By Stacy Brookman, Life Storytelling and Resilience Expert at StacyBrookman.com
You (yes, you) need to read this…even if you’re not in an abusive situation.
You need to know where the line is between giving grace and accepting abuse, so you can help a friend or family member recognize it.
For millions of Americans, accepting abuse is an everyday occurrence. Statistics reveal around 10 million people suffer from physical abuse every year, which averages out to 20 people per minute. More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
Abuse comes in many forms, including emotional/psychological, physical, financial, digital and sexual. Abusive patterns can lead to fear, anxiety and depression, and may escalate into stalking, harassment, or lethal violence.
The staggering statistics lead to an undeniable truth. Many people choose to stay in abusive relationships.
Perhaps the answer lies in a very subtle distinction that people often use to rationalize staying with an abusive partner: they want to extend grace, forgiveness and sympathy to the person they love.
But there’s more to a tough relationship than this. Empower yourself to find the best possible outcome for your life by knowing when to say “no” to your partner’s personality.
“A good relationship test is how a person responds to the word ‘No.’
Love respects ‘No.’ Control does not.”
-Dr. Henry Cloud
Grace Versus Abuse
It’s the line between grace and abuse that causes problems.
Extending grace to another person is kind and compassionate, and it’s normal to want to give someone you love the benefit of the doubt. However, giving someone repeated grace, especially when their behavior does not change, may slowly creep into an abusive relationship where you tolerate the abuse time and again without even realizing it.
I Know Where the Line Is—Now
I tripped over the line between grace and abuse many times myself. Remember that old playground jump rope you laid down as a boundary when you were a kid? And then kept moving because someone didn’t think it was in a fair spot?
I kept giving grace over and over and over again thinking it would be better next time. I kept making justifications. Giving grace. But it wasn’t grace. It was an excuse. I was being abused…and I didn’t want to see it or admit it (You can hear more about my story in this Real Life Resilience podcast episode).
What About You?
Being in a relationship with someone who scares or hurts you is so tough. Know that you are not alone at this line between grace and abuse. Answer the following seven questions to know whether you may be giving someone grace (trying to get along or overlook hurt feelings) or accepting an abusive relationship (where someone is taking advantage of your forgiving nature).
- What do abusive relationships look like, and how does that compare with my relationship?
Abuse happens when a person engages in patterns of behavior to gain power and control over their partner. Abuse comes in many forms, including physical, emotional/psychological, financial, digital and sexual.
Let’s consider emotional abuse as an example. Perhaps, at some point in your relationship, your partner got really mad at you for something, and started screaming, calling you horrible names, and saying hurtful things. Maybe this is the only time something like this has happened, your partner was especially upset about this issue or having a particularly bad day, and they later apologized and never acted that way again. In that situation, it may be appropriate to extend grace to your partner.
If situations like these occur on a regular basis, especially if your partner never apologizes, sees nothing wrong with their behavior, gets angry about things that are not your fault/outside of your control, or says things that hurt or scare you, that becomes a pattern of behavior intended to control your emotional well-being—emotional abuse.
Try writing out exactly what happened in your situation, one moment in time that was particularly intense. Don’t write out any reasons as to “why,” just put down the facts. He did this, I did that, x happened, y happened. Then let it sit for a day or two, adding to it as needed. Step back and re-read what happened as if it were someone else. Does it seem reasonable? Would you act in the way the other person acted toward you? Why or why not? What advice would you give to a person in your role?
- How can I tell when to give someone grace for a personality quirk or whether I’m a victim of abuse?
The key to answering this question is looking at your partner’s behavior and personality over time. Abuse happens regularly and systematically. It doesn’t have to be daily, but abuse is a pattern of behavior: weekly, every couple of days, biweekly, monthly or whatever time frame you notice.
This is also true when it comes to personality. One particularly bad behavioral incident probably isn’t abusive, but if your partner is repeatedly engaging in controlling, hurtful or threatening behavior, that’s a huge red flag. An abuser may also experience mood swings—being fine, loving and caring one moment and then fearful, angry and upset the next. Even if you think someone’s hurtful behavior is just a personality quirk, that does not excuse their choice to act that way. You always deserve to feel safe and respected in your relationship.
Here again, writing can help. Writing about tough situations may be a painful process because you don’t necessarily want to re-live what happened in your mind. Sometimes, you even feel you may have triggered the other person’s behavior or made the situation worse with your response. However, writing in a journal can help you keep track of your partner’s behavior over time. When you can look back on the facts in black and white, it may help you see more clearly that what is happening IS abuse, not normal behavior.
Cutting someone a little slack or giving grace involves talking to them about what happened. If your partner apologizes and never treats you that way again, your grace might have opened that person’s mind to the possibility that they made a mistake. If you don’t feel like you can talk about a particular situation with your partner, that’s a red flag that you’re in an abusive situation. Fearing that you’ll hurt their feelings or that you misunderstood their intent is normal. Fearing that they’ll react in ways intended to blame, punish or threaten you is not.
- Does the other person deserve my grace?
Pay attention to how you feel when your loved one’s behavior occurs. Do you think, “Oh no, not again?” Do you try to rationalize the person’s behavior? This may mean you have an abusive relationship on your hands.
One way to tell if you’re in an abusive relationship involves fear. Someone who repeatedly relies on fear and insecurities to manipulate other people is probably abusive. Lashing out is intended to show power and instill fear into the other person to make them submissive. Abuse is more than just anger, but if your partner reacts to anger in dangerous or hurtful ways, they need to get themselves under control. That’s not your responsibility, nor should you bear the brunt of their reaction.
If you extend grace to an abuser, that person gets another chance to exhibit the same abusive behavior all over again.
Reasons for your partner’s insecurity and fear are numerous. Perhaps they experienced a tough childhood. Maybe they feel a lack of social value. The behavior might be explained, but not excused. There are two ways to break the cycle: the abuser seeking help to make real change in their behavior, or you getting out of the abusive relationship.
- Does my partner permanently change his or her behavior after I extend grace?
Putting forth effort to stop abusive behavior could be one sign that your partner is serious about changing. However, this could simply be a way for an abuser to suck you back into the relationship. Maybe they have no real motivation to stop their behavior and lied about a willingness to seek help. Maybe your grace unintentionally set your abuser up to take advantage of you one. more. time.
Sometimes when you try to hold an abuser accountable for change, they use stealth to shift your attention and delay you leaving the relationship. They might try to overtly flatter you with praise and gifts to distract you from the abusive behavior. Watch out for the language of abuse and narcissism. A narcissist might seem as if they have your best interest at heart, but upon further analysis, the opposite is true.
On the other hand, if you give someone the benefit of the doubt and they appreciate the opportunity to make the situation better, you’re giving grace. Rather than lash out in anger for calling out their behavior, they show you they can choose a better way to handle the situation the next time.
- How often do I hear “I’m sorry” from my partner as I extend grace?
You may hear the phrase “I’m sorry” frequently from an abuser, and this person rarely offers an explanation aside from “I’m in a bad mood,” or “I didn’t sleep well,” or “Work was horrible.” Give your partner the benefit of the doubt if you see real change after the apology. If you get an endless string of apologies without any real change, you may be experiencing abuse. Your grace shouldn’t be limitless, and neither should your patience.
- How does the grace-abuse dynamic come about in a relationship?
Abusers typically lavish attention on their victim initially, and the victim unknowingly responds in kind because that kind of attention feels good. After they behave abusively, the abuser may revert back to this behavior so the victim grants grace. Abusers and victims repeat a dance across this grace/abuse line over and over again until something gives way.
The grace you give to someone initially may seem like the right thing to do. Unfortunately, the abuser parlays that grace into continuing the pattern of abuse. Far too often, the participants either don’t recognize the dynamic shifting before someone gets physically or emotionally hurt.
As human beings, we have an incredible capacity for pulling the wool over our own eyes. Writing down your own grace vs. abuse dynamic can help. What is the origin story of your relationship? How did it come about? What instances of grace have each of you offered the other? Is it lopsided? Why might that be? That plays into the next question…
- Does my relationship seem one-sided with too much grace without any in return?
Nobody is perfect, and chances are sometimes you deserve some forgiveness for mistakes you’ve made in your relationship. How does your partner react when you do something wrong?
Healthy relationships entail a give and take between two people who respect each other. Giving yourself wholeheartedly to another person without consistent return of those same feelings may indicate an abusive relationship. If your partner neglects your needs while demanding attention to theirs, holds you to a different set of rules, or makes you feel like you’re always in the wrong, that can be a huge warning sign of abuse.
As you give grace, you should expect a loving partner to return that grace in two ways. First, the person does not repeat their bad behavior. Second, your partner extends grace to you when you face a similar situation.
“Living with too many rules is legalistic, but allowing too much grace is enabling.”
What to Do About the Grace Versus Abuse Dynamic
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Take stock of your situation by thoroughly answering the questions above. Keep learning about abusive dynamics. Create a safety plan, whether you choose to stay in or leave your relationship. Find ways to support yourself emotionally. Think about when granting your partner grace may no longer make sense to you.
If you need to talk this through with someone, The National Domestic Violence Hotline is one place to start. Advocates can talk to you confidentially and anonymously about your relationship, help you assess change in your partner, plan for your safety, and connect you with local resources.
Healing is hard, but it’s well worth it.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Stacy Brookman is a Resilience and Life Storytelling Expert and produces the Real Life Resilience podcast and the Emotional Abuse Recovery and Resilience Summit. She helps women who have experienced emotional abuse take back control and develop the resilience they need to become themselves again. Her free monthly webinar will give you 4 Simple, Proven Methods to Writing the First Chapter of Your Life Story in Just 7 Days. She believes that life is a story…and it’s never too late to start telling yours.