A question I have heard many times as a counselor is: “Is this abuse?” It is a common one that people ask themselves when they are trying to understand what is going on in a relationship that just feels wrong. It is also common for people to ask family and friends.
A short answer to the question might be, “yes it probably is,” if the client is asking that question. However, it also isn’t that simple. There are many ways that people describe it when something is unhealthy in a relationship, and also many ways for others to interpret it.
Why is your client asking you this?
For instance, many of us have heard someone say, “all couples argue.” This is true. It is also not enough information to understand when arguing is unhealthy or even harmful. An argument can be healthy and also not feel good. Two people can have a heated argument, with strong feelings, and still remain respectful of each other, honest, and caring. So there may be pain and strong negative emotions, but when two people remain respectful of each other, there isn’t damage being done to the relationship.
But it becomes unhealthy when anyone feels threatened, devalued, demeaned, or shamed, and especially when it is part of a pattern in the relationship.
In situations like this, it becomes very difficult to draw a line and say that up to this point, a behavior is healthy, and beyond that point, it isn’t.
What Can Clinicians Do in This Situation?
When discussing this with clients, I have used the following chart, which is credited to The Red Flag Campaign. Using something like this gives a clinician an opportunity to discuss specific situations within the client’s relationship and how they may or may not be healthy.
Using the words “healthy” or “unhealthy” when describing a relationship or the behaviors in the relationship can be helpful. It lets us talk about specific behaviors and it implies some are okay with the client and some are not.
With that in mind, I think a more helpful question would be, “Am I okay with being treated this way?” as opposed to “Is this abuse?” Here is why I think this is useful: At that point it isn’t about defining behavior and potentially arguing about what is true or not, it is about what the client will tolerate as a person and as a partner.
At the same time, when the client is ready to define the situation as abusive, it is important to use that same language. It is validating for clients when we use the same language they do in describing situations such as this.
You might think of this as being a delicate balance between these therapeutic behaviors on our part:
Then it is About Boundaries
Boundaries are yours. No one gets to argue with them or tell you that they are wrong. You are in total control of what those boundaries are, and what behaviors need to stop. When you talk about boundaries with clients, you are giving them a tool that can be empowering.
In healthy relationships, boundaries are relatively easy. One person will let their partner know that some kind of behavior isn’t okay; the partner apologizes and then doesn’t do it again. It can be a very different situation in an unhealthy relationship though, especially if there is a power and control problem happening between the two people.
When there are unhealthy motivations and behaviors of power and control in a relationship, there can be a lot of resistance to one person setting boundaries. People who want to control others will use any of several forms of manipulation to get others to stop trying to have appropriate boundaries.
Whether you call it abuse, or unhealthy, or toxic, having strong boundaries is the best defense to start working towards a healthier way of being in a relationship.
Cathy Wilson is a Licensed Professional Counselor and business owner in Littleton, Colorado. She operates LifePaths Counseling Center where they offer individual, couples and family counseling. They also offer groups and workshops, including a group called Boundaries of Steel – Surviving a Narcissistic Relationship that offers support and healing when a person has been in a toxic or abusive relationship. You can find more information about this group and the practice by linking to their Narcissist Support Group page.