Has your partner started yelling more frequently? Maybe they’ve become jealous for seemingly no reason. Or perhaps they’ve been making you feel guilty about wanting some space.
These are red flags in an intimate relationship, and they could be early signs of abuse. Then again, perhaps they’re simply signs your partner has some insecurities he or she needs to work through. How do you know if the issues you’re facing in a relationship are fixable or signs of certain trouble to come? Could counseling help or is it time to make a safe exit plan?
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The Role of Counseling
Lots of couples attend counseling. In fact, a survey by MidAmerica Nazarene University reported nearly half of all couples go to counseling at some point during their relationship. And it can be highly effective. In stark contrast to the low success rates of the 1950s and 60s, today, couple’s therapy is thought to be successful (meaning couples self-reported a reduction in “relationship distress”) about 75 percent of the time, according to Psychology Today.
But will it work for you? It really depends on your partner’s willingness to participate and whether or not they’re open to changing, two things that aren’t typically associated with abusive partners.
“Provided that the person in question is motivated to improve, counseling can help to identify the reasons behind problematic behavior and develop the skills to better manage negative situations without conflict or abuse,” says Patricia Celan, M.D., a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada. “However, the partner demonstrating red flags needs to be willing to reflect and seek treatment, often including individual therapy. Counseling will not help someone who cannot or will not recognize problematic behavior.”
Importance of Individual Therapy
Couples therapy isn’t the answer if your partner is abusive. Instead, advocates and experts alike recommend individual therapy for each partner to work on their own issues, fears or insecurities, or to help establish boundaries or determine whether or not your partner is healthy for you. Individual counseling with someone trained in domestic violence trauma can help partners identify abusive behavior or help a survivor identify they’re being abused.
If your partner agrees to participate, individual counseling may help him or her develop emotional regulation skills, which “typically involves regular counseling to first become self-aware of the emotions being felt before and during conflict and their triggers, and then learning alternative ways to think about upsetting situations so that the emotions are calmed by more rational and positive thinking,” Celan says.
Abuse Is a Pattern of Harm
If your partner refuses to work on his or her issues, tries to blame you for their behavior or promises to change but doesn’t, those are red flags that abuse may be on the way or already occurring.
“In the midst of a relationship, the line between normal problems and abuse can be hard to identify,” says Caitlin Garstkiewicz, LCSW of Clarity Clinic. “However, a major differentiation between usual relationship challenges and abusive behavior is the pattern and consistency of hurtful or harmful behavior in an attempt to exert control and power over a partner.”
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Garstkiewicz suggests asking yourself the following questions:
- Does my partner make me feel afraid?
- Do I have a poor sense of self-worth that originates in the feedback my partner gives me?
- Do I feel emotionally and physically unsafe around my partner?
- Do I feel I need to minimize or justify my partner’s behavior?
“If any of these answers are yes, it would be important to consult with a trusted friend or seek individual therapy,” Garstkiewicz says. “All relationships have their challenges and problems, of course, but if there is consistency and severity in these challenges, it may be worth taking a step back and assessing if any of the problems are abusive in nature. It truly can be a matter of life and death.”
When it comes to identifying red flags in a relationship, most experts say to trust your gut. If, deep down, you know something isn’t right, it probably isn’t. Check out these serious signs your partner might turn violent and never hesitate to reach out to an advocate near you to talk about the signs you’re seeing if you’re worried.
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