Abusive vs healthy relationships: What’s the difference?

Speakoutloud.net abusive vs healthy relationship Clare Murphy PhDPeople I meet say, “Isn’t everyone psychologically abusive sometimes?” Yes many people are. But there’s a big difference between healthy relationships and abusive relationships.

In a healthy relationship a person uses abuse on one-off occasions. You can predict that they will be caring, loving and respectful most of the time.

But in an abusive relationship a person uses abuse and control often. You can predict that they will abuse you – and that they will control you. Sometimes they are caring and loving.

One-off moments of abusiveness

In a healthy relationship the person using psychologically abusive behaviours will be abusive sometimes, not many times a day, not everyday. This person is willing to pull themselves back. They take responsibility for the harm they’ve caused. They are willing to learn – that means they are willing to be vulnerable. They are willing to grow and change – that means the relationship is a work in progress. The relationship is a creative adventure. When that person is abusive their apology means something. Their apology means something because they take real steps to build equality. Their apology means something because their behaviours change. Let’s pluck a figure out of the air – 95% of the time they are respectful.  They are willing to empathise with the pain they have caused. They compromise. There might be moments – 5% of the time – when they want things their way. Don’t we all? 

A healthy relationship takes two to tango

A healthy relationship entails two people who are willing – and do – resolve (or agree to differ) issues that crop up. Both people take responsibility for their behaviours. If one of the people wants and needs to win – this is not to the extent that the other person becomes physically and psychologically ill because of it. No one in a healthy relationship fears the other person. If they do feel fear – this will be short-lived because the other person takes responsibility and never behaves that way ever again. A healthy relationship is a safe place. A nurturing and nourishing place.

One-sided continuous pattern of abusiveness

An abusive relationship is a one-sided affair. One person is determined to get their way. They use ‘power and control’ to do so. They use a continuous pattern of behaviours over time. The behaviours are intended to dominate and to win. The behaviours are aimed at being right at all costs. The abuser intentionally chooses to use those behaviours to achieve their aim. To win. The victim must alter their behaviour but the abuser refuses to alter theirs.

The abuser does not want to resolve relationship issues

In a relationship with a control freak in charge, it is wrong to say, “it takes two to tango”. The abuser’s attitudes are destructive. The abuser might say they want to change – but they do not. They might make efforts to change – but revert. They might make a change – but add another abusive or controlling behaviour to their repertoire. The abuser has a sense of safety, the victim lives with fear. To win, the abuser ensures the victim’s self-hood must be diminished on all levels. The abuser uses any tactic to achieve their aim. Therefore, many tactics appear to be contradictory. The only constant is the intention to establish their ‘power and control’.

The victim does want to resolve relationship issues

The victim is often desperate to resolve relationship issues. They spend years trying to figure out why the abuser does what they do. They spend years altering their own behaviours. They continually try new ways to stop the abuse. This is why it is a misnomer to say that “it takes two to tango” in a relationship marked by one-sided power and control. The victim tries to figure out how to please the controller. The victim obeys. They victim resists. The victim fights. The victim lashes out in anger. The victim silences themselves. The victim pleads. The victim becomes ill – physically ill and/or psychologically ill. The victim might attempt suicide. They might attempt murder. The victim might kill themselves. They might kill the perpetrator.

What’s your story?

What are your experiences that define differences between a relationship marked by one-sided power and control and a healthy relationship where both people take responsibility for their actions and make changes accordingly? Please tell me your stories.

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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.