, so if someone does not show remorse, then this implies that they probably also do not have much empathy — and lacking empathy is not a good sign, as it predicts both narcissism and what psychologists have called antisocial personality disorder, but I like to call this sadism.
The most egregious forms of abuse I’ve confronted resulted in the abuser telling me that I had issues. I have never denied that I have issues, and have learned that this is the one of the purest projections an abusive person can make. It is an indication that you have successfully identified their issues, and so to protect their ego they are stating that the opposite is the case. This kind of response is a type of projection that Freud called a reaction formation. Reaction formations happen when someone states the opposite of a threatening truth, so an accusation like “You have issues!” in response to addressing abusive behaviors is the opposite of the unconscious truth that you have identified and exposed to the abusive person, which is: “I have issues.”
If this happens to you, I recommend that you own up to it (“Yeah, I do, so what?”) and move on to whatever else you were aiming to communicate. This kind of response is meant to surprise, hurt, and discombobulate you. Don’t fall for it; see it as the proof you need to remember to trust that this person is not good for you. You deserve to be met with compassion and understanding when respectfully communicating your feelings, and if someone gets angry because you are doing this then you need to set boundaries. Remember their response to your addressing their behaviors clearly if you ever second-guess your decision to set a boundary with this person.
Strategy Five: Set Boundaries
Abusive people want to dominate and/or control you. You cannot beat them, and you should not join them. The best case scenario is ending the relationship and not looking back. If you are stuck in a relationship with an abusive person, however, then you need to set strong boundaries with them. To set a boundary you must (continue) sticking to your guts and reminding yourself that this person is not good for your well-being. Set higher standards for yourself and realize that you do not need to settle for relationships that feel uncomfortable.
Interact with this person only when necessary, and do not expect them to change because they will not. In this person’s eyes there is nothing wrong with them and it is you who are in error. Release yourself from needing their approval and realize that their approval is not worth much because they do not see you as a person; you are an object to them, and there isn’t anything that you can do to change this.
I stayed with so many abusive relationships out of a belief that I could “fix” the person or that over time they would start to treat me better. Do not try to change anyone but yourself, and remember that someone else’s potential for goodness does not matter if this person’s effect on you is consistently negative. This person might be genuinely good and still not good for you. Remind yourself of this if you find that you are struggling to move on.
I will close by sharing a narrative of an abusive relationship that I ended. My life improved dramatically after ending this relationship, and I share it because it taught me a lot about abusive behaviors and relationships.
We were close friends and occasional sex partners for about three years. I remember feeling unsettled by how this person hadn’t touched me back the first time we had sex and had gotten frustrated when I took a break because my jaw and neck started to hurt.
I did not intend to see this person again because of how unsettled I felt, but decided to ignore this after they began texting me and making plans to hang out. I felt very attracted to this person and was allured by how kindly they seemed. I developed a crush on them but kept it suppressed because we were both healing from past relationships and were indeed good friends.
We hadn’t talked for a while prior to our grand finale. During our time apart I briefly dated someone who suddenly stopped communicating with me. I shared my distress with this friend, and after doing so they started acting much more affectionately toward me. I remained guarded, however, because I still saw this person as a friend and did not want to acknowledge my crush. Suppressing my crush eventually became difficult; we would lay together on the the beach at night under moonlight, and I recall once feeling slightly infinite when this person ran their fingers through my hair.
This friend texted me very lovingly one evening and said that we were going to grow old together. I felt joyous because to me this sounded like an admission that this person had a crush on me too, and so I opened myself up to the romantic feelings I had always held back. As I opened up this person began distancing themselves from me: reading my texts but not responding, avoiding hanging out, and withdrawing from physical affection. I started to feel confused and distressed, and did not know what to make of these mixed signals.
One evening while on one of our walks I said I felt romantic potential between us, but wasn’t sure if both of us felt this way. My friend said, “I don’t feel that way toward anyone right now,” which felt disappointing to hear but also relieving because it reduced my confusion and clarified that I needed to resume perceiving this person as just a friend and not a potential romantic partner. This would have been fine if the conversation ended here, but it didn’t, and only got worse from this point forward.
This person then said to me, “I consider you a friend, a good friend. Not a best friend, but a good friend.” I was hurt by this distinction and felt devalued. “You’re there in the room of my friends,” this person continued, “but you’re sitting in the corner,” they said and laughed.
I felt stabbed by these words, but the shock of them didn’t hit me until after we parted for the evening. I laid awake that night replaying that comment and image in my mind (good friend but not a best friend, in the room of friends but sitting in the corner) and realized I felt very hurt because I considered this person to be one of my best friends and would have never said something so mean to them. I was explicitly devalued by a close friend, and it hurt a lot.
After a few days of processing what I was feeling I decided to let this person know that my feelings were hurt. I explained how I considered them to be one of my best friends, and that I felt confused because it seemed like I was getting mixed signals. I mentioned specifically that I felt led on after hearing that we were going to grow old together, and I also explained how the “sitting in the corner of the room” comment felt so so hurtful. I mentioned that I needed to take space from our friendship because of how much my feelings were hurt, and that was letting them know about this because I did not want to avoid responding to their text messages.
This person’s response was ugly.
It began with “I’m sorry you misunderstood me,” and then described how “growing old together” meant growing old together as friends. With regard to the room comment, this person simply restated that I was also one of their best friends, and that because we knew each other for so long that it was obvious that this was the case. This person then played the victim by saying “I understand if you want to ghost me like my other friend did but I don’t think that is the right thing to do.” The “other friend” was someone who had recently stopped communicating with this person after a night of drunken sassiness. I wasn’t there, but when I first heard about it I wondered what this other person saw.
I felt very angry about this response.
First of all, I do not accept “I’m sorry you misunderstood me” as a valid apology. An ex of mine once “apologized” a few months after our breakup by saying “I’m sorry for everything that happened between us.” What had happened was a a long distance relationship that ended the night before this person moved into my hometown from across the country and into the apartment I had helped choose. Remorselessness taught me about this ex’s and my former friend’s abusiveness, and has a lot to do with how I was able to cut myself away from both of their clutches.
Secondly, my friend was denying having made the distinction that kept me up that night, i.e., the distinction between me and other “best friends.” By affirming over and over “Of course you’re one of my best friends” this person was ignoring and avoiding taking responsibility for their behaviors.
Thirdly, shifting the focus from my hurt feelings to “go ahead and ghost me” was not only passive-aggressive but also objectively false. If I was ghosting, then I would not have reached out. This was an attempt to shame me into feeling badly for taking space from our relationship, and I refused to fall for it.
We then got into a long and awful argument. I let my friend know that I was not satisfied by that response, and explained why I felt this way. I forget most of the details, but remember clearly why I decided to never talk to this person again.
We reached what felt like a resolution after texting back and forth consistently for a while. Afterward I expressed relief and said “I thought that you didn’t care about hurting my feelings :(“ This person did not look at or respond to this text for many hours, which very much triggered me because the silence felt like proof that this person didn’t actually care about hurting my feelings. Hours later the read receipt said that it was seen, but there was no response. This was the last straw for this relationship before I realized that it sucked. (See what I did there? *sigh*)
As soon as I shifted into this no-longer-tolerating phase I saw our “resolution” much differently. This person told me that I felt led on because we had been having sex, and that every time we had sex they had felt uncomfortable. I felt sick to my stomach hearing this and apologized profusely because I had no idea that this person felt uncomfortable about us having sex since it was a regular feature of our relationship. I asked whether this discomfort was just recently or every time we had sex, and in response I got “I’m sorry, I should have told you sooner but didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” This was the final twist of the knife, as I come from a context of sexual repression, and am very sensitive about issues regarding sexuality. I felt sickened by my behavior and accepted this as a resolution. Not getting a response from my last text was what shifted me into clarity.
I texted this person again saying it was not acceptable to tell me what I was feeling. I reiterated that I did not feel led on because of us having sex, and that the mixed signals were why I felt led on. I said it was fucked up to trying to blame this on us having sex, and that I was now even more upset than I was initially. Then began the onslaught of loving sentiments: “You’re one of my best friends,” “I don’t know what I would do without you,” “I value you so much,” and other pleadings — none of which included the words “I’m sorry.” I saw this abusive relationship for what it was, said goodbye, and have not communicated with this person ever since.
My life has been much better ever since I let go of this person from my life. The universe has been testing my learning by presenting me with a few more similarly-abusive others since then, but I have remained steadfast in my commitment to the aforementioned suggestions, and have improved my quality of life tremendously as a result.
I hope that this has helped you feel more capable and confident in your ability to stand up for yourself. This kind of work is not easy, but I promise that it is worth it — especially if it means identifying and addressing abusive behaviors within yourself.