How Do You Know if You’re in an Abusive Relationship and What Your Anxiety May Be Telling You

Stressed upset woman standing in park having headache

Have you questioned your relationship and wondered if it is unhealthy or even abusive?

You may think this should or would be an obvious question to answer and while sometimes it may in fact be so, it may surprise you how often the answer to the question it is not so obvious.

The signs of unhealthy and abusive relationships can be tricky to detect, particularly if your partner may seem remorseful. But, if you feel you are starting to pick up on inconsistent words and actions and that your partner is simply telling you what he or she thinks you want to hear, it may be time to wise up and look at the big picture.

There is a phenomenon in the domestic violence literature called the FOG. The FOG stands for Fear, Obligation, and Guilt and it explains why many victims of abusive relationships don’t leave or don’t leave right away. In fact, leaving an abuser may be the most dangerous time, so victims are actually working hard to try to ensure their own survival and plan a safe escape.

*Please not that even though this article is written from the perspective of the male as the abuser and female as the victim, domestic violence also occurs between female abusers and male victims, male abusers and male victims, and female abusers and female victims. All are serious crimes and all  victims deserve support and compassion. 

What are some signs?

  1. Isolation. I used to think this meant that the abuser was obvious in the way and told victims “you can’t see your friends and family anymore.” But, I’ve learned the process can be much more gradual and insidious. Maybe your partner always complains you don’t spend enough time together. Maybe your partner complains about your friends saying they are not interesting or fun enough and is very skilled at gradually turning you against them and playing the victim himself.
  2. Drastic mood swings. Does your partner fly into a rage because he feels slighted or mistreated? Does he turn it off just as quickly as he turns it on? After a rage episode does your partner act surprised and even innocently ask you “What’s wrong sweety?” Is your partner careful to act overly friendly in public and work extra hard to make a good impression with others, but in private does he portray a Dr. Jekkyl and Mr. Hyde personality?
  3. Blaming others. Does your partner blame you for making him angry? Does your partner lie and distort the truth and at all costs avoid responsibility, even when he is saying that he taking responsibility? Have you seen your partner lie and do a good job at it?
  4. Topics off limits. Do you find yourself afraid or nervous to bring up certain topics because you know your partner will blow up, blame you, accuse you for betraying him and taking other people’s side? Do you feel you are walking on eggshells or have to give up on an important topic because your partner will blow up to punish you rather than have a calm rational discussion?
  5. Disrespect and Violence. Does your partner humiliate, harass, intimidate, threaten, destroy property, bully,  physically push, shove, grab, hit, choke, kick, or sexually assault you? It all starts with disrespect and can quickly escalate to the point where you realize your partner has no limits. Sometimes this escalation can take years, but looking back you can identify signs where your partner was pushing the boundaries and setting the stage for more dangerous, humiliating, and degrading behavior. Did you ever say to yourself “he won’t hit me?” or “he won’t hit me in front of the children?” and have you been proven wrong? Do you feel like you keep lowering the bar for what you will accept as far as your partner’s bad behavior?
  6. Power and control. This is what it all comes down to. Your partner will stop at nothing to have power and control over you. Once the rage episodes are over, he may apologize and even cry, he may give gifts and make grandiose promises to change, things may go back to “normal” or even a “honeymoon” and you may tell yourself that was the last time and you truly hope and believe that is true in the bottom of your heart.  But, sadly he is not sorry. You may think to yourself “he hit rock bottom this time and it won’t happen again.” Unfortunately, that is not true. He is not able to truly feel sorry because he does not feel compassion or empathy for others, although he may be good at faking it. He is only capable of feeling sorry for himself. It is not a matter of “If it happens again.” But rather, when the reality sets in and you realize “It will happen again”. That is when you need to get out for your own safety, your children’s safety, and your animal’s safety. The only way to stop an abuser from abusing you is to get out of the relationship.

If you are in an abusive relationship get help. Many victims are ashamed and don’t think they will be believed. This is a result of the psychological and emotional abuse they have endured. The fear of being abused again and the fear of the unknown, the guilt that the abuser made you feel and the obligation you may feel to him or others. Abusers insult and belittle their victims, chipping away at their self esteem, confidence, and self worth so they doubt that they cannot make it on their own or that they “need” their abusers. You don’t need your abuser. You need to a safe place to go to and you need to eliminate all contact with your abuser completely. At that point, you will start to come out of the fog and regain your life. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available: CALL 24/7/365:  1-800-799-7233.  Once you stop keeping the secret you will be amazed at how much better you begin to feel. Make a safe plan to leave your abuser.

It is highly likely that if you are in this type of situation you suffer from intense anxiety. I do not see this anxiety as pathological, rather this is your body and your brain telling you that you are in danger and it is important to listen to those feelings.

  • If you are having trouble sleeping, it is because you are in an unsafe place and your need to remain alert is a survival skill.
  • If you are nervous, shaky, and on edge it is due to the unpredictable nature of your abuser’s behavior. You don’t know when your partner is going to explode again or how bad it will be the next time.
  • Severe physical symptoms of anxiety may include: stomach pain, headaches, muscle tension, shortness of breath, panic attacks,  vomiting.
  • If you are isolated from family and friends is it because you are worried they will see your abuser’s behavior or question why you are in the relationship when you may be ambivalent or just not ready to leave yet?
  • If you are stressed and feeling like you’ve lost yourself, if may be because you are putting your abuser’s needs above your own and neglecting your own basic needs for a safe environment that is predictable and nurturing, rather than an environment that is explosive, volatile, and dangerous.

It’s time to start protecting yourself, reach out for support, and let your voice be heard. Remember you are brave and will come out of this with incredible strength.

Some steps to start taking care of yourself include:

  • Share what you are going through with someone you trust like a therapist or close friend or family member. Remember you don’t need to keep the secret, there is nothing to be ashamed of, your abuser’s behavior is wrong, not yours.
  • Start journaling. This will help you gain a larger picture of the abusive cycle and you may be surprised when you start to identify early signs and how there is a pattern to the behavior. This journal may also be evidence for the police or court proceedings. You may be scared your abuser will find your journal, especially if you’re living together so keep it in a safe place.
  • Don’t abuse alcohol or substances. This can lead to other problems.
  • Look into shelters, hotels that take animals (if you have a pet), friends or family member’s houses, and places you can stay for an emergency and longer term.
  • Prepare an emergency bag. It is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Pack a few days worth of clothing, medication, toiletries, food, cash, ID, toys for kids.
  • Safe House Denver: 24-Hour Crisis & Info Line/24 Horas Línea de Crisis e Información: 303.318.9989 and Safe House Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence in Boulder 303-444-2424.

If you would like to schedule a 10 minute phone consultation with a psychologist click “Book Online Now.”

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