Let’s talk a little bit about abusive relationships.

Now, as you might have already guessed, this is a very complicated issue, and one that is very dependant on many, many circumstances. For example, the genders of the people involved changes the way that we discuss it. The type of abuse that is going on changes the way that we discuss it. And, more than that, these factors also affect the way that we as a society view it.

For example, we as a society have (more or less) come together and agreed that a man beating his female partner is bad. In the past, it might have been more common to hear a man say that his wife or girlfriend needs to “know who’s boss” or some despicable comment like that, but nowadays, the image of a woman with a black eye, stuttering out some half-coherent explanation about falling into a door is our quintessential image for an unhealthy relationship.

But at the same time, our society does seem to lack a certain fundamental understanding about what abuse is, exactly.

I’ve talked a bit before about our society maintaining this idea of, “well, if he was really that bad, then why didn’t you just leave him?” (for more on that, check out this article here and here). But there’s another factor in all this that I want to discuss right now: namely, this idea that physical abuse is the absolute bottom of the barrel, and all else is automatically good by comparison.

Now, to understand what I’m about to say, understand this: our society has a tendency to separate the world into a binary system. Everything is either good, or it is bad. It is black or white, straight or gay, chunky or smooth. Things that exist in between these binaries, the shades of grey, tend to either get ignored or belittled, because we tend to not like to think about things as so complicated.

So when a relationship isn’t “abusive enough” for our standards, we tend to overlook the issues that exist within it.

I have known women who were in emotionally abusive relationships for years and never realized that they were, or didn’t realize until years later, even if all the signs were there. Even if their partner was controlling, dismissive of their emotions, gaslighting them, or so on and so forth. But at the same time, they were able to dismiss all of this as acceptable. After all, it’s not as though he hit her or anything like that.

Or, fuck, let’s even forget about the abuse aspect for a moment; a relationship doesn’t need to be abusive to be problematic. How many times have we heard overworked women say something along the lines of, “yeah, he doesn’t help around the house, and he does the bare minimum to raise our kids, and even when I’m ill or injured, he won’t make a single meal for himself, but it isn’t like he hits me or anything. He really is the greatest man I could ever hope for!”

Physical abuse has become our standard for what is unacceptable. And by comparison, everything else has become easier to digest.

And I’m not trying to undermine the damage that physical abuse does; that is not my goal here at all. But I am tired of hearing men who have the potential for growth being praised and consequently denied the opportunity to change and better themselves, simply because they do the bare minimum to avoid being labelled a despicable human being.

And this issue, in itself, comes packed with many related issues. By telling ourselves that what we’re experiencing isn’t abuse simply because it isn’t physical abuse, we sometimes justify staying in these relationships or enduring further abuse. And the effects of emotional abuse are incredibly damaging – just as damaging as the effects of physical abuse.

The list of effects is incredibly long, but it includes depression, low self-esteem, an inability to trust, and substance abuse (just to name a few). These are primarily long-term effects too. Short-term effects are more commonly seen in our society’s accepted idea of abuse victims – shame or guilt, questioning one’s own memory, passivity or aggression. This is because physical abusers often make use of emotional abuse as well.

I think we all see why remaining in abusive relationships is not something that we would necessarily want, even if our abusers aren’t hitting us.

This issue also fits into a much larger feminist discussion as well; namely, men benefit from a very gendered form of abuse. That isn’t to say that women can’t abuse men; they can, and they do, both emotionally and physically, but our society’s generally accepted image of an abuse victim is a battered wife. And when this is the case, then women accept that, as long as they aren’t that, then it’s all good. They hold their male partners to a lower standard because, at least they aren’t beating them. Sure, they might not do any chores or cook their own meals, but at least they aren’t beating them. Sure, they might control their every move, but at least they aren’t beating them. Even men who are genuinely good men, men who would never cause their partner any intentional harm, benefit from this to a certain degree, because they are still held to a lower standard than they otherwise might have been.

Similarly, the fact that our society’s generally accepted image of an abuse victim is a battered wife also makes it more difficult for men to come forward when they have been physically or emotionally abused by their female partners. As I said, this is a very complicated issue.

But if I have done anything with this article, I hope that I have made you think about these issues a little bit more in depth. This is a vast and detailed discussion to have, and if we are going to make these issues go away, we are going to need to talk about them. And it does seem to me that, in some cases, these issues are getting better; for example, it is becoming more and more excepted that men in heterosexual relationships help around the house or care for their own children. But this isn’t the case for every heterosexual partnership, and I have still seen this enough in my lifetime to be concerned.

And, end of day, quite simply, if you are in any sort of abusive relationship, regardless of your gender or if the abuse is physical, emotional, or sexual, please get help. I know that each scenario is different, and I might not be qualified to tell you the best way to get out of your particular scenario, but there are plenty of resources out there for you, and you do not deserve to be treated the way that you are. You are an amazing person, and you deserve so much better.

Published by Ciara Hall