Families in Unhealthy and Abusive Relationships

**Warning: This post discusses interpersonal violence (domestic, relationship, or family violence). The clip illustrating accusations is graphic. Please take care of yourself as you read this post. This link goes directly to the resources on- and off- campus.**

Last week, I discussed challenges and disagreements that are part of healthy relationships.  However, some responses to the challenges of parenting can go beyond the realm of healthy and unhealthy into the realm of abuse.  Relationships exist on a continuum from healthy to abusive with unhealthy relationships in the middle.

In an unhealthy relationship, one partner attempts to control the other person. For instance, one person tries to make most of the decisions about what y’all will do and where y’all will go.  Or, your partner may pressure you about sex and refuse to see how their actions are hurting you.  These relationships can include breaks in communication, pressure, dishonesty, and struggle for control.  Additionally, your partner might make you feel bad about yourself or like you should only spend time with them.  There are many other characteristics of an unhealthy relationship, including

  • Putting your partner’s needs first while neglecting your own most of the time
  • Feeling pressure to change yourself into the person your partner wants
  • Not enjoying and/or belittle your respective successes
  • Attempting to control and manipulate each other
  • Unequal control of resources

Some relationships may exhibit one or two unhealthy characteristics, but that does not necessarily mean that the relationship is abusive.  The best way to use this information is to recognize how these characteristics affect you and impact your relationship.  Partners can improve unhealthy aspects of their relationship to move towards a healthy one. Last week’s post gives some tips on how to redirect your relationship to a healthy one.

Abusive relationships are based on unequal power and control. Interpersonal violence (IPV) is when an individual exerts power and control over another individual or individuals with whom they are in a close relationship through physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, financial, and psychological actions or threats.  That person makes all of the decisions about topics such as sexual activity, friend groups, and boundaries.  If you are in an abusive relationship, you may spend all of your time with your partner and feel like you cannot talk to other people, especially about how you feel in your relationship.  Abusive relationships can be characterized by accusations, isolation, gas lighting, and manipulation of one person by the other.  There are other ways in which abuse can exhibit itself.

Families are affected by abusive relationships, including children who witness and/or experience the abuse and violence.  Being a parent in an abusive relationship makes a difficult situation that much harder.  You may not only worry about your own safety, but you also worry for the safety and well-being of your children.  Often times, the abuser may use your children against you— not letting you see your children, abusing (or threatening to abuse) your child, and/or using your child to check up on you, for example.  The best thing to do in this difficult situation is to talk to your children and let them know that the abuser’s behavior is wrong.  Children can have long-lasting mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety, or they may grow up thinking IPV is normal and may attempt to mimic the behavior of the abusive relationship.

It is important to remember that abuse is never your fault.  The abuse falls on the abuser, and they are responsible for their behavior.  It is up to them to change their abusive behavior.  Even though you may love and want to help fix the behavior or fix the person, you don’t deserve to be abused or to carry the psychological burden of fixing someone.

Attempting to leave the abuser is hard, especially with children involved.  If you are ready to leave or not, here are some steps that you can take to ensure safety for you and your children:

  • Prepare a safety plan with your children: Arrange a safe place for your children (such as hiding in a closet or going to a neighbor’s house), and plan a code word so they know when to leave and where to get help.
  • Have a conversation with your children to let them know that it’s not their fault
  • Pack an emergency bag, including things like important documentation, formula, diapers, medicine. Keep the bag hidden or with someone you trust.

If you or someone you know is experiencing IPV, there are a lots of options for help. UNC has on- and off-campus resources for you.

  • Gender Violence Service Coordinator (GVSC): The coordinator is a confidential resource to all students who are experiencing or have experienced IPV either before or during their time at UNC. The GVSC has drop in hours, in addition to meeting by appointment. You can find more information here.
  • Safe at UNC: This is the university’s website dedicated to information and resources related to IPV, including interim protective measures like safe housing.
  • UNC LGBTQ Center: This organization provides great information and resources to the LGBTQ-identified students on campus. The GVSC has drop-in hours on Thursdays 3 – 5 pm in the center. Additionally, they offer online relationship modules that range from differentiating between healthy and unhealthy relationships and IPV.
  • Orange County Rape Crisis Center (OCRCC): They have a free and confidential hotline and resources for survivors of sexual violence. You can call them at 1-866-WE-LISTEN or visit them at ocrcc.org.
  • Compass Center for Women and Families: This organization offers a confidential hotline for survivors of domestic violence and families. The number is 919-929-7122.  They can also provide resources and information:
    • Crisis counseling (in office and in hotline)
    • Safety planning
    • Support and advocacy in civil and criminal domestic violence court
    • Support groups with free childcare
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline is another confidential and free hotline. The number is 1-800-799-7233