In healthy relationships, all parties involved:
- Respect each other, even when there are differences
- Feel safe talking about and processing emotions and feelings
- Engage in healthy forms of conflict resolution
- Have the space to make their needs known
- Are willing to compromise, at least sometimes
- See the dignity and worth in their partner(s) and their partner(s)’ friends, families, extracurricular activities, work life, etc.
- Know that they can be accepted as their true selves
Characteristics of Unhealthy Relationships can include:
- Abuse (ex: emotional, physical, sexual, financial, etc.)
- Controlling behavior (ex: telling a partner who they can and can’t talk to)
- Lack of communication
- Using privilege to create unbalanced power dynamics (ex: a partner who is a citizen threatening to deport a partner that isn’t)
- Gaslighting (a tactic that tries to make someone doubt their own perception or memory)
- Threatening to hurt oneself or others
- Blaming others
Violence in relationships can be cyclical, and often has three phases. In the Calm/Honeymoon phase, everything seems to be going well. There might be dates, lots of affection, gifts; everyone has their best foot forward. The Tension-Building phase is when things might start to become strained. Any healthy relationship will inevitably have tension and conflict; what makes a relationship unhealthy is how the tension and/or conflict is handled and resolved. In unhealthy relationships, conflict isn’t handled in a healthy way. Fighting often escalates to a Violence phase. In this phase, someone might perpetrate any kind of abusive behavior, including emotional, financial, reproductive, physical, and/or sexual abuse. This phase can then shift into the Calm/Honeymoon phase again; sometimes, in this post-violence Calm phase, the person who perpetrates abuse might apologize and promise that they will change. Overall, the relationship can cycle through these three phases with behavior often escalating across all phases.
It is natural to want to see the best in someone, especially loved ones. It can be very difficult to see what in hindsight might look like red flags indicating abusive behavior. Below are just some examples of potential red flags; there are countless ways to engage in any kind of abuse. If you notice these or similar behaviors from someone you are in a relationship with and are able to distance yourself from them early on, that might help to prevent experiencing more abuse later. However, there may be many reasons why someone might not feel safe leaving someone who is engaging in abusive behavior. In such cases, a support system becomes extra important and necessary. That system can include domestic violence shelters, counselors, Sexual Misconduct Support Services managers, friends, family, and/or any organizations that might offer resources such as transportation to another location.
- Language: using insulting names or calling someone hurtful adjectives such as “stupid”, using swear words or generally coarse language directed at a partner
- Threats: threatening to hurt oneself or others, such as one’s partner, children, or pets including using “or else” statements, threats of physical, emotional, verbal, financial, sexual abuse, and more
- Tone: using a tone that conveys anger or any emotion that might transform an otherwise banal or neutral statement into an insult, threat, or hint of future violence
- Controlling Behavior: attempting to control and isolate through any variety of tactics such as deciding who a partner can and can’t hang out with, demanding things of a partner rather than asking for something, and constantly monitoring a partner’s phone, their communication with others, their daily activities, their money, etc.
- Gaslighting: attempting to make someone doubt their own perception or memory of something that happened or is happening
- Manipulation: using any number of subtle tactics to get one’s way, including holding the relationship hostage, trying to tell one’s partner that they don’t love them if they won’t do a certain task for them, etc.
- Violence: using unwanted and forceful contact such as grabbing, pushing, kicking, slapping, punching, and strangling
- Threatening body language: using forceful movements such as lunging towards someone, glaring at someone, or aggressively invading others’ personal space
- Damaging property: damaging personal property, such as smashing dishes or breaking furniture
Support for Oneself
Intimate partner abuse and violence is never okay, and it is more common than we may think. If you’ve identified that your partner(s) exhibits any of the controlling or aggressive behaviors listed above, know that you are not alone and that you have options.
Below is a list of potential ways to support yourself. Remember, you are the expert of your own life, so what works for you might not work for others. And it’s ok if it feels scary or strange to try to seek help. The dynamic between someone who is being abusive and the people they abuse is strategically created to discourage anyone from acknowledging or addressing the problem. Above all, one thing is clear: it your right as a human being to feel safe in all of your relationships.
- Know that this is not your fault: Abuse is the fault of one person and one person only: the person who decides to commit abuse against others.
- Support Hotline: If you’re unsure how to get away from an abusive partner, feel free to contact a support hotline for assistance. The National Domestic Abuse Hotline provides 24/7 phone assistance.
- Support System of Friends and Family: If you feel safe doing so, you can tell trusted friends and family members about what is going on and let them know what you might need, whether that is space to vent, a place to stay, etc.
- Safety Planning: Consider a safety plan that might involve keeping a packed bag with supplies and important documents in a hidden location or creating code words to use with friends so that they know that you feel unsafe
- List of Safe Places: You can create and memorize a list of safe places to go to at any given moment. This list might include a campus counseling center, a trusted friend’s dorm room, a shelter, or a residence hall staff office.
- Documenting Hostile Communications: It can be emotionally painful to save threatening messages that your partner sends. However, voice messages, emails, IMs, and other hostile communications can be immensely useful to demonstrate a history of violence when you speak with counselors or authorities.
- Confidential Resources: Most, if not all, college campuses have on-site counselors and other confidential resources who are trained to help with relationship assault and domestic violence. If you can’t find a way to contact a campus counselor or Sexual Misconduct Support Services manager directly, you can ask a resident advisor, professor, or academic advisor to help you explore these resources. Note: Most staff and faculty members are mandated reporters, so if you disclose incidents of abuse, they may have to report that information.
- Call the Police: If you are being threatened, one course of action might be to attempt to reach a safe place and call 911, campus police, or local law enforcement.
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Website: https://www.thehotline.org/ (also has chat option and more information)
Phone: 1.800.799.SAFE (7233)
Support for Others
One of the things we do sometimes in the face of very difficult conversations is we try to make things better. If I share something with you that’s difficult, I’d rather you say, “I don’t even know what to say right now I’m just so glad you told me.” Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.
It’s ok if you aren’t sure what say to someone who might be going through something traumatic. When it comes to being there for someone, no matter what they might be going through, anyone can be an advocate if you stay present, really listen, and validate their experience. It’s also important to make sure not to judge or blame anyone through our words, expressions, body language, or tone.
- Recognize that it takes courage to come forward
- Be fully present and listen without judgment
- Do not interrupt or tell them how to feel
- Avoid using any sentences that begin with, “At least…”
- Remember that there is no “correct” way to deal with violence
- Know that many survivors choose not to report
- Try not to press for answers to questions
- Direct them to other resources
- Trust that they know what is best for them
- Ask them how you can help