The short answer to "what is an abusive relationship?" is that it's a relationship in which there is a power imbalance and this imbalance is leveraged for the sole benefit of the person wielding the power.
Many people think of an abusive relationship as one where a man dominates his girlfriend or wife but I think this is very limiting. Many women also abuse their boyfriends or husbands. There are parents who abuse their children and manipulative children abuse their parents. Some therapists abuse their patients. Some mentors and coaches abuse their students. Some workers abuse their co-workers and/or bosses and, of course, some bosses abuse those reporting to them.
The abusive relationships have many things in common despite the context or situation. So let's have a look at some of those things.
This idea of the power imbalance can be a complicating factor in people's inability to recognise that they are actually in an abusive relationship.
First of all, an abused girlfriend or husband may not think that they are in an abusive relationship. They don't see the signs or they recognise that some things are wrong but they end up justifying the bad behaviour of their partner. How does this happen?
At the start of a new intimate relationship, the manipulator hides their true nature. They present themselves as the ideal partner for the target. They basically pretend that they are loving, caring, attentive, funny, charming and so on. Importantly, they present themselves as able to provide what the target wants or needs at that point in their life. The target is led to believe that they've met somebody, finally, who understands them.
Typically, they fall head over heels in love with this new person very quickly. Over time the behaviour of the manipulator changes. The target gets the message that if they want the good times to continue they have to modify things according to the wishes of the manipulator. Obviously, the target is not thinking this way. The manipulator complains to the target that when the target says something about subject X, it makes the manipulator feel bad. The target considers it's an easy job for them simply not to talk about this topic. In this way the target begins to modify their behaviour, their thinking and what they say in order to please the manipulator. They don't actually realise how much they are actually adapting themselves.
Over time all these little changes add up. The manipulator always has reasons and justifications for their nasty behaviour and why the target, or rather victim, actually needs to change. The victim is forced to buy into these ideas. You can read more about the dynamics in such a relationship in these articles about narcissistic boyfriends and narcissistic husbands.
The target is basically sold the perfect intimate relationship. They believe they are getting into a relationship of equals with a wonderful person. However, little by little the power imbalance is put in place by the manipulator. If the target does not understand mind control, psychopathy and narcissism then they are not aware of the psychological forces being exerted on them. They are made to be dependent on the manipulator but again they don't recognise that this is actually happening.
Very soon, the target's life is organised around that of the manipulator. They make decisions so as not to get into trouble with the manipulator. They do things to try and please the manipulator. The manipulator has made themselves the centre of the universe of the victim and the victim's life is spent making that of the manipulator easier and more comfortable and pleasant. The victim is now basically a slave to the manipulator.
The victim understands that the manipulator can compliment them and make them feel very good. The manipulator can also criticise them and make them feel very bad. When the victim hears the criticism they are actually motivated to step up and try harder to get the compliments, to please the manipulator. This sounds counterintuitive. Most people will say, "if anybody treated me badly I would just leave." However in a mind control environment where the person has this false personality, or pseudo-personality, the opposite actually happens. The abuse and humiliation actually increases the dependency of the victim on the manipulator.
The power imbalance is now fully in place and being used completely for the benefit of the manipulator. The worldview of the victim is so distorted that they may even believe that the manipulator is doing this for the benefit of the victim themselves. They have been led to believe that they deserve this treatment in order to improve themselves or even that the manipulator is doing this for the benefit of the relationship. The reality that the victim is living in is such that they cannot actually see what's going on. This is how people end up in abusive relationships for years or even decades.
A therapist patient relationship from the very word go has a power imbalance. The patient accepts that the therapist is an expert in a particular field and goes along to the therapist for help in this area. They accept that the therapist will give them advice and that they are going to follow it. Normal healthy, feeling people generally don't treat others badly and they expect not to be taken advantage of themselves. So when they go to a therapist they expect somebody in this caring profession will actually take care of them.
The difficulty arises when you have a psychopath, a sociopath or a narcissist sitting in the therapist's chair. The patient does not suspect that the person in front of them is a professional liar who is going to elicit all sorts of personal information from them and then use this information against them. All they want is help. They want somebody to fix their problem. That's what they believe they are paying for. They are not prepared for the chaos and drama that this manipulative therapist is going to put them through. The idea that the therapist is all knowing and helpful will often have the victim override any doubts they have initially.
Of course, such therapists will blame the patient if things are not going well. This further increases the power of the therapist, because, after all, the patient has gone along because their life is not working in some way. They started off with the problem that the therapist supposedly understands, and if the therapist is pointing out how much worse things are then the therapist must be right. You can read more about these ideas in this article on therapy abuse.
In the same way, a teacher-student relationship or a coach athlete relationship also has a built-in power imbalance. The learner is deferent to the teacher. It is assumed, especially by the learner, that the teacher knows more or knows best. In normal situations this is appropriate. It is useful for the learner to pay attention to the teacher and try new things that the teacher suggests with a view to improving. However, the manipulators have no problem in taking advantage of this power for their own benefit.
Just like the power imbalance aspect, the one-sided nature of abusive relationships can also be invisible to the victim. If you fall in love with the person of your dreams, with this person showering you with gifts, compliments and time, making you feel special and unique and offering you everything you dreamed of, it's very difficult to get your head around the fact that this person might actually be abusing you. You believe this person loves you and you feel sure that you love them.
You have based your whole life on these 'facts'. You have gotten married, bought a house and had children believing this person loved you. To find out that they were taking advantage of you is so at odds with your whole belief system it's devastating. Initially, it's just easier to deny that they could possibly be taking advantage of you. Every fibre of your being wants to reject outright that you are being abused because it is just too painful to even consider that. Obviously, it takes time to come to terms with such an alternative reality. Especially if the abuser is in your ear trying to convince you that everybody else is trying to trick you, claiming that they really do love you, you won't find anybody like them again, that you would be making a big mistake by walking away and so on.
Even in the teacher-student relationship the student believes they are learning, they are improving in some way and there may even be evidence of that. For any abusive behaviour present the manipulator will always have a justification. The teacher will have a sob story about why they needed to borrow money, for example, and the student was made to feel it was a good idea to lend the money to a friend in need.
In the case of sexual abuse, the sexual aspect of the relationship is sold as the next step in the person's evolution or a necessary part of the interaction between student and teacher or even that the teacher is so committed to the relationship that they need some sort of escape valve to continue. The student is led to believe that sex is that escape valve.
In cults, the members typically believe that the leader has their best interests at heart. The leader is teaching them, transforming their lives, looking out for them, making sure they learn the lessons they need to, et cetera et cetera.
The reality is that the cult leader is stealing these people's lives away from them. Money in the cult always moves towards the leadership. The members are programmed to recruit new people and these new people further improve the finances of the leadership.
If you ask cult members about the leadership they will typically tell you that the leader has changed their lives in immeasurable ways. When you ask them how they know, they will tell you that they feel it. They may not have a good relationship yet but they're working on themselves so that the perfect relationship becomes a reality. They are not making their fortune yet as evidenced by their bank account, but that's coming too. After the next programme, next year, when they get to a more advanced level then everything will be sorted out. It's always in the future.
Cult members are always aiming towards something that they never actually attain. They have been given unrealistic expectations and unattainable goals. Obviously they don't think these goals are unattainable because as far as they're concerned, the leader has already got there. They just need to imitate the leader to get the same results.
This is a trick. The leader hasn't actually attained these goals but they are very good at faking it. As long as the cult members believe that the leader is already there, they're motivated to continue in the group. When they realise the cult leader is not actually living the life they claim to be, then the doubts start.
The power imbalance shows up in all sorts of ways.
The manipulator has everything they want, the victim has to sacrifice.
The victim cannot make decisions unilaterally, they have to run things by the manipulator. The manipulator, of course, is free to make decisions any time.
Control of finances is very common in abusive situations.
The victim is trained to reveal everything about themselves, their thoughts, feelings, actions, how they spend time, where they go, who they speak to, et cetera, et cetera. Some manipulators will even disappear for days at a time without explanations.
The manipulator knows all about the victim's past and will use it against them. Many victims realize all of a sudden that they actually know very little about the manipulator.
Read more details here about the characteristics of an abusive relationship...
65 signs your partner is controlling, things manipulative people say, dealing with controlling people, living with controlling people and how to leave a controlling relationship.
Would you like to talk to someone about your situation?
If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.
You have the theory but how do you actually apply it? This book spells it out...
Do you think that you might be in an abusive relationship? Are you realizing that the group you are in may be a cult?
Do you think you are being taken advantage of emotionally, physically, sexually or financially in your relationship? Do you want to leave but you can't seem to get away?