Toxic 101: 16 signs that your relationship is abusive

"We’ve both lashed out unfairly, even cruelly, at each other. We aim to wound instead of heal. When I’m not afraid of my partner flying off the handle, I’m worried I’ve created the same fear." That's not love.


I want to first say that my partner and I love each other passionately. In fact, we are both known for fiery emotions, and for the most part, we are proud of it. It’s on the flip side that comes the trouble. 

We both have hair triggers and short fuses, so the anger is just as explosive. The longer we are together, the worse the eruptions get. I don’t mean physical outbursts, though those have happened.

We’ve both lash out unfairly, even cruelly, at each other. We aim to wound instead of heal. When I’m not afraid of my partner flying off the handle, I’m worried I’ve created the same fear. 

I couldn’t say I’m abused without admitting I’m also abusive sometimes. We can’t both be victims and perpetrators, or can we? The bottom line is, it hurts, yet we can’t imagine our lives apart. Where do we go from here?

Dear Abuse Paradox:

More troubled couples fall into mutual abuse than the traditional power dynamic of one person exclusively mistreating the other. Often these people are thought to be “giving as good as they get” or “holding their own,” but both are likely suffering.

Sounds simple, but the fact that it feels bad is the best signifier that it is bad. It’s a paradox but true that both partners can play abuser and abused. These couples often trade barbs as a matter of course.

Another classic paradox in your relationship is that you are both drawn to the very thing in each other that causes the trouble. Addicts have similar love-hate relationships with whatever destructive behavior or substance makes their synapses fire. 

Some of our most satisfying traits stem from the same place as our darkest ones, and recognizing both sides of our natures is where we start. Then the real work begins to find balance favoring the good side and channeling away the bad. 

Sit down in a calm moment, not the heat of an episode, and see if you are both on board with creating change. Then consider counseling separately and together.

Speaking of professional help, writer and counselor Jim Jackson created a list of signals to identify abuse. Few abusive relationships will tick all the boxes, but it’s a good exercise to see if you are flying more of these red flags or fewer.

Red Flags About Abusive Relationships

1. Blame you for how they treat you.

2. Blame you for everything bad that happens.

3. Speak ill of family, friends or children.

4. Try to control whom you see or where you go.

5. Force or manipulate you into things you don’t want to do.

6. Lying or being unfaithful.

7. Make you feel fearful, insecure or unfree.

8. Physically rough with you.

9. Not happy when you don’t do it their way, not happy when you do.

10. Show little interest in your opinions or feelings.

11. Ignore you or give you the silent treatment as “punishment.”

12. Regularly compare you with others.

13. Threaten to do bodily harm to themselves or someone else.

14. Extreme mood swings — telling you you’re the greatest one minute and the worst the next.

15. Putting you down — calling you dumb, stupid, ugly, fat, etc.

16. Abusive behavior gets worse over time.

Tips Source: Jim F. Jackson via Banlican House Publishers.

The Q is for entertainment purposes and not professional counseling. Send your burning Qs to [email protected]

Illustration by Brad Gibson

This column originally appeared in Q Magazine. Read the full issue online below:

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