What to Do If You’re in an Abusive Relationship

Dear Neil: The last year of our marriage, my husband has been quite abusive to me. It’s mostly verbal, but it did get physical one time, which left me with bruises. I have forgiven him, but I’m coming to realize that I should not have to live like this. I have not reported him to the authorities—he says they wouldn’t believe me because of the great respect he has in our community.

We have no children, and he also has a loving and kind side. What do you think I should do?

Not Sure I Want to Remain With Him in New Zealand

Dear Not Sure: Missing from your letter is any indication of how you feel about your husband. Do you like him? Love him? Enjoy his company? Respect him? Are you attracted to him? Are you financially dependent on him? If your like, love and your respect for him has largely vanished, which is what it sounds like, then decide if you want the relationship to end, or if you want to give it one more try.

If you give your husband the benefit of the doubt and wish to stay with him, then set some iron-clad ground rules for him. Respected or not in his community, he is in grave danger of not being respected by his wife unless he lives by a different code of behavior.

And let me be clear about what a different code of behavior consists of. Adopt the attitude that it is totally unacceptable for him to lose himself physically again—or to threaten you, which has a similar effect. If someone you love becomes violent or threatening as a way of controlling you, or of forcing you into submission, that would be an extremely good reason to leave the relationship. And be wary of forgiving too easily or readily. Forgiving someone before he has apologized, acknowledged wrongdoing, accepted responsibility and has a clear and understandable plan for what to do the next time he gets triggered—is tantamount to agreeing to a repeat the next time he loses his temper.

Pay attention as to whether things are more likely to escalate out of control when alcohol or drugs are being used. If so, see if you can force an agreement about not using such substances, or dramatically reducing the use of such substances. If he get more triggered and out of control while under the influence, and won’t consent to stop or curtail its use, you are agreeing to remain in a potentially unsafe and out-of-control relationship.

Regarding being controlled, be on the lookout for patterns of jealousy, him feeling threatened by your interactions with others, extreme possessiveness, or questioning where you have been, who you’ve been with or who you’ve talked to. Such possessiveness is unhealthy, and it leads to you feeling more and more suffocated in the relationship, more and more under your husband’s thumb.

Also be aware of what happens when he doesn’t get his way. If he must get his way, or else he’ll angrily sulk, pout, yell, harass or wheedle you until he does, he is not displaying respect for your feelings or desires. A relationship with him is then about his needs, not yours, which makes for a far less intimate and loving marriage. If you have such a marriage, ask yourself how prepared you are to live this way indefinitely, without paying equal attention to your emotions, desires or needs.

Verbal abuse is displayed in a variety of ways. He might name-call, or use demeaning or insulting words in describing you. He may try to make you feel worthless, incompetent, unattractive or stupid. If so, his goal is to make you feel you can’t get by without him, that he is essential to your future well-being, and that you’re not good enough for anyone else except him. Hurtful names are demeaning, and have no place in a loving, caring or supportive relationship.

In order to counteract verbal abuse from your husband, you’re going to have to familiarize yourself with what his tactics consist of. Does he name-call, demand, threaten, rage, use sarcasm, use put-downs, yell, blame you or tell you how inadequate you are? Whichever tactics he uses, you’re going to have to ignore the content of what is being said to you, and instead focus on the delivery. You might say something like: “If you don’t stop calling me names, I’m going to leave the house. The way you’re talking to me feels disrespectful and rude, and I will not tolerate it anymore.” Or: “I am sick and tired of you attempting to use bully tactics in order to get me to do what you want. Stop it, or you’ll not only lose this argument, but you’re likely to lose the respect I have for you, also.”

The hardest part is going to be in enforcing these rules. If he won’t honor these iron-clad rules, you are likely to be better off without him. Better to be alone than to be cut-down, demeaned and disrespected on an ongoing basis.

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