How do you know if you’re in an abusive relationship?

man and woman sitting on sidewalk
Photo by Odonata Wellnesscenter on

After 7 years of being in an abusive relationship, I didn’t actually know that I was in an abusive relationship!

I always knew I had a difficult marriage, but it wasn’t until 2006, when a neighbour witnessed me being attacked and used the words domestic abuse, that the penny started to drop. At first, I tried to discredit it: maybe my neighbour was just over-reacting? But the more I reflected on it, the more I started to ask myself important questions:

– Was it OK that I was being treated like this?

– Was it abuse? Or simply a dysfunctional relationship? (or both?)

– How long was I prepared to put up with it?

Looking back, it’s hard to believe I ever doubted my neighbour. I’m blissfully married today and can honestly say, that I’ve experienced the very worst and best that married life can offer. So, for anyone who is confused about whether their relationship is abusive or not, or, if you’ve never yet considered it but you know things aren’t right in your relationship, I’ve shared 9 reflections from my own life to help you process your thoughts:

1) If I broke one of my wife’s favourite wine glasses today, I’d feel bad and she’d be disappointed when I told her, but I’d never fear telling her: she’d know it was an accident. That’s the difference between a healthy and abusive relationship.


2) When my lovely wife is running behind time, trying to get the kids out the door and I’m helping her. I never fear it’s going to kick off, or that in her stress, she’ll turn on me: That’s the difference between a healthy and abusive relationship.

3) If I forgot to communicate something important to my wife and it caused her a problem, my heart wouldn’t start racing, nor would my mouth go dry. I’d want to listen to her expressing her feelings, she might be visibly cross and I may feel bad, but I’d know we’d sort it out without descending into a major row. That’s the difference between a healthy and abusive relationship.

4) If I came home drunk after a ‘few’ beers with my footy mates, which turned into an ‘all-nighter’ and I clattered into the house, waking up the kids (and my wife) before being sick in the toilet, then being a grump the next day because I’m hungover, my wife would be rightly annoyed. But her annoyance wouldn’t last for long nor would she turn that isolated and unusual incident into an epic attack on me for every wrong thing I’ve ever done since 2012! I’d owe her an apology, she’d get one and because it would be a rare occurrence, we’d all move on very quickly. That’s the difference between a healthy and abusive relationship.

5) If I felt my wife hadn’t been affectionate with me for a while, I could tell her so, without fearing the repercussions of being honest with her. I wouldn’t need to stress about trying to find the right moment to have this conversation, I’d just talk to her. That’s the difference between a healthy and abusive relationship.

6) If my wife tried on a dress which didn’t suit her, but she liked the dress and was asking my opinion, I could tell her I didn’t think it looked right and that there are better dresses out there for her. I wouldn’t flounder in communicating this because I wouldn’t fear her reaction.That’s the difference between a healthy and abusive relationship.

7) If we were planning a camping trip with the kids, I would do my best to cover all the angles in the planning of what to take, but I wouldn’t be stressed because if we did forget something important, we’d both share the responsibility and work to deal calmly with it. That’s the difference between a healthy and abusive relationship.

8) If we disagreed on how to handle our small child’s tantrum/poor behaviour, we’d talk about it privately without fear of upsetting the other. alexander-dummer-Em8I8Z_DwA4-unsplashLikewise, if I thought my wife had overreacted and been particularly hard on one of our kids, I’d raise it in private and do it in a timely fashion. I wouldn’t leave it for days because I’d be nervous about raising the issue. She might feel initially defensive to being challenged as I sometimes do, but the conversation wouldn’t turn in to a row. We might think about it, talk about it again, and agree to differ or compromise, or alter our thinking having listened to a different point of view. That’s the difference between a healthy and abusive relationship.

9) If my wife wanted to buy a piano, but I was worried about money and whether we could afford it, I could say so without fear. We’d either work together to find a piano at a rock bottom price, or wait until our finances are in a better state. I wouldn’t feel awkward about putting the brakes on it and my opinion would carry weight, it wouldn’t be ignored. That’s the difference between a healthy and abusive relationship.

  • In healthy relationships; disagreements will occur, anger is acceptable, occasionally you feel hurt, but underlying everything is trust, respect and a willingness to compromise on both sides. Couples can talk openly with each other and without fear of repercussions.
  • In healthy relationships, when issues and upset do occur, there is trust, confidentiality and privacy: healthy couples do not wash their dirty linen in public.
  • In healthy relationships, there is an absence of fear. You feel safe.

If, however, you’re treading on eggshells, you fear raising key issues due to how he/she will react, or you avoid saying how you really feel and what your needs really are, then either your relationship could be dysfunctional, or it could be abusive.

The difference between abusive and dysfunctional?

Abusive: one side has become the dominant force and uses the other person’s fear to control and bully them.

Dysfunctional: both sides are trying to control/bully each other.

If you ❤️ this post, check out my recent TEDx talk: Domestic Abuse, not a gender issue, where I describe my experiences of abuse, why I stayed, how I forgave and the wider issues faced by male survivors. (See YouTube link below)

Andrew Pain is a high performance coach and TEDx speaker, enabling people from all walks of life to live boldly, wisely and with less stress, so they live life on their own terms and realise their most precious dreams. In his spare time, Andrew is a domestic abuse campaigner, and currently co-leads a pilot project supporting male victims of domestic abuse.

Published by andrewpain1974

TEDx / Keynote Speaker, High Performance Coach and Domestic Abuse Campaigner. - I help people to get more done, but without getting busier or burnt out. - I transform overworked business leaders who feel swamped by conflicting priorities and a never-ending 'to-do' list, equipping them to lead boldly, decisively and with less stress. - I deliver productivity workshops and online programmes, executive coaching and keynote talks, working with organisations including; the NHS, The Cooperative Bank, Lloyds Bank, Youth Offending Service, The Institute of Leadership and Management, The Association of Project Managers and RoSPA. My 3 principal keynote talks are: - Get more done without getting busier or burnt out - Delegation Dilemmas: You know you should but fear they won't - Boundaries: Your leadership game changers

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