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Is Your Relationship Mutually Abusive?

Did you know that there are different types of abuse? Although all abusive behavior is unacceptable, the type of abuse happening in your relationship determines whether it can be addressed by you and your partner together versus through separate individual or group therapy.


What does abusive behavior look like in a relationship?

Abusive behavior goes beyond saying or doing something that hurts or triggers the other person. In all relationships, partners inevitably cause each other pain. You might even hurt on purpose when you feel angry or rejected (for example, saying something in a cold tone, snapping back, or giving the silent treatment). Although your deeper self might not want to hurt your partner, the impulse to retaliate or wound first wins. This is a common experience for almost everyone in a relationship. However, abusive behavior goes beyond normal relationship injuries and can involve:


Verbal attacks

A verbal attack is a statement or comment that degrades, insults, or tears you down. Verbal attacks sound like putting down your character (“You’re a narcissist,”) swearing at you, or telling you that you are bad at important areas of your life (for example, “you’re a terrible parent” or “you’ll never succeed at work”). It is important to differentiate between feeling attacked and actually being attacked. It’s common to feel attacked when your partner criticizes you, tells you negative feelings they have about you or the relationship, or has a strong emotional reaction to something. This does not always mean you are actually under attack. Although it might hurt to hear "I feel like you're being really unhelpful around the house," this is not a verbal attack. In contrast, "you're so lazy, it's like I don't even have a partner," is a verbal attack.


Threats

Without physical violence, partners can still threaten harm. This can look like menacing comments such as “I’m going to take you for all you’re worth” or “you’ll never see the kids again.” Sometimes partners also threaten to end the relationship. Of course if you actually want to end the relationship, you are always free to do so, but bringing it up in the context of an argument isn't really about actually breaking up. It is typically either a failure to manage your strong emotions or an attempt to signal a position of power to your partner (i.e., "you can't hurt me, I will leave you first). You don't have to actually mean a threat or act on it for it to be threatening.


Physical Intimidation

Physical intimidation involves using your body, voice, or physical presence to show that you are in control. For example, you might slam a fist against the wall, block the doorway, throw an object at the floor, or shout very near your partner's face. Intimidation can also involve driving in a scary way because you are angry. Physical intimidation can be just as frightening as violent touch. When you use your body, voice, or presence to intimidate your partner, you may not be trying to “be scary” on purpose. That doesn’t matter - it is still intimidation if your partner experiences it that way.


Physical violence

When people imagine abuse, they most often think about physical violence. In addition to hitting, pushing, and slapping, physical violence also includes acts like ripping possessions out of someone’s hand, grabbing their arm and pulling them, or trying to yank them out of bed. It doesn’t matter if the person intended to be violent or experienced their own behavior as violent. When emotions are running high, we do not always assess our own behavior accurately. If your partner experienced you as physically violent, your behavior was not okay.


Control

Abusive control involves trying to get your partner to behave a certain way. When they don’t behave as you wanted, you punish them in some way. Although control can look like the stereotypical jealous partner who fears infidelity, it can also focus on many other topics. When you try to control your partner, you don’t accept their choices. When you don’t like how they choose to behave, you try to get them to behave differently. Examples of control can include not letting a fight end when your partner wants to go to bed or making it very uncomfortable when your partner disagrees with you so they avoid voicing disagreement.


What is Coercive Control?

Any person can behave abusively during conflict. In many overall healthy relationships, one or both partners has done something abusive at some point. Although any instance of abusive behavior is not okay, saying or doing something abusive does not necessarily mean that the relationship itself is abusive.


One type of abuse is particularly dangerous because it goes beyond abusive behavior in the heat of the moment. This is called coercive control. Coercive control is less about how “severe” the abuse is and more about how the person who is being victimized feels. In a relationship with coercive control, the victimized person feels frightened, silenced, intimidated, and unsure if they can leave. This is not a momentary fleeting feeling, but comes up again and again.


In relationships with coercive control, the victimized person might sometimes responds to abuse with aggression as self-defense. This is not the same as mutual abuse (see below). An individual therapist can help you explore whether your own acts of aggression are self-defense in response to coercive control dynamics or whether your relationship is mutually abusive.


Signs you are in a relationship with coercive control:

  • You don’t feel safe telling your partner how much their behavior impacts you for fear they will act even scarier

  • You worry that if you end the relationship, you might be unsafe. You fear your partner might stalk or hurt you if you left

  • You change your behavior to avoid making them angry

  • You do not feel equal in the relationship. When you voice your opinions, you are mocked, degraded, or shut down

Relationships with coercive control are not appropriate for couple therapy. For things to get better, the person who is behaving abusively needs to recognize their behavior, accept responsibility, and learn how to stop. It is often necessary for couples to either end their relationship or to separate while the person behaving abusively gets help.


Situational Abuse

In contrast to coercive control, situational abuse is when abuse happens during particular types of situations only. For example, you and your partner might be able to talk about the abusive dynamics when things aren’t heated. You can acknowledge that the behavior was not okay and both feel safe having that conversation. But the next big fight you have, you curse and shout at them. They call you names and throw your phone. The abuse is limited to particular situations (generally conflict) and doesn't leave either person feeling fundamentally unsafe, day in and day out.


Can two people be abusive to each other?

Although abuse shown in movies and on tv is typically one-directional (with a clear abuser and a victim), abuse in real life can absolutely be mutual or bi-directional. This means that both people behave abusively toward each other.


How do you know if your relationship is mutually abusive?

If you feel like your relationship involves coercive control, it is probably not mutually abusive. However, if you recognize signs of abuse in BOTH your own and your partner’s behavior, it is possible your relationship is mutually or bi-directionally abusive.


This does not mean that the behavior is okay. What it means is that you are both hurting each other and that BOTH people need to stop in order for the relationship to become safe.


Is Mutual Abuse The Same as High Conflict?


High conflict relationships often overlap with mutual abuse, but not all high conflict relationships are mutually abusive. For example, you might fight a lot with your partner and not know how to stop, but the fights do not involve abusive behavior. A relationship that is both high conflict and mutually abusive has frequent, intense fights that get out of control and cross the line to abusive behavior by both partners. Although mutually abusive relationships are often high conflict (abuse happens frequently), it is also possible for abusive behaviors to be very infrequent or limited.


How To End Mutual Abuse


In a mutually abusive relationship, it's common for both partners to desperately to change but not know how to. You talk to your partner about how you will both act different next time you fight. Then, things get heated, the voices get loud, and you become cruel, threatening, or physical. Your partner may feel just the same - they want to stop, but somehow the abusive situations keep playing out.


Although admitting there is a problem is important, it is also not enough. Most people who are mutually abusive are not doing so because they believe it is right or okay. They do not know another way to resolve conflict and resort to abuse to manage emotion, solve the fight, or feel close.


Typically, individual and couple therapy is necessary to help end the pattern. It is best to seek support from therapists who specialize in this type of relationship.


If therapy is not an option right now, you can start by considering why the behavior happens and what would be necessary to do things differently. The following questions are tools for exploration.


1. What purpose does the abusive behavior serve? What problems do we solve in the moment when we act abusively toward each other?

Although you might not "want" to behave abusively, you are almost certainly doing so because it serves some purpose. So what purpose does it serve for you and your partner? Common examples include:

  • Ending difficult fights

  • Regulating your emotions (for example, turning panic into anger)

  • Regaining control when you feel out of control

  • Blocking a painful topic

2. What prevents us from doing things differently next time? Why does it keep happening?

It's important for both partners to identify their own roadblocks to choosing new behaviors that are not abusive. Although it may be truth that if your partner stopped their behavior, you would too, unfortunately it is typical that both partners must stop together for the cycle to stop. Try to focus in on your own experience right before you cross a line into abusive behavior. What happens when you override your good intentions to do better? Some examples are:

  • You are hurt by something your partner said or did and want to retaliate

  • You are so emotional that it's hard to think straight, maybe even "blacking out"

  • You feel like your only choice is to act destructively; you don't see another way out of the interaction

  • You are numb to your emotions and no longer feel any connection to wanting to preserve the relationship (the "burn it down" mentality)

3. What skills/tools would we need in order to change the pattern?

Once you understand why you keep behaving abusively, you can identify the missing skill or tool that will help you bridge the gap between how you want to behave and how you actually behave. Needed skills might include:

  • Emotional tolerance - can you cope with intense emotions without acting on them?

  • Cognitive awareness - can you experience intense, chaotic, or frightening thoughts without believing they are always true?

  • Self-soothing - can you turn to yourself for comfort when you are upset?

  • Communication skills - do you know how to express yourself and receive information effectively?


If you are ready for professional help to end mutual abuse or destructive conflict in your relationship, reach out today.


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