Abusive behaviour – How to Recognise Abusive Relationships


It’s not always easy to tell victim from abuser

Abusive behaviour – During the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, our attention turns to domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. South Africa still has a shameful track record of gender-based violence, despite years of awareness raising and activism. While not all intimate partner violence is directed at women, the vast majority involves men exerting power – either physically or emotionally – over women.

Abusive behaviour

As part of the 16 Days of Activism, this article will examine the nature and manifestations of relationship abuse, because not all abuse is obvious and not all abusers appear to be monsters. We will also explore the increasing incidence of victims who adopt abusive behaviour, and abusers who position themselves as victims. Situations of domestic abuse can be complex and it is not always easy for family and friends – or even those directly involved – to understand what is going on.

From victim protection to victim identity

Psychologists have identified a new phenomenon linked to our “age of entitlement”: victim identity. This is defined as a “focus on damages suffered at the hands of other people”. Abusers often describe themselves as victims and may claim that their partner’s behaviour is abusive. They have almost certainly convinced themselves of this and genuinely believe they are the victims of abuse, for example when their partner disagrees with them or doesn’t comply with their wishes. However, unlike the genuine survivors of abuse, those with a victim identity show no compassion for others and tend to be self-righteous.

Victim turned abuser

It sometimes happens that adult abusers were themselves abused as children. This is particularly true of sexual abuse, a fact that has come to light with recent high-profile cases. However, it is a myth that all people who were sexually abused as children go on to become abusers. According to 1in6.org, a charity set up to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences live healthier, happier lives, most people who abuse others were abused as children, but the reverse is not true. Most people abused as children do not go on to abuse others.

However, sometimes victims develop coping strategies that can manifest as abusive behaviours. According to relationship psychotherapist Aron Strong, abusive behaviour serves three primary functions for people who have themselves been abused:

  • It enables them to take what they need or want because they don’t think it will be offered to them
  • It helps them overcome feelings of powerlessness
  • It serves to vent frustration and pain

There is no apparent gender bias in these strategies. Both men and women may become pitiless or brutal as a means of dealing with what has happened to them. Sometimes a mother’s treatment of her child may be unnecessarily harsh because she feels powerless in her adult relationship.

There are never any excuses for abusive behaviour towards another person (or other living creature). Understanding the motive behind someone’s antisocial action does not forgive it. But it will help a good therapist approach treatment appropriately. If you have a friend or family member who has become uncharacteristically abusive towards others, this might be a sign that they are experiencing abuse themselves.

Recognising abusive behaviour

Abuse is not always physical. There may be no external signs. Even where it is physical – i.e. sexual – it may not be apparent to an observer. As the lines between victim and abuser become blurred, we describe the different types of abuse and how to recognise signs of abuse, either in your own relationship or in those you care about.

Types of abusive behaviour

Womenagainstabuse.org lists six different types of abuse. They are:

1.     Physical abusive behaviour. This could take the form of:

  • Hitting, slapping, punching, kicking
  • Burning
  • Strangulation
  • Damaging personal property
  • Refusing medical care and/or controlling medication
  • Coercing partner into substance abuse
  • Use of weapons

2.     Emotional abusive behaviour, which is control of someone via:

  • Name calling, insulting speech
  • Blame casting
  • Jealous behaviour
  • Intimidation
  • Shaming, humiliating
  • Isolating the partner from family and friends
  • Controlling the partner’s movements

3.     Sexual abusive behaviour

  • Forcing the partner to have sex with other people
  • Pursuing sex when the partner is not fully conscious or is afraid to say no
  • Hurting the partner physically during sex
  • Forcing the partner to have sex without protection

4.    Technological abusive behaviour – using technology to control and stalk someone. This has gained prominence, particularly among teenagers, with the rise of social media and online “grooming”; but it can be used by people in conventional relationships too. It involves:

  • Hacking into the partner’s email and personal accounts
  • Using tracking devices via cell phone to monitor the partner’s location, phone calls and messages
  • Monitoring the partner’s social media activity
  • Demanding passwords from the partner in order to access online accounts

5.    Financial abuse. A form of emotional abuse, it is nevertheless considered separately because it is a very specific way of controlling someone and needs to be recognised as such. It can include:

  • Inflicting physical harm or injury that would prevent the person from attending work, thereby exerting power over the partner’s earning capacity
  • Harassing the partner at their workplace
  • Controlling financial assets and/or putting the partner on an “allowance”
  • Damaging the partner’s credit score

6.    Abuse by immigration status. In a country where there are undocumented immigrants, such as South Africa, this is a very effective way of controlling someone, as the threat of being sent to a repatriation centre or deported is very frightening. Such abuse may involve:

  • Destroying immigration papers or removing the passport
  • Threatening to hurt the partner’s family in their home country
  • Threatening to report the partner to the authorities or have them deported

Signs of abusive behaviour

Well-meaning outsiders often say, “I would never let myself be abused,” or, “I wouldn’t stick around if a partner treated me like that.” But domestic abuse or intimate partner violence is not something that suddenly happens one day and is readily identifiable. Rarely does someone go from being a loving partner to a tormentor in one defining action. More often it is gradual, insidious; and the nature of abuse is such that often the person being abused assumes the change in the partner’s behaviour is their own fault. Extricating oneself from the abusive situation can be very difficult, either due to a lack of financial independence or physical threats.

Women’s Aid has put together a very useful questionnaire that can help identify irregular and potentially abusive behaviour. It is designed for victims, but is equally helpful to family and friends. For “you”, simply substitute “my loved one”.

1.     Has your partner tried to keep you from seeing your friends or family?

2.     Has your partner prevented you or made it hard for you to continue or start studying, or from going to work?

3.     Does your partner constantly check up on you or follow you?

4.     Does your partner unjustly accuse you of flirting or of having affairs with others?

5.     Does your partner constantly belittle or humiliate you, or regularly criticise or insult you?

6.     Are you ever afraid of your partner?

7.     Have you ever changed your behaviour because you are afraid of what your partner might do or say to you?

8.     Has your partner ever destroyed any of your possessions deliberately?

9.     Has your partner ever hurt or threatened you or your children?

10.  Has your partner ever kept you short of money so you are unable to buy food and other necessary items for yourself and your children or made you take out loans?

11.  Has your partner ever forced you to do something that you really did not want to do?

12.  Has your partner ever tried to prevent you from taking necessary medication, or seeking medical help when you needed it?

13.  Has your partner ever tried to control you by telling you that you could be deported because of your immigration status?

14.  Has your partner ever threatened to take your children away, or said he/she would refuse to let you take them with you, or even to see them, if you left him/her?

15.  Has your partner ever forced or harassed you to have sex with him/her or with other people? Has he/she made you participate in sexual activities that you were uncomfortable with?

16.  Has your partner ever tried to prevent you from leaving the house?

17. Does your partner blame his/her use of alcohol or drugs, mental health condition or family history for his/her behaviour?

18.  Does your partner control your use of alcohol or drugs (for example, by forcing your intake or by withholding substances)?

We can help with abusive behaviour

Cape Town attorneys SD Law & Associates are experts in family law and have dealt sensitively with many cases of domestic abuse and gender-based violence. We have good relationships with local victim support groups and can ensure the emotional welfare of survivors and children is safeguarded, while we look after the legal aspects. We know how frightening it can be to take the first step out of an abusive relationship.

Contact us on 086 099 5146 or 076 116 0623 today for a confidential discussion. Or contact us. Your enquiry will be handled with the utmost discretion.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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