Signs of an abusive relationship and how to create a safety plan

By The Space Between Us

What is domestic violence? What are the signs of an abusive relationship? And when should you get out of an abusive relationship? TSBU is here to answer all your questions and guide you to the resources that can help you create your own safety plan. Stay with us. We’ve got you.

Domestic violence can be physical, but it can also take the form of sexual, emotional, psychological, and financial abuse. TSBU counselling psychologist Jane Ivy Mugambi says if you’re constantly “walking on eggshells” around someone in your life, this should be seen as a red flag that you could be in an abusive relationship. 

Just reading this article is an important step for you, and we honour you for taking it, because we know it’s not easy. We’re going to start by helping you understand the signs of abuse, but if you’re worried about who might step into the room, you can click ahead to resources for a safety plan.

Signs of an abusive relationship

“In order to create awareness, it’s important to understand what an abusive relationship is,” says Mugambi. “Abuse may be termed as any act that is intended to and results in injury, harm, and control of another person mentally, emotionally, spiritually, financially, and physically. The key aspect of abuse is that it is a form of power and control of one person over another.”

And regardless of what form the abuse takes, it is never your fault.

  • Physical abuse

Physical abuse includes hitting, slapping, punching, dragging, kicking, rough or forceful handling, and any form of physical attack that inflicts bodily harm to a person. It is especially dangerous when the perpetrator tries to convince the victim that there are reasons for inflicting harm, or the victim tries to cover up because of fear, or because the victim is dependent on the abuser.

  • Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is rooted in non-consensual sexual behaviour that may take the form of molestation, rape, inappropriate or unwanted kissing or touching, and undesired sexual behaviour. Even if it’s not typically violent, if it’s non-consensual, if it’s an intimate act that you don’t want, it’s sexual abuse. This includes someone preventing your access to birth control or protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). 

  • Emotional and psychological abuse

Emotional and psychological abuse is directed to the emotions and mental wellbeing of the person and may include yelling, verbal insults, being ridiculed, silent treatment, casting doubt on your feelings and thoughts, bringing about self-doubt, second guessing your feelings and your capabilities. It can take the form of character assassination, name calling, derogatory pet names, and negging

  • Financial and economical abuse

When it comes to financial abuse, this can be deliberate or manipulative in nature. Some of the main ways that show intent to isolate and control is when access to finances is harshly monitored and controlled, basic needs are neglected, or one’s ability to be financially productive is minimised, ridiculed and sabotaged as a means to keep them dependent financially. When a partner feels that they do not have the freedom to determine and contribute to financial outcomes, this then leads to having to beg for money and daily needs, ultimately leaving one feeling oppressed and helpless.

Mugambi says that overall, abusive relationships are laced with intimidation and fear, rather than mutual respect and personal freedom to enjoy and grow within the relationship. “Anytime you feel that you are starting to isolate yourself from your usual support networks, feeling that you have to be extra careful with what you say or do, what we call ‘walking on eggshells’, these should be regarded as red flags.”

When to leave an abusive relationship

In order to build insight into your relationship, Mugambi says that one of the most important things you can do for yourself is to honour your experience and your feelings by not ignoring the small nagging gut feeling that “this is not okay, I am not okay”. 

Secondly, notice if your level of functioning is being affected, whether at home or in your work space, and you are no longer doing the things that you used to enjoy.

Thirdly, acknowledge when you are struggling with your mood and finding it difficult to express how you really feel and think. 

Fourthly, if your loved ones and those around you are reporting concern for you, making observations about unusual wearing of neck coverings, long sleeves, scars that may not be easy to explain, you may need to consider reaching out for help or getting yourself to safety. 

In addition, if you have made multiple attempts to speak to your partner about your concerns, if the blame is one-sided, and there is unwillingness to jointly work at the relationship difficulties, then that signifies that you need to reconsider and re-evaluate why you are in the relationship. 

It is time to pay attention.

Mugambi reminds us that seasons of feeling down and disappointed in relationships are normal, but the difference is that “abusive and destructive relationships exceed in severity or recurrence and there is no resolution of challenges.”

A key system to building resilience and changing the status quo is to engage in self-discovery. 

Guide yourself into self-discovery

Determine what your personal needs are in a relationship and what your relationship values are. Mugambi says there is a tendency to speak of love and friendship, but you can break it down by asking yourself these questions:

  • What does love mean to you?
  • What makes a friend a friend? 
  • How do you want to receive and give love? 
  • What do you value - is it honesty, security, respect, trust, faithfulness, communication, humour, shared spiritual values, time together, or a combination of several things?

Consider if any of these values are missing or a mismatch that leaves you in a worse state of mind, body, and spirit. 

Recognise that you are not responsible for anyone’s behaviour but yours. Think safety, take the first step, share how you feel, talk to a trusted friend, a family member, seek professional help, and reach out to organisations or support groups that understand abuse, or simply start by browsing our workshops for ways you can build your resilience and mental health. 

Create your safety plan in advance

The National Shelter Movement of South Africa has created a free, step-by-step downloadable safety plan to help you develop a personalised safety strategy, complete with local emergency and gender-based violence support contacts.

We’ve also sourced a more detailed safety plan for victims of domestic violence that should take you about an hour to complete, and guides you through various risk factors and abusive situations, including safety at work, safety in rural areas, emotional safety, safety for teens in violent dating relationships, and safety in preparing to leave.

Your safety plan should be tailored to your unique situation, and can be an important tool in helping you identify action steps to increase your safety while experiencing abuse, and to prepare in advance to leave an abusive situation.

While you’re working on your safety plan, please remember to delete your internet browsing history, websites visited, e-mails, as well as WhatsApps or SMSs sent to friends and family asking for help. If you called for help, dial another number immediately after, in case the abuser hits redial.

And in the words of Jane Ivy Mugambi, “Be the champion of your decisions and your mental and physical wellness. Seek help. You matter.”

Where to find help