The Downside of Being Adaptable, or Signs of an Abusive Relationship

(Feel free to scroll past my ramblings for the list of warning signs.)

One of the truly remarkable things about human beings is how adaptable we are. When we feel it’s necessary, we can adjust to any situation with some degree of comfort. There are people who travel with very little money and very few possessions to new countries, learn the local language, and thrive there. There are people who live in poverty without any of the comforts to which many of us are accustomed, and are still happy. There are people who suffer debilitating illnesses or injuries that leave them permanently maimed, and find a way to adapt their habits and lifestyle to those changes. There are people with disabilities who live happier lives than some of us without them. What you are used to becomes normal, you find a way to accept it and survive, and you adapt to those circumstances. If you live that way long enough, you become comfortable and you don’t even feel that you need the comforts and lifestyle that you may have once missed. The human mind is an amazing thing, allowing us to survive and even prosper in the worst of conditions.

However, that remarkable adaptability may be the most insidious thing about an abusive relationship. When your largest or only influence is the person you’re with, it’s easy to believe the things they tell you, to stop questioning when your points of view differ. If you didn’t lay out clear lines of what would and wouldn’t be acceptable to you at the start, your perception of what is acceptable can start to blur. You make concessions until you don’t remember what you wanted anymore, and you aren’t sure what really matters or who is right. It becomes easy to lose yourself, to lose sight of the difference between making a compromise out of love for someone and allowing yourself to be devalued and mistreated.  What that man or woman tells you becomes your reality, and the way you are living becomes your normal. What this means is that it is easy to be in an abusive situation without realizing that it is abusive, because you’ve adapted.

My ex used to tell me I was silly for the way I reacted to his behaviour (especially before he started getting violent), because it’s totally normal to get upset and angry, or to be jealous, or to have certain expectations to which I objected. He used to insist that all adult relationships were like that, and I just haven’t loved someone enough or been in a serious enough relationship to understand yet. This was the first relationship I’d been in that was serious enough to move in together, and when we were with his ex-wife/my ex-girlfriend they used to fight all the time, to the point that I would sometimes come home to find the apartment torn apart. My parents were easy to discount as a valid model, after they way they had mistreated and abandoned me — their idea of love was no longer valid.  So this idea of serious relationships always being turbulent felt believable to me. He insisted that love was about making concessions, and that I should modify my behaviour too; he wouldn’t lose his temper if people didn’t do things that made him angry. It was all textbook abuser nonsense, but I had no knowledge of that at the time. I questioned at first, but as time went on, I came to believe it all, because I had no resource or voice contradicting him, and I didn’t place enough trust in the voice in the back of my head.

Then one day, while he was out of the house, I stumbled upon this list in a random reddit forum. I read through it out of pure curiosity, not because I had any concerns about my own relationship… but the bullet points sounded familiar… and then I started to feel uncomfortable.

My first thoughts went something like, “Jesus, you could make any relationship fit these criteria. This isn’t useful at all. Is this what they call abuse now??” But as I worked my way down the list, I started thinking about things a little more objectively. My thoughts changed to “Wow, I guess he really does do these things,” and then finally “…and that’s probably not okay, is it?”

I was shocked. I was baffled. I had no idea what to make of the information in front of me.

I printed out the list. I checked off the bullet points that fit my situation (which were most of them). I read it over and over and over again, and then I left it on my desk to come back to later. When my then boyfriend got home, it wasn’t long before he spotted the marked up list set out next to my computer. I realized that I had been a little afraid of what would happen when he saw it. But (very, very fortunately) he didn’t get angry, just confused. He said, “What is this? Do you think I’m abusing you?” I honestly didn’t know what I thought yet, so all I said was, “I dunno… you do a lot of the things on this list.” We didn’t really talk about it. I let him read it. He looked more confused, and then concerned, made a few vague comments to nobody in particular, and then he walked away.

He could certainly be a manipulative person, but I sincerely believe that at that point, he had never really examined the way he treated others (though this is not necessarily true of all abusers). He had never really considered that what he was doing was abusive. And neither had I, not really. It was another two years before I developed the resolve and the courage to leave. But stumbling upon that list was the catalyst that led me to think outside my tiny sphere of influence and seek out other friends and influences, and may have saved my life. So for those of you out there who may be in a situation like the one I was in, here is that list. I hope it helps you, too.

(Sorry that I can’t cite the source – I found this years ago and had it written in an old journal. I have no idea what website it came from, but a quick google shows very similar lists on many mental health and DV websites.)

You may be in an abusive relationship if your partner…

  • is jealous or possessive
  • tries to control you by being bossy or demanding
  • tries to isolate you by demanding you cut off social contacts
  • is violent or loses their temper quickly
  • pressures you sexually, demands sexual acts you are not comfortable with
  • abuses drugs or alcohol
  • claims you are responsible for their emotional state, blames you if they mistreat you
  • has a history of bad or unhealthy relationships
  • your family or friends have warned you about them
  • you worry frequently about how they will react to things you say or do
  • they make “jokes” that shame, demean, or embarrass you (privately or in front of others)
  • they grew up with abuse in their household
  • “rages” when feeling hurt, shame, fear, or loss of control

Other signs:

  • Both parties may develop a drug or alcohol dependency.
  • You leave and return to them, despite advice from others.
  • You have trouble ending the relationship, even though you feel like you should.
  • They constantly keep track of your time.
  • They accuse you of being unfaithful or flirting with others.
  • They discourage relationships with family or friends.
  • They constantly criticize or belittle you.
  • They control your finances and force you to account for what you spend.
  • They humiliate you in front of others..
  • They destroy or take your personal property
  • They have affairs. (I will add here that this constitutes nonconsensual affairs, partners who exist in secret or outside an agreed upon monogamous relationship.)
  • They threaten to hurt you, your children, or your pets.
  • They threaten to hurt themself if you leave, or say they could never live without you.
  • They push, hit, slap, kick, or bite you.
  • They force or demand you to have sex against your will.

If you, like I did, find yourself nodding along in uncomfortable recognition with many of these bullet points, please please please don’t just stare at it for two years like I did.  Pack your bags and get out.  Or at least talk to someone. Talk to a friend, call a family member, run to a neighbour, something. There are people who care about you, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. And if these options feel out of reach to you, I will link some resources.

A quick bit of research landed me onto this website, which expresses neutrality to gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation (though some of the violence stats they cite are a little outdated or based on studies that are skewed… forgive my pedantry). I will link the site’s blog entry on male victims (complete with a list of external resources) because it isn’t easy to navigate to from within the website, but the hotline services anyone who finds themself in a potentially abusive relationship, and there are also more easily accessible links on LGBT relationships and many other specifics. Regardless of your gender or anything else, you can reach the hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or (TTY – for the deaf) 1-800-787-3224, or you can go to their website and use their instant chat service, if that’s more comfortable.

I understand how hard it is to think outside your situation, how trapped you might be feeling, and how surreal it is to think that the person you love might be mistreating you. I think the biggest factor that held me back from leaving was not wanting to believe it was as serious as it was. When someone has been pulling your strings like a puppet master for so long, you trust them, and you lose sight of yourself and your agency. I was more afraid of the effort and risk of leaving than I was of continuing to live like a slave for the foreseeable future, and looking back, that terrifies me more than anything. I gave up my humanity to stay where I felt comfortable, in the situation to which I had adapted.  I did this because it had become my normal, and trying to imagine existing outside it was difficult.

Even as I sat in that police station, alone, safe, and face to face with a man who was doing his very best to help me and offer me services, my mind was racing. What if I’m overreacting? What if I’m just being emotional, and I’m considering arresting someone I love for something that isn’t that serious? What if I’m not overreacting? What will he do to me if I throw the book at him? Can I really get out of this and be safe? Can any of this really be happening? Am I a statistic now? When did it get so serious? What all does this entail?  What should I do now? When I was finished with this lightning-speed train of thought, I was still stunned to be where I was. It still felt surreal to be in a police station, bruised and tear-stained. There were marks on my body from a physical altercation with my partner, and I was still questioning whether or not I should be there.  I still thought to myself, this isn’t something that would ever happen to me.

But it did happen to me, it was real, and I had every right to escape by whatever means I could. And for years I did nothing to help myself. It took this list of warning signs, two years, and two friends in a weekend sitting me down and telling me, “You’re not happy, and you’re not yourself,” before I was ready to be my own advocate and free myself.

Calling a phone number isn’t hard. Packing your things isn’t hard (and I must have done it a dozen times before I ended things for real). Saying “no more” isn’t hard. Applying to new apartments isn’t hard (and I did that a few times, too). Walking away from a living nightmare isn’t hard. None of that is hard. But getting up the strength to admit that you have to, acknowledging that your situation calls for it, believing that you have value as a human being and deserve peace and safety, that can feel like a herculean task.

I know I’m a stranger. I know that my ongoing fight for you and everyone like you may look silly or inconsequential or naive from where you’re sitting, but please believe me when I say that you deserve to be free. I know this, without knowing anything about you, because you’re a person. And that’s all I need to know. Nobody deserves to be abused, controlled, harassed, beaten, or demeaned. Especially not in your own home, especially not by someone who professes to love you. I don’t care what kind of background or history you come from, what you’ve done, who you are, what you’ve been told, your sex, your gender identity, your sexual orientation, or anything else about you – You matter.

Now ask yourself some questions:

  • Did those bullet points above sound like my relationship?
  • Do I feel unsafe at home?
  • Am I afraid of my partner?
  • Do I feel judged or disrespected by my partner?
  • Am I uncomfortable or embarrassed to be with them in front of people I know, or in public?
  • Am I unhappy in my relationship?

If so, you don’t have to live like that. Your happiness matters. You matter. And if your partner makes you feel like you don’t, go find a safe place to call one of those numbers.



Filed under domestic violence

4 responses to “The Downside of Being Adaptable, or Signs of an Abusive Relationship

  1. Josh

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful posting. What you say resonates with me deeply. I will also say this as a current abuse victim who is a man who is a feminist and definitely not one of those men’s rights people. There is a particularly strong bias in society when it comes to “assigning blame” for abuse. My wife is abusive to me and when push came to shove (her pushes and shoves) she would always threaten to say that I hit her. Yesterday I was fortunate enough to have an actual police officer witness her abusive behavior towards me (though it was timid compared to other things that she is done). I still don’t know if I can leave her because she is dependent on me. I found a similar checklist on reddit for codependency and it really fits me. For practical reasons though, how can I cut someone off if I am her sole financial support while she is finishing school?


    • Josh, I’m so sorry that you’re in that position. My ex was financially dependent upon me too, and I felt guilty for wanting to leave him. But when I finally got around to thinking about the way he treated me, I realized that my happiness was worth more than that sense of obligation. He lost the right to my respect and my money the first time he hit me, but it took me years to believe that. I implore you not to wait years to realize that you deserve to be happy and safe.

      You don’t owe your wife anything on principle alone. A marriage should be a partnership of equals who love and respect each other, not a hollow obligation of one generous person to an abusive one. If she mistreats you, she doesn’t deserve your financial support, and she doesn’t deserve you. With respect to assigning blame, the blame lies with her for the way she treats you, which is a choice she’s making, and anything she loses as a result of her unethical actions is on her. Would you repay an offer of free money with a push or shove? Would you expect that offer to be extended to you again if you did? You’re kindness is being met with cruelty. Love does not obligate you to tolerate cruelty.

      Look at what you just typed to me and try to remove yourself from the situation. Imagine a friend was telling you what you told me. How would you advise him? Would you tell him to stay in a relationship with someone who hurts him? Would you have told me that? As you read this blog entry, were you thinking that perhaps I should have stayed with him? Probably not.

      If your wife wants to get through school on someone else’s bill, she can treat that person with a little human respect. If she can’t handle that, she’s got to go.

      If you don’t feel safe having that discussion with her, by the way, PLEASE call one of those numbers, or at least talk to someone you trust. It took me seeing this list, waiting two years, and talking to two different friends to acknowledge that I deserved better. You deserve better, too. Nobody deserves to be treated that way. Everyone is entitled to safety, especially at home.


  2. TheVillain117

    Thank you so much for posting relevant and reputable assistance for men and women both. It can be especially difficult in the self diagnosing culture in which we live to actually parse out what does and doesn’t qualify as abuse per say, but the important thing is to talk about it with someone (ideally trained). I knew a guy in college whose girlfriend was exceptionally controlling, and quite frankly a master of social manipulation. It saddened me that most other men (and women) regarded him as “whipped”. Isn’t it funny that the term we use for a controlled guy borrows from the act of beating a slave?

    The hardest hurdle I’ve seen (personally and professionally) is when the person on the receiving end of the abuse chooses it over the prospect of being alone. There’s a wealth of psychology out there that draws on attachment issues, and there’s no silver bullet (which is true of most psychology).When discussing this issue at length with survivors and trained therapists, I played Devil’s advocate and asked a straightforward question. The same one I pose to you, Jackalope.

    Is it slavery when you get what you want?


    • This is a great question. It’s always difficult to parse personal choice from manipulation in these situations. I consider myself, to a certain degree, to have chosen my fate for the many years that I stayed with my ex after things got objectively violent and abusive (I explain this more in “Victim Blaming vs. Empowerment”). If a person wants to stay, truly wants to stay, I suppose that’s that, but there should always be available avenues for escape. A relationship should exist out of mutual benefit and enjoyment, not because the alternative is frightening or inaccessible.

      I suppose it’s also a question of whether or not your friend is being honest with you. Does he really want to stay with her, or is he justifying his actions to you? Is he afraid to leave? Does he think he doesn’t deserve better? Only he knows. I used to tell everyone that I was happy, that my ex was perfect for me, and that I couldn’t imagine being with anyone else, all the while journaling about how afraid I was and concealing bruises with long sleeves and makeup.

      So I suppose the short answer is, only your friend knows if he is actually happy, but it’s important that he has access to the help he needs if he isn’t.


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