“He is not abusive. He’s never hit me and he’s never forced himself on me. I can tell he loves me by the words he uses, by the effort he makes to make this work, and by how he shows he can’t live without me. He is not abusive. I am not being abused.”
We define abuse in the same manner by which we define everything else: by what we know. It’s how we categorize things in a seemingly manageable system, one we can access and reference when things get confusing. There is, after all, so much to absorb in this world, so the more we can answer in black and white, the easier it is for us to go about our day.
But abuse is one of those things that needs to be defined to its very core. It is not an answer comprised of either black or white, but rather a complex spectrum of colors we fail to recognize as relevant to its core definition. Abuse can be a blow to the face, but it can also be a single word, a single action, and even the manipulation of a single emotion.
Before you get out and before you can even gauge the damage abuse has done to you in a relationship, you must identify it, in every color.
Sexual and Physical Abuse
You’d know sexual and physical abuse if it happened to you, right? Getting dragged by your hair at a party when you refuse to leave? Being told to spread your legs and take it, even if you didn’t want to? We’ve seen the movies and too many of us have experienced the visible bruises of both, but what about the colors in between?
A friend once swore to me her boyfriend never hurt her, which went against everything I assumed about their relationship, having seen them together in public. Whenever we were out, it just screamed abuse behind closed doors. There’d be times she’d open her mouth just to be silenced by his heavy glare or the whisper of her name. One day, he hit her. I got a knock on my door at 2 o’clock in the morning and after an hour of trying to calm her down and ice her jaw, she told me their entire story. She told me how it started with him throwing plates across the room or cornering her during a fight. She told me how he used to punch the wall a mere few inches from her face and how he told her she was lucky he loved her because otherwise he may not have had such self-control. Soon after, he began spitting at her and then started pushing her down onto the couch when she’d be begging him to leave. But to her, he had never abused her before that night and even once her jaw was iced and the story was told, she stood by the fact he had always been a good man.
You may not realize it and you may assume your situation doesn’t fall under the textbook definition of physical abuse, but you are still being mistreated – you are being abused.
Sexual abuse is also something we find to be black or white, and it all comes down to how we define it. Sexual abuse is anything that makes someone do something sexual that he or she does not want to do. Such a broad definition means there have to be more colors in the spectrum.
I was only 15 when my boyfriend finally raped me. I say finally because unbeknownst to me, he had been sexually abusing me long before he went through with it that night. He’d grope me in public and when I complained about it, he told me he was doing it to claim me so that other boys knew I was his. He’d try to guilt me into sleeping with me by telling me I owed it to him for all the nice things he did for me. During sex, he’d force me into positions I didn’t want to be in. The list goes on, but I never labeled any of it abuse because I didn’t know any better, and still didn’t realize what was being done to me until the night he forced himself on me.
Sex can be a beautiful, intimate, empowering thing. We are slaves to the pleasure and the promise of intimacy that it brings, but that love can make things very dangerous, as we can become slaves to the people we’re having it with, rather than the act itself.
The Invisible Colors
Verbal and emotional abuse are very real and a lot more common than any of us admit. This is just as dangerous as a blow to face. Just because the bruises don’t show, doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
When your partner calls you degrading names, yells at you, or insults you, you are being verbally abused. On the surface they are just words, but the reality is that each word comes with force behind it, and where there is force, there is impact. Every time a word is thrown your way, your self-esteem takes a hit. When you are yelled at, you are belittled. When you are insulted, your self-worth is thrown out the window. Verbal abuse is like a hammer repeatedly hitting nail into place, with the same force, making it smaller and smaller with each hit.
Manipulation and Guilt
Emotional abuse can be the hardest color spectrum to expose, as most of it is done behind closed doors. When we fall in love, we make ourselves vulnerable and expose weaknesses. Emotional abuse is when those weaknesses are used against you. It can be in form of guilt or manipulation, it can target your self-esteem, and it can even result in you feeling like you did something wrong and that any mistreatment is your fault.
In fact, guilt is an extremely powerful weapon. A couple I once knew were in a pretty crappy, but common situation. They had gotten pregnant after only a month or two of dating and had decided to keep the baby and co-parent, despite making the decision to break up. They didn’t mesh well, as she was an extreme, soft-spoken introvert and he was an equally extreme, loud extrovert. He was very arrogant and believed he was owed a lot for having made the decision to give up his life to help raise the baby. He used that against her every chance he got, and blamed every failure at starting a new life on her. He’d yell at her so loudly that she once had a panic attack and had to go to the hospital.
With the help of a therapist, she was able to stand up for herself, but once she did he began pulling her close and telling her how much he needed her. One of the last things she said to me before we parted ways was that she felt like she had built herself a cage, she knew he was terrible and that she cried every day, but she couldn’t see how things could ever change. He had learned every single one of her weaknesses and when one stopped working, he’d move on to the next.
Being emotionally manipulated by your partner can be as strong of a hold as if you were pressed up against a wall, with two hands wrapped tightly around your neck. You are still being mistreated, it’s just done through your heart, mind, and soul.
What Abuse Does Not Look Like
To be clear, abuse can come from either side. Both men and women are guilty of abuse, in every color. A woman slapping her partner is not okay. A woman threatening, belittling, or embarrassing her partner in any way, shape or form, is not okay. Though she may not be physically dominant in stature to her partner, a woman forcing herself onto her partner is not okay.
A relationship is two people (or more, depending on how you define the word) that have decided to share a part of their lives with one another. It’s healthy and safe, and it brings out the best in both of you. It pushes you to become the best version of yourself and offers support through your journey in life. In a healthy relationship, you are valued as an equal and you are respected and treated as such.
You may need to take some time to reevaluate your relationship and you may need to learn to identify colors you may have not been trained to see. The first step to being in the right relationship is being able to recognize the one you’re in is not it. You owe it to yourself because no one else is going to step up and fight that battle for you.
Believe you are worth it and that real love is out there. This is not the best you can do. This is not the kind of relationship you want to bring children into, or if you already have them, that you want to expose them to.
Fight, because the moment you start fighting for your happiness is the moment you allow someone else to.