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If you’ve made your way to this article, you’re probably in a really difficult position: You’ve been accused of abusive behavior, and you want to understand the harm you’ve caused and how to course correct. And I want to validate that that is a really hard place to be.
As a survivor of abuse, I have a vested interest in abusive behavior being eradicated — we all do. And while I don’t want to be made directly responsible for my abusers’ healing, I do believe that healing is possible.
Yet, for all the amazing strides we’ve made in creating resources around intimate partner (and other interpersonal) violence, there’s still a significant gap when it comes to what to do if you’re the one exhibiting abusive behavior.
If we, as a society, really want to see intimate partner and interpersonal violence end, we have to take you — the person being accused of abuse — and your potential for accountability seriously. We have to create supportive processes for those willing to do the work (like you!) to unlearn the harmful behavior and learn how to show up more healthily in relationships.
Of course, this happens best at the root of the problem: dismantling and healing intergenerational trauma, oppressive power structures, and punitive and carceral systems of correction, to start. But while we work on building a safer world that values prevention of harm, addressing intervention is helpful.
That’s where we are now: intervening so we can stop the cycle of abuse, either in the relationship where you’ve caused harm or in future relationships.
To start, let’s get on the same page about what abuse is. And we’re going to focus on abuse happening peer-to-peer, whether the relationship is romantic or platonic.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, abuse is “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.”
While “intimate” in this case is generally interpreted as romantic or sexual, abuse can happen in all kinds of relationships. Parents abusing children and adult children abusing elderly parents are other common forms of abuse that fall under the domestic violence umbrella. Abuse can also happen in friendships and within communities.
Abuse can come in a lot of different forms, such as:
- physical harm (hitting, spitting, destroying property)
- financial harm (controlling rent, requiring receipts, stealing)
- sexual harm (coercing someone into sex, controlling birth control, insulting someone sexually)
- psychological harm (including verbal and emotional abuse such as criticism, name-calling, extreme jealousy, isolation, humiliation, gaslighting, threats, or accusations)
All these examples of abuse (and more) can overlap. But psychological harm is the most common and, arguably, most impactful.
The idea is that one person in a relationship behaves in a consistent, harmful way that manipulates someone else in order to control that person to their benefit. It’s not usually explicitly conscious — “I’m going to abuse this person to get what I want!” — but the result is the same. People get hurt when you use abusive tactics to have your needs met, even if the needs themselves are valid.
But even if you don’t realize your behaviors are abusive, when you’re being accused of abuse, you’re being told that you’ve interacted with someone else in a way that makes them feel unsafe, physically or emotionally, in your presence.
This is often a long-standing somatic (think: gut) feeling for them before they’re even able to verbalize it. So if someone is coming to you and saying you’re abusing them, they’ve probably been sitting with their fear for a long time now. And it’s important to acknowledge that dynamic and work to change it.
Before you can sincerely and impactfully move forward from the hurt you’ve caused, you need a clear understanding of what you’re being accused of. Here are some questions for reflection to help:
Which behaviors of yours are being called into question?
There are many ways you could be behaving abusively without realizing it, especially if you conceptualize abuse as strictly physical harm. But abuse is, more simply, manipulating someone in a way that feels scary or trapping to them.
Focus on this: What behaviors are they naming as abusive? Cross-check those with a list, like this one. Is there overlap? And what is the emotional response the other person is having? Are they feeling fearful, threatened, unsafe?
It isn’t easy to hear feedback that your behavior may be abusive. Try to take in what you’re being accused of without responding harshly.
Examples of abusive behavior
Abusive behavior looks or feels like:
- threatening further harm to someone (like breaking up with them, kicking them out of the house, or withholding your children) if they don’t comply with your needs or demands
- experiencing what feel like fits of rage or other extreme emotion during which you’re emotionally or physically violent
- using the ways you hold power in the world to demean or degrade someone or to hold them back (like by threatening to out someone as trans, using citizenship status as blackmail, or blaming the abuse on someone’s bisexuality)
- avoiding responsibility by blaming the other person for your behavior (“If you didn’t x, I wouldn’t y”) or gaslighting them (“I never said that”)
Are you minimizing your behavior by calling it conflict or harm?
If someone names your behavior as abusive and you’re quick to deny it, that can be a red flag in itself. The accusation of abuse can feel so devastating that you reject it out of hand: Lots of couples get into fights, you might think. Or you might think the person you’ve harmed is overreacting, blowing your behavior out of proportion, or just being hypersensitive.
But while we all experience conflict and harm, abuse is a unique dynamic. So it can be helpful to understand the differences:
|Dynamic||Definition||Normal?||How to handle|
|conflict||a disagreement or misalignment between people, which could result in intense feelings and even arguments||yes||Approach the situation in ways that feel supportive, whatever that means for the people in the relationship.|
|harm||when your words or actions have a hurtful effect on someone else||depends on the context, as harm can happen unintentionally, incidentally, and/or purposely||Take responsibility by apologizing and minimizing the harmful behavior in the future.|
|abuse||when harm is caused repeatedly and compoundingly, exploiting the abused for gain||no||Hold yourself accountable for actions, unlearn abuse as a tactic, and learn safer ways of interacting.|
How conflict, harm, and abuse overlap
Abuse is when harm is caused repeatedly and compoundingly, exploiting the abused for gain.
If the same harm is caused again and again, without a dedicated approach to changing the behavior, it could be abuse. If the behavior is making another person feel regularly threatened, scared, or without autonomy, it could be abuse. If conflict is being stirred up purposely as an “excuse” to cause harm, it could be abuse.
Is this behavior happening in a way that follows a pattern?
Abuse is a pattern — it is not a one-time incident.
There may be patterns or phases in an abusive relationship. These phases, first described by Lenore E. Walker, can be used as a visual to help us understand this common pattern:
- Tensions build: The person being abused is walking on eggshells to placate the person exhibiting abusive behavior.
- A violent incident: Physical or emotional abuse occurs.
- Reconciliation: Following the incident, this can range from an apology to a denial of the abuse.
- Honeymoon phase: Calm is restored, which is often thought of as a honeymoon phase before the cycle starts again.
The important thing to note here is that violence is repeated — often without any genuine efforts to change the behavior. And this model isn’t the definitive model for what abuse is, as not all abuse will follow this same cycle. The takeaway is that active violence is only one part of an abusive dynamic.
Repetition is what separates abuse from harm. Are you repeatedly engaging in harmful words and actions, especially when they’ve been pointed out to you as hurtful?
What are the intentions of this behavior?
Abuse is not necessarily an explicitly conscious thing. It is a learned behavior that’s solidified through repetition and the benefits it brings to you. Let’s talk about those benefits — because they’re important.
Think about an incident you’ve been told was abusive:
- What was the need you wanted to have met?
- What (abusive) behavior did you engage in to have that need met?
- Was the intention of engaging in that behavior to place responsibility on someone else?
Here’s an example: One common way abuse can show up is through isolation. Often, a person who is being abusive won’t directly tell someone they have to stop hanging out with their family and friends. Instead, they might needle someone until that person slowly starts to back away from their community to avoid fighting.
For instance, maybe you say you don’t like how they act around their family. It doesn’t have to be direct — “Stop calling your mom!” — although it can be. Sometimes it’s small, barbed comments that chip away at another person’s resolve until, eventually, the interactions you’re worried about are no longer occurring. Problem solved, right?
But what’s happening here is that your overarching issue — that you’re feeling insecure — hasn’t been addressed. Sure, your need for a sense of loyalty, safety, or security might be fleetingly met. But the next time those feelings creep up, you may engage in behavior that places the responsibility of your comfort on someone else in ways that are unfair to them. Instead of working through your discomfort, you’re wielding control over someone else to do something against their better judgment.
Reminder: Seek self-reflection, not validation
The questions here are for the purpose of reflection and understanding your behaviors and motivations. They are not questions for explaining or contextualizing your behaviors during an apology or conversation.
Are you experiencing abuse by the person accusing you?
So if you’ve made it this far into the article and are feeling like “Wait a minute — this doesn’t sound like me, but it does kind of sound like the person who told me I’m abusive,” that’s a gut feeling worth paying attention to.
Because this situation needs to be addressed: One way that people who are abusive exercise their control is by accusing the other person of being abusive. And because people who are abusive are so masterful at psychological control, they can be really, really convincing.
If the accusation of abuse comes from your abuser, you’re probably not abusive. Abuse is not bidirectional. And how you respond to abuse, while it can be harmful, is not abuse.
If you think you may be experiencing abuse but need help sussing that out, especially with someone who is accusing you of abuse, I recommend calling your local domestic violence agency to speak with an advocate.
It makes sense if your initial reaction to this accusation is defensiveness. But when feedback of this magnitude is presented to us, it’s important to engage in a reflective process to understand how we’re showing up in relation to other people — and then to think through how we can practice accountability to that harm.
If, through reading this article and other resources, conversations with the person you’ve harmed and the community around you two, and other reflection, you’ve come to the difficult conclusion that you’ve behaved in ways that have been abusive, it’s time to think through next steps: What can you do now to understand the harm caused, to unlearn abuse as a tactic, and to internalize safer, more supportive ways of interacting?
We tend to believe that the only appropriate response to harm is punishment: People who are abusive should be shamed, should be excommunicated, should be brought to trial. But punishment does not result in healing or transformation. Punitive measures like restraining orders don’t always stop abuse on the micro level, nor do they end abuse on the macro level.
As such, the suggestions I make here are not meant to spiral you further into shame. They’re meant to be supportive actions you can take to rebuild the right relationship with yourself and with others.
1. Remember: Your accountability process should be survivor-centered
Who did you directly cause harm to? What people and communities are, overall, most impacted by abuse? What do they need to feel safe?
These should be the questions at the core of your process. What the harmed person needs might not always feel good for you (they may need to end the relationship with you, for example), but it’s important to center those needs.
This includes how you respond to and validate the survivor. While communicating acknowledgment can be important, you don’t want to further harm the survivor. Understand what they need or want to hear from you, which may be nothing.
Of course, sometimes survivors demand some form of punishment for retribution. Remember to balance specific calls for accountability with transformative, abolitionist justice approaches to harm.
2. Engage in self-exploration
Yes, your accountability should be rooted in the person who was harmed. But you also can’t move forward if you don’t spend serious time in your past.
Do some research on why people abuse — what feels most resonant for you? Ask yourself: What needs of mine aren’t being met? What experiences have I had in my life that may have taught me this behavior?
This is not a pass for abuse. But it is a first step in unpacking your relational experiences and trauma, for the betterment of both yourself and your community.
3. Reach out for community accountability
Often, we’re taught to either dispose of or side with people who have been accused of abuse in our communities. But really, it’s our responsibility — as the community of both the person harmed and the person who caused harm — to hold the person exhibiting abusive behavior accountable. As such, you can reach out to loved ones for help with next steps.
For help in understanding the harm and moving forward, lean on people you trust who will (1) keep the survivor safe and (2) not enable or excuse your abuse. You should not reach out to the survivor to do this work with you. While it may be disappointing, you can’t force unwilling people to help.
4. Try professional mediation, if that helps!
The person who’s been harmed may not want communication with you — and that’s their right. But if they want to connect with you directly for accountability, it can help to have a third party present to interrupt the abuse dynamic. You could use your community for this!
But if no one in your community is comfortable with this, a mediator who specializes in interpersonal violence, nonviolent communication, and transformative justice could be a great resource.
5. If it’s accessible, therapy can be helpful
Therapy — whether it’s individual counseling, group support, or a program designed for people accused of abuse — can be a powerful option for understanding where this behavior came from and how to stop it.
If the person you harmed is also interested in therapy, that’s awesome! But it’s likely better for you two to engage in therapy separately. Couples’, group, or family therapy can be less helpful if being in a space with the person who caused them harm shuts the survivor down.
Look for a therapist with expertise in intimate partner violence, abuse, and trauma — particularly the traumas that you’ve experienced, to help you explore those roots.
Remember: These suggestions are just some places to start. Abusive behavior is not unfixable. But it does take work to admit to causing violence, to authentically want to practice accountability, to change. That you’re looking into this in the first place shows that you’re on the right track.
When looking for ways to change, these aren’t the only options. They may not even be the most useful options for you and your community. Engage with people who love you and want to support your process — centering the person you harmed — to come up with a plan that’s best suited to you.
You are engaging in a process to show up differently for yourself, for people you have interpersonal relationships with, and for your community as a whole. And that is not an easy task.
But it is necessary when we’ve caused harm. And I, for one, am so proud of you for wanting to embark on that journey.