How To Recognize Subtle Abuse

If the last 6 months have taught me anything, it’s that, despite everything I have experienced, everything I’ve read to educate myself about every aspect of abuse, every experience I’ve heard from other women, every counseling session I’ve had, every bit of healing I’ve done since I fled my abusive situation, it’s still possible to fall victim to another abusive situation.

You’re probably rolling your eyes after reading that but bear with me; there is a point. Nearly everyone I have spoken to, regarding their experiences, has mentioned the sense of shame a victim feels when they’re in an abusive situation. It’s hard to admit that it’s happening to you because people wonder, “Why don’t you just leave?!” If only it were that easy.

My point is {and has always been} this: Nobody is immune.

Just over 6 months ago, my granddaughter was born. Her father, “BD” is someone my daughter has known for a few years now and, after my granddaughter’s birth, I watched the young parents revel in the joy of holding and caring for their newborn. Although it wasn’t an ideal situation, I decided that it would be best for all concerned for “BD” to move in with us so that the new family wasn’t split. I was doing what I thought was best so that the 3 of them would have a good start and move toward an independent life. My heart was in the right place and I really thought that we, as an extended family, would be beneficial to my granddaughter’s formative years.

We expected that the adjustment period would be difficult for all of us…and it was. Absorbing the belongings of 2 more people was challenging and it required some creative organizing skills on our part, but we managed. I’ll be honest ~ I was never particularly close to “BD” but I did expect that to change as time passed. I was open to a bond forming because, as I reminded him on many occasions, my granddaughter was his daughter which made us family. I felt willing to overlook historical dynamics for my granddaughter’s sake.

After living with “BD” a couple of months, his attitude was indicative of someone who wasn’t interested in a familial relationship with us. We had many conversations following several explosive arguments and nothing we said made any difference. The household tension was palpable and constant. As a result, I was diagnosed with borderline clinical depression which led to the realization that the household dynamic was almost identical to the one I’d escaped from in early 2010. I experienced panic attacks and PTSD episodes, which made us feel as though we had to leave our house to get any peace {also reminiscent of how I felt all those years ago when I lived with abuse}. My home was no longer a sanctuary for me. Although the answer seemed simple enough, it wasn’t. We couldn’t ask “BD” to leave without the possibility of my daughter {and the baby} leaving with him. It was a prime example of how much a parent endures for his or her children; I felt it was more important for my daughter to stay so that we could be there for her. We continued to appeal for a peaceful household but found ourselves repeating the familiar cycle ~ things improving for a little while until the next explosion. My depression was getting worse and I was experiencing more panic attacks/PTSD episodes; it was obvious that things weren’t going to get any better so we asked “BD” to leave. As predicted, my daughter and the baby moved out with him. Although I understand her decision, I miss her and the baby terribly. Part of being a mom is letting our children go so that they get a taste of reality “out there”. My daughter is intelligent and she is strong because of what she’s been through; I’ve never had any doubts about her making it but, as her mother, I wanted to take care of her for just a bit longer until she was more prepared for her life of independence.

I’m sharing this because I wanted everyone who reads this to know that I, an abuse survivor of almost 7 years, found myself in another abusive situation. It’s important to note that what we experienced was a different kind of abuse. In retrospect, I don’t really believe that any of it was deliberate, but I do believe that people aren’t aware of how their behavior or attitude comes across. There are subtle types of abuse that are easily dismissed as someone being “overly sensitive” to “non-violent” behavior. What people must understand is that abuse is not always direct, violent or even intended. What constitutes “abuse” is behavior that has a harmful effect on an entire household and the people within it. It’s possible for an abuser to purposely use subtle forms of abuse to make it more difficult for victims to prove, but it’s also possible for someone to exhibit abusive qualities without awareness that they’re doing it.

Some of the examples of subtle abuse:

  • Perpetual silent treatment. When someone consistently enters common areas of a home without ever addressing the other people who live there, it creates a very tense environment. The silent treatment was often a very effective tool in my past abusive situations because of the tension it created in the house. Someone who is unapproachable by showing an unwillingness to talk makes effective communication virtually impossible.
  • Expectations of help without gratitude or reciprocation. Always receiving but never giving or displaying appreciation is pretty common in an abusive relationship. The abuser demands ~ and receives ~ what s/he wants, with the understanding that if s/he doesn’t get it, the household will descend into chaos. The abuser then breezes through an easy life, having “conditioned” those in the household to comply…or ELSE.
  • Refusal to contribute to household chores. Abusers expect everyone else to clean up their messes because it’s “not their job”. They’ll throw out every excuse in the book when confronted or resort to the silent treatment or chaos to avoid confrontation.
  • Passive/aggressive “communication”. This is an indirect form of communication that involves someone”ranting” on social media platforms instead of a healthy face-to-face discussion. Often, there’s little or no awareness that there’s a problem until there’s a vague, angry post on Twitter or Facebook that’s obviously directed at a specific person or people. It can also happen randomly via text message. A verbal attack, on any platform, is considered abuse.

I’m still learning about abuse, even now, and my past experiences allow me to see things with more clarity. In the last 6 months, I learned that it’s possible to experience abuse without the semblance of a tangible relationship or even an actively communicative one. Despite our efforts to cultivate a relationship, the incompatibility was almost impossible to overcome, even in the name of family. The animosity directed at us wasn’t reciprocated in the least, but we were still constantly aware of it. What people must realize is that an intense emotion is enough to affect the household dynamic; if someone exudes negativity and hatred, it affects everyone in their proximity, intended or not. If a resolution isn’t possible, make the necessary changes to rid your household of the toxicity as soon as possible.

It will also serve you to remember the following points:

  • Don’t cast blame on yourself or anyone else involved. It’s healthier to chalk it up to incompatibility. Not everyone is able to co-exist in the same house, but prolonging a situation is not a requirement if it’s not working out.
  • Remember that every situation/set of circumstances is a potential learning experience. There’s no point in beating ourselves up when negative things happen to us. We experience things because we must learn and grow from those experiences.
  • Keep calm at all times. When it comes down to it, battles are a waste of time. Situations can escalate to a critical point which doesn’t help anyone. Keep things on civil terms; being happy is far better than being right.
  • Give yourself time and permission to heal.

What sorts of subtle abuse have you personally experienced? If you have anything at all to add or share, please feel free to do so.

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