Family dynamics are the invisible force behind every caregiving journey

Abusive relationships

Recognizing an abusive relationship is not always easy. When you are caring for someone who is abusive, it can be even more complicated and difficult to recognize the signs of abuse.

When a caregiver is the one being abused there is usually a mix of opposing emotions experienced such as love, fear, guilt, anger, hope, etc., and it is a confusing experience because the person who is exhibiting controlling and abusive behaviour also has a level of dependency on you.

There is a typical pattern in abusive relationships: abusive behaviour followed by loving behaviour. Loving behaviour may include compliments, asking for forgiveness, and/or promises that the abuse won’t happen again. This loving behaviour has been referred to as “the honeymoon period.” But when there is a pattern, a cycle of abuse, it is not a honeymoon because, instead, you find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Power and control tactics

Relationships in general are complicated and virtually everyone argues. There may be the occasional shouting match and even some slamming of doors. Abuse is not about the occasional heated argument where both people feel safe to express themselves. Abuse is not even really about anger. There may be anger and there may be physical violence but abuse is mainly about power and control. The intention is to gain and maintain power and control over a person using a range of tactics including:

  • Physical and/or sexual violence: Hitting, pushing, grabbing, biting, choking/strangulation, shaking, slapping,
    kicking, hair-pulling, restraining, and/or any sexual act without consent
  • Emotional abuse: Name calling and/or demeaning or humiliating talk that makes you feel guilty or bad about
    yourself (or feel like you are being put down or going crazy)
  • Isolation: Jealously is typically used to justify actions so you feel controlled in where you can go, who you can
    talk to, or what you can do
  •  Intimidation: Making you feel afraid with certain looks or gestures, smashing and/or destroying things
    Threats and coercion: They may threaten to kill you, commit suicide, leave, or threaten to do something to
    hurt the pets, hurt themselves, or hurt you
  • Economic abuse: Taking your money, limiting access to family income, or finding ways to prevent you from
    getting a job, or keeping a job
  • Using children: Children may be leveraged to make you feel guilty or to relay messages, or they can influence
    the children and turn them against you
  • Denial, blaming, and minimizing: They may make light of the abuse, deny the abusive behaviour, and/or
    blame you for the abusive behaviour.

As you can see from the above list, physical violence is just one tactic used to control or dominate someone else. In fact, physical violence is less likely to be “needed” if the other tactics are working, so to speak.

When there is a physical disability, illness, or injury, physical abuse is less of an option, so you may find that more of the other tactics are being used. Some family caregivers experience only one of these abusive tactics while others may experience many of these tactics from those they are caring for. Regardless, it is still abuse and no one deserves to be treated this way.

Intimate partner violence and abuse

These days, the description, “intimate partner violence and abuse” is often used. This is useful because while an estimated 80% of intimate violence is against women, both men and women can be abusive. For men who are being abused, there may be a reluctance to seek help because of feelings of shame and embarrassment and a fear of not being believed. Also, abuse can and does take place in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships.

For same-sex couples, it can be harder for either partner to reach out for appropriate help and support because they may have fears about revealing sexual orientation or the nature of the relationship. There may also be fear of judgments and not being supported. Of course, everyone has the right to expect the same quality of care and support from all professionals and agencies and organizations.

For most couples and families, there is a powerful belief that hinders them from seeking help. Most believe that this is a private (family) matter. Abuse is maintained through privacy and secrecy. Abuse is not a family matter – it is a legal and criminal matter.

Family caregivers – what impact does abuse have on you?

Of course you are never just a family caregiver. You are also in some kind of relationship with the person you are caring for. You may be a partner, a spouse, a son, a daughter, etc.Because of this, you are likely to be experiencing a range of emotions from feeling trapped, defeated, guilty, (over)
responsible, confused, sad, helpless, or powerless to feeling angry and wanting to retaliate, be resentful, and even wanting to leave the relationship and no longer be a family caregiver.

If you have children, it is important to understand that the abuse, even if not directed at them, will have a direct impact on them. All children have to do is hear or see you being abused for there to be a negative impact. A trap for many who are in an abusive relationship is taking on responsibility for the abuse – that is, believing the message that you are to blame. This often takes the form of “if only” statements. “If only” you didn’t make them so mad, “if only” you kept the kids quiet, “if only” you knew how to budget better“; if only” you weren’t so stupid, “if only” you didn’t “nag,” etc., etc. When these messages are believed, you may spend a great deal of time and energy on trying to change yourself or your actions in an attempt to stop or prevent the abusive behaviour. This “contorting” doesn’t work because you are NOT responsible for the abuse. In fact, we are never responsible for anyone else’s behaviour.

There is help out there for the person who is abusive if they are willing to accept responsibility for their behavior and willing to make changes. What you are responsible for is to keep yourself and your family safe, as best you can.

Safety planning

What is most important for family caregivers is how you are going to try and keep yourself and the rest of your family safe. Safety planning helps to reduce or eliminate the risks that you and your children may experience.Abusive behaviour rarely goes away without some kind of action or professional intervention. Please consider the following:

  •  Talk to someone you trust about the abuse. The first step is to break the silence.
  •  Create a Support System. *Consider calling a shelter, crisis line, or counselling agency.
  •  Consider a code word as a help signal to people you trust. If they hear you use the code word, they should get help.
  •  Store important documents and items (identification, bank cards, cell phone) in a safe and convenient location
  •  Calling 9-1-1 is always an option and one that should be exercised when you and/or your family’s safety is at risk.

Abuse isn’t a private matter

It can be really hard to talk about abuse. It can feel like a private matter – but it is not. You may even feel that you deserve the abuse – but you do not. It may even be hard to call it what it is: abuse. This is because the person is dependent on you and as their caregiver, you seem to be the one with the control.The dynamics of a caregiver being abused and the abusive relationship are quite complex, which is precisely why it can be helpful to discuss these dynamics (and the impact on you) with someone who understands this complexity. Many family caregivers who are experiencing abuse do not necessarily want to leave the relationship; they “just” want the abuse to stop.

*Whether you decide to stay or to leave, please seriously consider reaching out for help – emotional support, counselling, information, safety planning, advocacy, and referrals for local shelters and legal or health related resources are available.

If you are not sure where to start, consider calling the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511 or TTY 1- 866-863-7868. They provide anonymous, around the clock crisis support (24/7) in over 200 languages. There is no charge, no caller ID, no record of their number on your phone bill, and everything remains confidential.Men can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. For those who identify as LGBTQ, the
Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is a resource with a wealth of information that you can access.

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  • Mayanka
    Thu Jun 13 2019, 04:41
    My husband, 81yrs old, is not abusive. He is now under evaluation by medical experts. My observations since Nov. 2018: nightmares, anxiety, paranoia, delusions. He was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment Nov. 2017. It started with family demands to disclose Trust. I have been with my husband for 21 yrs. He has two ex wives, two sons: 40 yrs and 54yrs. They were upset I was named as POA and successor Trustee. Since they one son and ex-wife have attempted to implicate me in improperly handling my husband's finances and care. It is a struggle as I am trying to take care of my husband and experience new episodes he is going through. It is horrifying to see someone go through this. Help!
  • Cynthia
    Wed Sep 02 2020, 22:41
    My husband is a narcissist and very emotionally abusive and shows little interest in what's going on with me. He is also very I'll with congestive heart failure, diabetes and is on dialysis. I have to work for financial reasons but also try to take care of him as much as possible.I would never hurt my husband but I often wish he would die. I feel torn between doing everything in my power to keep him alive, but I also fantasize about being loved and happy again if he were to die. I am a Christian and I am pretty sure God is angry with me and that I am a selfish and horrible person. But my husband's behavior hurts me and I want to stop hurting.I have friends at work but my husband discourages me from being close to anybody. Work is the only place I feel validated and I am afraid sooner or later I will have to work from home. I don't know sometimes if I'm a good person in a bad situation or if I don't deserve anything good. I sometimes wonder if the messages I get from my husband are true and I am stupid, selfish and that nobody else could possibly love me.I just want to stop hurting.
    • JaneVock
      Mon Jan 04 2021, 10:41
      Hi Cynthia,Please consider reaching out to professionals for support. There is, for example, a 24 hour helpline you can call for support, at Assaulted Women’s Helpline, free at 1-866-863-0511 or TTY 1-866-863-7868.We all deserve good. The messages your husband is giving you are NOT true. They are intended to keep you doubting yourself. Please seriously consider reaching out for support.Take good care, Jane