Carrie sat in her house, alone, replaying in her mind the argument she had with her husband before he slammed the door and left. Carrie wondered what she had done to make him so upset. “Things had gotten out of hand,” she thought. “He has a hard time controlling his anger,” she thought. “Sure, it hurts when he calls me lazy and reminds me how incompetent I am as a mother and wife, but at least he doesn’t hit me.” When night comes, her husband returns with flowers, something he knows she loves, apologizing for throwing Carrie’s favorite vase across the room causing it to shatter. Carrie feels a sense of hope. “It wasn’t that bad,” she thinks. “Look how thoughtful he is,” she says. “He apologized and has maybe learned his lesson this time,” she hopes. Carrie and her husband go to bed. Carrie’s husband taps her. She knows what that means. Carrie is tired from caring for their children all day and is still a bit hurt from the argument that morning. Her heart beating fast because she knows he won’t like the answer that she’s tired. He gets frustrated and cuts his eyes at her, reminding Carrie of her wifely duties. Carrie knows what that look means and hoping to keep her husband calm, not wanting to wake her kids from the argument that was sure to follow, Carrie complies. Carrie feels confused and weak for not being able to stand up for herself and wonders why relationships have to feel this way.

Is Carrie in an abusive relationship? He never hit her…

Absolutely. The image of a woman with a black eye is seared into the minds of many of us as the picture of a victim of domestic violence. Abuse is not solely defined by physical assault. Abuse is a constellation of tactics that in isolation may not seem serious enough to be called abuse, but are woven together in a manipulative web of intimidation, manipulation, coercion, and threats to scare, confuse and control the victim. (You can learn more about the different types of abuse here.) Although Carrie’s husband has not hit her – yet – we know that she is in an abusive relationship. What we also know about abuse tactics is they escalate over time. What begins as wanting to know where she is because he “wants to make sure she’s safe” becomes him demanding to know her whereabouts. Sarcastic “jokes” turn into insults and maybe name calling. Pouting if denied sex turns into forcing sex. Throwing objects during an argument eventually turns into forcefully grabbing and striking her or her children.

What does it feel like to be in an abusive relationship?

Tactics used by abusive partners are intended to cause fear and confusion as a way for the abusive partner to gain power and control. Being in an abusive relationship can cause feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, hypervigilance, depression or anxiety. Sleep, appetite and the ability to concentrate may be disrupted. Each woman’s experience is unique and her own, yet the common thread is her thoughts and feelings are rooted in fear.

Is it abuse or unhealthy relationship dynamics?

The hallmark distinction between an abusive relationship and an unhealthy relationship is a sense of fear. This fear is born of the tactics used by the abusive partner to exert power and control over his intimate partner. She develops a fear of wearing what she wants, a fear of saying what she wants, a fear of expressing thoughts or feelings, a fear of saying no to sex, a fear of spending time with friends or family, and a fear of his consequences.

What is a healthy relationship?

A healthy relationship maintains a sense of equality and safety, where both partners seek mutually satisfying resolutions to conflict, listening and responding to each other non-judgmentally and in an emotionally affirming way. Communication is open and truthful, with partners accepting responsibility for wrongdoings. Healthy partners show respect for each other’s right to have their own feelings, friends, activities and opinions. Life goals are mutually supported and there exists an equitable division of household and parenting responsibilities. Economic and family decisions are made together and parents are positive, nonviolent role models for their children. Partners should talk and act in a way that allows everyone to feel safe and comfortable being themselves.


Written by Katherine Crooms, women and children’s therapist at Genesis Women’s Shelter