Am I abusive too?

Sometimes women wonder and worry if they are abusive, like their partner. Abusive men, the police or other “helping professionals” sometimes tell women they are abusive. The idea that it “takes two to tango” is a predominant one in our culture. Maybe you have fought back, yelled at or hit your partner but it is important to ask yourself a few questions about the context in which you behaved that way and the motives behind your behaviour.

The first thing to consider is the context, ask yourself what your partner was doing before you behaved in a way that you wonder might be abusive. Was he verbally attacking you? Was he stopping you from doing something? Was he harassing you? Most of the time, women report to us that their seemingly abusive behaviour happens in the context of a lot of abuse from their partner. Here is an example, a woman yells and smashes a dish on the floor after her partner has been berating her for hours. He latches on to her “bad behavoiur” calling her “crazy” and “abusive” while entirely dismissing his appallingly abusive behaviour.

Women report to us that they sometimes resort to behaviour they do not like but this, for the most part, happens in the context of wildly atrocious behaviour from their partners. Your partner may want to equate your behaviour and his behaviour but it is in no way equal in its severity or impact. You are reacting to his abuse.

The second thing to consider is your motives. The motive with abuse is always to have power and control over the other person. This is why your partner does the things he does. What is your motive when you do things that you think might be abusive? Are you trying to dominate your partner, control him, get your own way? Or are you just trying to protect yourself – physically or emotionally? Or perhaps you just want to be heard and respected. As we explore motives with women, it becomes clear that the women we work with are not interested in dominating or controlling their partners but rather their actions are in response to being silenced and diminished. One woman expressed her intentions this way:

After several hours of grueling verbal attacks from my partner, I lost it. I walked in the house and he followed. I turned and began to hit him and scream. Then I realized that this was not me. I stopped, and started to cry. I did not do any of that to control him. I had not stooped to his level. I just wanted to be heard and still he was not hearing me. I realized then he would never hear my voice. For him, I had no voice. – Marie

While Marie may have wanted some control in this particular situation, she was only interested in being heard. She did not want control over every aspect of the relationship. While her behaviour was not desirable, it was not abusive. Her motive was self-preservation.

Remember that such behaviour is potentially dangerous, as an abusive partner may have more physical, financial and social power than you do. Abusive men are always interested in escalating aggression. Our fear is that if you do something like push your partner, he might throw you against the wall and injure you. This leads us to the last thing to consider and that is the role of fear in your relationship.

Our guess is that you are, at times, afraid of your partner but that he is not afraid of you. Fear is a tactic abusive men use to have control over their partner. You have good reason to be afraid of your partner; he has shown you his willingness to hurt you. Your partner may say he is afraid of you but what do his actions show you? Do you really think he is afraid of you?

So here are some things to consider as you think about who is abusive in your relationship and who is not. Who is initiating the abuse and who is responding? Who is trying to have power and control and who is defending themselves? And who is afraid and who is not afraid?