Where is the line between “normal” and abusive in relationships?

frog looking out of cooking pot for help. a red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas), closeup isolated on white

By now everyone has probably heard the tale of the frog placed in the pot of water and set on the stove. Gradually the heat is turned up. The frog makes no attempt to get out of the pot. Because the temperature increases gradually, the frog doesn’t notice and thinks it is normal.

Relationships can be a lot like that. Sometimes, we start out happy–with our new love, with our new boss–then gradually things deteriorate. As it happens slowly, over a period of time, we fail to notice the impact it is having on our mental and physical health. If we do experience discomfort from time to time we may excuse it away… this happens to everyone, it’s normal.

So, what’s the difference between normal and abusive?

In any relationship, it is pretty common for the honeymoon to wear off. Things like bills and deadlines can dirty up those rose colored glasses we initially wore. Yet, in a healthy relationship, there is a sense of teamwork, shared responsibility, partnership toward common goals. We might feel tired from the effort, yet we also often feel appreciated for what we contribute and are compensating through things like companionship and fun. It’s not all peaches and cream. We disagree from time to time and may even stomp off mad or raise our voices, but when troubles come, we work together to find solutions. Or, if the relationship needs to end, difficult as it might be, we are able to do so.

In an abusive relationship it is not uncommon for things to start out really strong–maybe  even a little bit too strong. Nothing and no one is perfect, yet it can often seem just too good to be true. When a problem arises (as they always do in life), in an abusive relationship there will only be one person held responsible and that will be you. Often you will be punished for your perceived transgression–bullied, excluded, demeaned, isolated, physically harmed. The partner or boss is in control, and s/he expands their control whenever possible, while you are left to walk on eggshells hoping not to upset them. Sometimes, they will apologize. They may even give you a gift or some sign of recognition. They may promise you it won’t ever happen again or beg you not to leave or tell anyone. Yet, it does happen again. And often, over time, it gets worse. If you want to end the relationship, you will likely be threatened or worse.

Because abuse (verbal/emotional, physical, sexual, economic, psychological) can happen infrequently or gradually increase, it can seem like it’s not real or it’s bound to get better. We can all do a better job of learning to manage conflict in our interpersonal relationships, but it is important to know that the usual tools won’t work within the dynamics of an abusive relationship.

While it can feel overwhelming to even contemplate taking steps to leave an abusive relationship, you are not alone. Others have also been where you are. It is not your fault (even if you are being told it is). There is support available. If you are experiencing abuse (wherever it is taking place), you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline today at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224 or visit their site at http://www.thehotline.org/ for support.

Bobbie L. Dillon, M.S., empowers people to create Peace-Full Relationships™–fulfilling authentic relationships–as a Peace-Full Relationships™ Coach, Trainer, & Relationship Mediator™. Check out more resources and on-line and in-person classes at BobbieDillon.com. Follow her on Twitter Facebook & LinkedIn

Bobbie Dillon