sarah + mcdugal + coach + pray + abuse + abusive + relationship

You Might Be In An Abusive Relationship If…

Are you scratching your head wondering just why your relationship keeps dipping in and out of chaos? You’d never call it abusive, but…

Maybe it started out ah-mazing, like soulmates amazing, but then it went sideways and now you’re trying to figure out how to get that initial awesomeness back?

Maybe it goes in cycles where everything seems great for a while but you’ve started to realize that even on the good days you’re holding your breath and wondering when the other shoe will drop? Is it really all your fault?

If you’re like most women, you probably wouldn’t describe your relationship as “abusive”. It’s just extra difficult. More passionate than other people’s relationships. More chaotic sometimes… On the really tough days, you might be brave and call it toxic, but then you feel so guilty for labeling it and you take it back.

What you do know, is that you’ve caught yourself wondering if it’s really supposed to be this difficult, this much work? You’ve caught yourself making excuses to friends, and taking more than your share of the blame, so nobody thinks badly of your partner. You’ve done some google searches once or twice, trying to find answers, but you’d hate for anyone to think negatively of the two of you as a couple, so you deleted the search history.

Girl, this article is for you. For the one who knows something isn’t right, but you really really don’t want to admit just how wrong it all is. I’m writing to you, darlin’.

(And if you’re reading this because it describes a friend of yours and you feel helpless to support them, it’s for you, too. You might find these books helpful too.)

I want to give you the gift of some understanding and some truth, and maybe eventually… some freedom and healing. Speaking the truth out loud isn’t easy — believe me, I know. It took me years. When I finally did, the words were hard to form in my mouth. Even harder to put out into the air. There was so much shame and self-doubt and anguished self-recrimination and fear that speaking them somehow made them truer than they already had been before.

You’re not alone.

Sometimes it helps to see the facts on paper (or a screen). Something about seeing it in black and white makes a huge difference on your journey of acceptance and healing.

abusive power control wheel sarah mcdugal wild bucket brigade
Power and Control Wheel showing the 13 forms of Domestic Violence

But How Can I Tell if it’s Actually Abusive?

Here’s a (partial, non-comprehensive) checklist of behavioral patterns that contribute to abusive relationships:

  • EMOTIONAL:
    • inability to emotionally connect with others/spouse/children
    • refusal or inability to accept responsibility, say sorry, ask forgiveness, and then change behavior patterns to avoid repeating the conflict
    • emotional rollercoaster, never knowing what mood they’ll be in, walking on eggshells, taking on extra vigilance to make sure you avoid doing anything they don’t like or upsetting them
    • quick to judge others harshly for small mistakes, but quick to give themselves “grace” for large moral failures
    • verbal abuse, name calling, sweeping generalizations (you ALWAYS…, I NEVER…)
    • expecting you to keep secrets, maintain glossy public appearances despite reality
    • inability to discern others’ emotions, misinterprets fear as aggression, or perceives sadness as anger, etc
    • obsessed with being “respected”, perhaps even to the point of physical aggression toward peers/children/elderly if they perceive someone acting with “disrespect”
    • always says “sorry” and promises to “never do it again”, but then never changes
    • attitude of entitlement, acting as though they are better than other people, others should give way to their preferences, others should take care of their needs, etc
  • PHYSICAL:
    • isolating others/spouse from healthy connections with friends, family, church, etc
    • unusual level of interest in maintaining public appearance — both physical (obsession with clothes, shoes, body image) and social (keeping a reputation of high success as the perfect family, perfect career, etc)
    • wants a trophy/applause/praise for any time they help with things, even simple daily duties such as washing the dishes, taking out the trash, filling up the car tank
    • physically aggressive in conflict situations, unable to control temper, explosive, hostile
    • unable or unwilling to control strength in “playful” situations, causes pain or injury to those weaker than themselves even when “joking around”
  • ADDICTIVE:
    • pornography use of any kind, sexual or emotional infidelity in real life, consumer of sexual services (including illicit massage parlors and strip clubs)
    • impulsive spending, spending sprees and then returning everything, buying lots of small but unneeded items, buying big ticket items that aren’t budgeted for, living on credit to maintain public image
    • claims they cannot remember past conversations, comments or incidents that would be sources of behavioral accountability (such as a time when they promised to do something or change something)
  • PSYCHOLOGICAL/POWER:
    • financial control, does not share equal access to credit cards, bank accounts, financial documents etc
    • reckless driving, road rage, attitude that they are a better driver than anyone else on the road and people should get out of their way
    • fascination with guns or other weapons, either their own or those belonging to others
    • deception, bold lies, white lies
    • refusal to admit where the person was, how much they spent, whom they were with (and worse, turning the question back on you and making you feel paranoid or controlling for having asked)
    • triangulating — turning people against each other, misrepresenting conversations or actions in order to create chaos and conflict among others
    • refusal to get counseling or seek advice for marital/family/personal issues, refusal to allow spouse/you to get counseling for yourself OR telling you all the issues are your fault and forcing you to get counseling alone without taking responsibility for their own role
    • brags about (or has the general attitude) that they are the one who does everything that gets done, instead of giving healthy credit to spouse or other colleagues/teammates
    • delusions of grandeur, believes they are smarter/wiser/stronger/richer/more powerful than they actually are, acts like everything good that happens is because they did it
    • twists past conversations, comments or incidents and retells them in a way that doesn’t reflect reality
    • racism/elitism, looking down on/diminishing/ridiculous/judging others based on differences in culture, skin color, gender, age, social status, etc — rooted in the belief that their own identity is superior

NOTE: These are only a few of the behavior patterns that may indicate an abusive relationship. If many or most of these patterns are present in your situation, it is very possible that extreme narcissism or full-blown addiction is a significant factor. These do not get better without professional treatment, and sometimes not even then.

I explain the power and control wheel and how it applies to abusive relationships in more detail here, if you like watching videos better:

Darlin’, you’re not crazy.

You’re not losing your mind.
You’re not all alone.

And there is help. I have resources to guide you out of the wilderness of an abusive environment and into the wild freedom God designed for your life.

If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.
For anonymous, confidential help 24/7, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or  1-800-787-3224 (TTY).

Want survivor resources to read? I’ve gathered my favorite books on abuse recovery, healing, and relationships into a handy list here.


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