It’s perfectly normal to feel confused when trying to decide if your partner’s behavior is abusive or controlling. Our brains are wired to prioritize connection to our loved ones, so it’s actually healthy in most relationships to overlook some bad behaviors (just as we hope some of our bad behaviors will be overlooked). We aren’t stupid or weak if we are confused or feel we’ve overlooked signs that might seem obvious to others. Plus, our narrative of an “abusive” relationship doesn’t always match what these real relationships look like, and the people we love are more than just their worst moments.
It’s also really normal to wonder if you are the abusive one in the relationship. Our behaviors aren’t always perfect, sometimes we react by treating someone the way they’ve been treating us, and it’s also common for an abusive partner to accuse us of the thing they are afraid of seeing in themselves.
Reality Testing Questions for Controlling/Abusive behavior:
1. Who is most often organizing around whom? Are you usually organizing around their wants and beliefs and desires? How often do they organize their life around what you want? Does this feel balanced?
2. Are their responses generally predictable? Or do you have to do a lot of mental work to try and understand why they do and says things? Does this feel stable/reliable/trustworthy?
3. Do you feel heard or understood or respected after discussions or conflicts? Do you feel confused/resigned/resentful/crazy?
4. Do you or your partner frame the other person as all good or all bad? Do either of you see yourself/them as good guy or the bad guy in most/all conflicts?
5. Do you find yourself looking for someone to blame for difficult situations, even when no one is really to blame? Do you find yourself accepting blame for things for which you aren’t responsible?
6. Do you feel supported or belittled for your achievements? Do you find yourself supporting or belittling the accomplishments of your partner?
7. Do you support your partner in relationships with friends and family? Do you feel like your partner put limits on your relationships or acts jealous when you want to spend time with other people?
8. Do you or your partner use logic or arguments to belittle or dismiss the other’s opinions and feelings? Do you either of you roll your eyes or show contempt toward each other’s beliefs or feelings?
9. Do you feel safe, emotionally and physically with your partner? Does your partner share vulnerable or difficult or opposing opinions or feelings with you and you with them? Does the feeling of safety and respect to disagree go both ways?
We all have moments of “acting like a jerk” or not living up to who we want to be. Some controlling behaviors can happen occasionally in a lot of relationships, one or two incidents are cause to pause and take stock, but what is really important are patterns of behavior, do these things happen consistently? Are the behaviors escalating? Do you feel safe?
Lisa Butterworth, LPC, NCC has a masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Idaho State University, primarily working with issues of relational health, faith transitions and journeys, women's issues and sexuality. She is the founder of the popular Feminist Mormon Housewives website and support group.