What should an argument in a relationship look like?

I escaped from a physically abusive relationship. My life was in danger. I am so lucky to get out. Battered wives often try to pretend “this isn’t really happening” and I was no exception. A priest asked me one question and this once tiny question forced me to face what was happening to me and the dire nature of the situation: What does it look like when you two have an argument?

It seems like a simple question, but, as the priest pointed out, he can often get a good picture of the state of the relationship when he knows what the arguments are like. There’s definitely ways to have a good, argument. And just because two people are bad at arguing doesn’t mean that the relationship is abusive. But here are some red flags I’d like to bring up. These are things that should never happen in an argument, no matter how emotionally charged it is or how bad the two people are at expressing themselves.

There shouldn’t be throwing of objects. I, personally, had knives thrown at me. But even safe objects shouldn’t be thrown and shouldn’t be thrown anywhere (let alone at the other person). Throwing things is a demonstration of, “I am so angry that I can break something and, thus, I can break you.” No, the person may not be thinking this literal sentence, but that’s what the movement entails. Not only is it emotional abuse, but it’s apart of the “pre-battering stage”.

Pre-battering violence includes verbal abuse, hitting objects, throwing objects, breaking objects, and making threats. When abusers hit or break objects or make threats, almost 100% resort to battering.

There shouldn’t be grabbing. As a kid, my mom would occasionally do this grab to my arm. It’s tight and firm on my upper arm. Now, my parents are amazing and are amazing at being parents. My mom never did this unless it was necessary, like when I decided to aimlessly walk in the middle of a busy street. And, yes, if I were about to do something terribly dangerous, I would expect my husband to grab me out of harms way whenever it’s possible. But this type of grab in particular (and grabbing in general) is a show of power. It says, “You are going to do what I want and you’re going to do it now.” There’s no reason to make such a statement when talking about finances or chores. No one’s about to step into a busy street here. No one should ever grab you in an argument. It’s emotional abuse, but it also shows the physicality — that this person is willing to use physical threats against you.

You shouldn’t be blamed for his behavior. He is the only person in control of his behavior. God gave us free will at the very beginning of creation when he allows us to choose our behavior, even to the point of choosing to sin. This is a valuable and beautiful gift. You did not make him throw that lamp on the ground. You did not make him grab and twist your arm. You certainly didn’t make him strike you with his fist. Phrases like, “I wouldn’t have done it but you made me.” or “If you didn’t make me so angry, I wouldn’t be like this.” are textbook abuse. These phrases, I feel, are even worse than throwing things or grabbing you because it indicates that the abuser knows what they’re doing is wrong, but is refusing to take responsibility and, thus, refusing to change.

Irrational or unexplained crying. You should feel safe to bring up concerns without an emotional guilt trip. You should be able to say, “I’d like some help with the dishes” without fear that the other person is going to suddenly go from perfectly normal mood, to devastating sobs and waterworks. Yes, there will be individual situations where crying is okay. For example, if your husband is unemployed and you say, “I’m worried about finances” — your statement is valid, but that might be the tipping point where he lets out the emotion and frustration of being unemployed. But if this crying is happening every time you try to discuss something serious, it’s not just an emotion, it’s being emotionally abusive and manipulative towards you. The biggest phrase, in my opinion, is this combo of blaming and tears when he suddenly lets go of your arm and starts crying saying, “I don’t want to be like this but you make me.”

Striking you. When you’re not being abused, this sounds like a no brainer. “If he hits you, it’s obviously abuse.” But when you’re the one getting hit, you try to find every excuse you can give to him because you don’t want to have to face the fact that you’re one of “those” women. I’ll post more on society and domestic abuse another day, but for whatever reason you may be denying it, know that if he hits you, it’s physical abuse. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t actually bruise you. It doesn’t matter if he tried to hit you but missed (for example, if you were able to get out of the way in time). But if you two are trying to talk about something serious, and he tries to hit you, then he’s trying to be physically abusive. It’s not “an accident” to raise your arm and strike someone with it. It’s not an “a well of emotion” to wrap your hand around a knife and attack with it. These are not normal reactions.

Lastly, I want to say that it’s good if he apologizes. But apologizing does nothing to indicate either way whether you’re in an abusive relationship. Abusive relationships operate in a Cycle of Violence. There’s a lead up stage where aggression are rising, there is the actual battery, and then there’s the “honeymoon” stage where everything is great and wonderful and filled with flowers. If you experience battery or aggression on more than one occasion (especially if everything was “so great” in between), you’re currently sitting in a cycle of violence and you can expect it to come back around and try to attack you again unless something very drastic changes.

The biggest thing to know about abuse is that it doesn’t always look like a black eye. There’s so many other ways that even physical abuse manifests itself and it’s difficult to see when you’re in the thick of it. So maybe ask yourself in a journal entry, “What does it look like when we argue?” and just write out (it’s easier to be straight forward when writing than just in your own head) what you generally can expect if there’s an argument. This direct question helped me stop denying what was happening. Having to say the cold words, “He throws knives at me” made it crystal clear and was what allows me to begin my escape.

And here’s some sources about this. They also often come with little “quizzes.” Obviously, no big decisions should be made based off of a quiz, but they can help bring things to your attention that you’ve been pushing away:
Domestic Violence – Cycle of Abuse
Women Are Safe
Clark Prosecutor – Domestic Violence