How to recognise you're in a toxic or abusive relationship

Identifying these signs can give you closure and save your life because not all kinds of abuse leave marks.
Updated 07 Aug, 2019

This is the first of a two-part series on how to identify an abusive relationship. Stay tuned for part two, which will discuss how to escape one.

Last month, as Fatema Sohail braved Facebook to share the harrowing details of how her husband, a famous actor and singer, abused her during their marriage — even when she was pregnant — many women across the country started opening up, including Humaima Malick.

As has been the case with other #MeToo disclosures, it would be a lie to say that all responses to these two women have been supportive. Some called it a “private family matter”, while others said it was a man’s right to “discipline” his wife.

It is often confusing for survivors and victims to identify patterns and signs of abuse because of how domestic abuse is normalised in Pakistan.

According to UNFPA Pakistan, up to 40 per cent of women in Pakistan may experience domestic abuse at one point in their lives. This is likely to be a gross underestimate.

As the founder of Chayn Pakistan, every year, I receive messages from concerned women, their friends and family and even neighbours asking how to spot abuse and how they can turn things around. So, in this two-part series, the common signs of being in an abusive and controlling marriage have been broken down.

Identifying these signs can give you closure and save your life. Not all kinds of abuse leave marks.

Coercive control is one such type of abuse. What is said and heard is often not seen. If your partner is charming and kind to others, even your own family will go to incredible lengths to not believe your side of the story. Such abusers have one face for the world and a much darker one for their partners.

One way to know if you’re in an abusive relationship is to listen to your heart and see how you feel about your partner

Do you feel afraid? Fear tells us a lot about the threats our mind perceives of being hurt, mentally or physically.

It is natural to feel respect for your partner. Not only is this ingrained in our culture, but any healthy relationship should have mutual respect. Unfortunately, many people in our society confuse respect with fear. A husband should not have roab over his wife. It’s not a paternal role.

The other telling sign is low self-esteem as a result of your partner or in-laws repeatedly telling you that you’re not good enough and you feel like you’re always walking on eggshells. If you’ve been told this by others and feel so yourself, it might almost feel like the light in you has died and you are not yourself anymore.

At times, you may experience anxiety, sharp pain in the heart, fast heartbeat and breathlessness — almost making you think you’re about to have a heart attack.

At other times, you may feel like you’re numb and nothing makes you happy, sad or angry anymore. You may feel like a shell of a person you once were and not want to do the things that make you happy. You could be depressed and feel helpless.

Everybody reacts to trauma in their own way. There is no standard response to abuse. There is no "perfect victim".

The other way is to judge your partner — not on their promises of change, but the pattern of behaviour

The painstaking truth is that no matter how much we wish people could change, they mostly don’t. Abuse and coercive control is about power. And as with the power that comes with politics, money or fame — power within a relationship is addictive.

Societal norms have failed to hold domestic abusers to account, so such behaviour continues on and they become emboldened due to facing no ramifications for their actions. Thanks to #MeToo, the time for such impunity may be over.

Even though our TV shows and movies try their best to romanticise physical abuse such as slapping, most people know that when it escalates, it’s not okay. But there are other signs of abuse that may seem less violent that are just as damaging.

Unlike common belief, domestic abuse isn’t just physical violence; it can be financial and psychological abuse too. Humiliating someone by calling them names, screaming at them, criticising their decisions, taking their autonomy away, spying on their messages and calls, isolating them from friends and family, limiting access to money, phone, social media or the car and asking them to stop their education, limit their social life or leave their jobs or forcing them to have sex when they don’t want it — these are all forms of abuse and coercive control.

God, “qismat” or culture does not put you into an abusive relationship; families, in-laws and partners do. It happens because abusers (whether it is your parents, husband, sibling or in-laws) want to exert control and power over you and are enabled by society to do so. People will try to excuse this behaviour as a flash of anger (“he just can’t control his temper but otherwise has a great heart”).

You are not your husband or in-laws’ property and have a right to equal and just treatment. It is protected under law.

In our second part, we’ll talk about how you can get out of an abusive relationship and who can help you be safe.

It may be easier to believe that your partner has anger management issues or may be experiencing stress because of work or money issues. But abusing and controlling someone is inexcusable and if it was a one-off case, it wouldn’t keep on happening.

Illustration by Leea Contractor


Faraz Aug 07, 2019 01:19pm
Can it not be mismatch of mind. What husband wants from and what wife expect from husband. It could initiate a debate between them. Who can decide who is right and who is wrong. But in our culture we try to tolerate as much as possible.
Moth Aug 07, 2019 07:06pm
Nice article. Most of married or unmarried women cannot differentiate between respect (from women side) and abuse from men side (father, brother, son or husband). They were taught to be obedient and respectful to men in any circumstance. Very good topic.
danish Aug 07, 2019 10:34pm
Good article. May be a good idea to pitch this as a checklist, so one can check off signs of abuse they have experienced, and see on a scale whether the relationship could be considered abusive. As I wrote it the above I checked myself. Even being on the lower end of an 'abusive relationship scale' is still being in an abusive relationship, and that is never OK. Still, I am sure an expert can make the idea work somehow, as checking off signs will help you see what you individually thought of as acceptable behaviors, are collectively a pattern of abuse.
Najma Hisham Aug 08, 2019 08:32am
when couples become abusive and physical and mental abuse is involved, then it is time to dissolve the relationship.
Kirti Pandey Aug 10, 2019 10:44pm
Nice write-up. Since we are actually one people divided by political boundaries, in a large proportion, this scene is reminiscent of India too. Log kya kahenge helps the abuser continue heaping atrocities and the victim keeps praying that a child, or more money or better looks will change the abuser's behaviour. Just like menta illness is an illness and we should not shame the victim seeking treatment, social ills like these need to be made open discussion issues and no double victimisation of the victim should be done. Women are people too.