by Hallie Cohen YWCA Violence Prevention Educator
As someone who has been doing prevention education work for 5 years now, I’ve been on both the participating and facilitating end of countless trainings on domestic violence. Almost every training presents the alarming rate of domestic violence and a list of “red flags”—behaviors that may indicate a relationships is abusive. Focusing only on behaviors and dynamics of abusive relationships seems to create a binary (a division into two groups or classes that are considered diametrically opposite) around relationships – either your relationships is abusive, or it’s healthy.
In October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I am writing on the perspective that relationships are more like a spectrum. A relationship could fall along a line ranging from healthy to abusive, and anywhere in the middle. Maybe you’ve even experienced a relationship which has moved around the spectrum, such as recognizing some unhealthy characteristics and working together to build skills and create a healthier relationship. Here’s how I imagine the relationship spectrum:
On one end of the spectrum are abusive relationships. Some might be familiar with the phrase “abuse is about power in control.” Put another way, an abusive relationship is one in which one person has power and control over the other. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person is “perfect,” but it is clear that one person has consistently used several patterns of behavior to maintain control. Physical or sexual violence, or threats of the like are always abusive. An abusive partner communicates in a way that is manipulative (such as never accepting any blame, or gaslighting, or demeaning and hurtful (such as constant put downs and insults).
In the middle are varying degrees of unhealthy relationships. In an unhealthy relationship, there is a power struggle between both partners; both people are using unhealthy behaviors. In an unhealthy relationship, communication might look more like breaks in communication—such as holding it in and not saying when you’re upset, or having conflicts that constantly turn into fights instead of respectful disagreements. An unhealthy relationship might looking at moving at a pace that feels uncomfortable, or an attachment so strong your other relationships, friendships, commitments, and hobbies suffer. If unhealthy behaviors go unchecked, the power dynamic could escalate into an abusive one.
So what is a healthy relationship? The definition that resonates most with me is “one in which power is shared equally.” Power is not always a bad thing—power can also mean feeling empowered to be your whole self, or having the power to uplift and support others. In a healthy relationship, you should:
- Feel like you can always be honest with partner. You should always feel that it’s safe for you to disagree or say no to anything.
- Be willing to trust—which often means giving your partner space and knowing they’ll honor your commitments (link to my trust blog?).
- Be having fun most, but not all, of the time. You and your partner can recognize that challenges, conflicts, and discomfort will come up. If you make a mistake, you can take responsibility for it.
- Feel like you partner respects you as a whole person, and you see yourself as an individual with interests and friendships outside of the relationship.
While it is essential that professionals and community members are knowledgeable about abusive relationships, it is equally important that we can assess and recognize unhealthy and healthy relationships. By continuing to learn, reflect, and teach on these topics, I’ve been able to recognize and either leave or improve unhealthy relationships in my life. Some great places to continue your education are www.scarleteen.com, www.loveisrespect.org, and www.joinonelove.org. Or, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about the topics we train groups on.