Protecting Yourself if a Relationship Turns Abusive

Doug, age 75, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease three years ago. His wife, Sandy, died after a valiant battle with breast cancer a year after his diagnosis. Since then, Doug and Sandy’s daughter, Susan, has been doing everything she can to support her dad, including managing his accounting business, taking him to appointments and ensuring he has meals and a clean house. She’s married, works a full-time job, is the mother of two teenagers, and is dealing with her own grief over the loss of her mother. Over the past year, Doug’s disease has progressed to the point that he can no longer maintain his home of 50 years. There have been issues with the roof, the HVAC system and, a sundry of other maintenance needs that have become increasingly costly. Reluctantly, Doug and Susan have made the very difficult decision to sell Doug’s business and move him to a new apartment in an assisted living community near Susan and her family. Since the move, Doug has become increasingly agitated and angry. He’s been irritable and on edge since Sandy died, which is understandable and often a normal part of grieving. Now, his irritability and edginess is crossing over into explosive and rageful outbursts primarily directed at Susan. If Susan is five minutes late or forgets to pick up something like a library book, he becomes furious and verbally abusive. Susan is now feeling resentful and finding herself going back and forth between anger, sadness, disbelief and numbness. She’s now on an antidepressant, struggling with absenteeism at work and rarely present for her kids and spouse. When caring for a loved one we often find ourselves the brunt of a lot of pent up anger and frustration. This is normal and something to expect. What’s not normal is when anger and frustration become rage and cross the line into abusive behavior. Abuse is never okay. Below are three steps to quickly identify the signs of abuse and effectively protect yourself. The more you practice, the easier they’ll become to implement.

  1. Trust your gut. If you’re fearful for your safety, have an uneasy, anxious feeling or find yourself infuriated when you’re around (or about to be around) your loved one, stop. It’s time to take some space and listen to your internal warning system. It’s a built-in mechanism that notifies you of a personal boundary violation and signals that it’s time to protect yourself.
  2. Think before you act. Once your ‘gut’ notifies you of a personal boundary violation, it’s time, once again, to stop … and ask yourself this question: “Am I going to react or respond to this situation?” There’s a big difference between the two. When we ‘react’ we’re activating an unconscious part of our brain that is based in a hyper alert mode (also known as ‘fight or ‘flight’). That’s why we often find ourselves yelling, slamming doors and a host of other behaviors that mirror the abuse we just encountered. When we ‘respond’ to a situation, we’ve caught our ‘fight or flight’ mode before it kicks in. This typically takes about 10 seconds. Even if we experience intense feelings of anger or sadness or the desire to run away, we have the ability to consciously choose how to express our emotions with a calmer demeanor. 
  3. Learn to say, “No” and walk away. As caregivers, we’re tired and being tired leaves us vulnerable. When someone we love is abusive, it can be very challenging to actually walk away. “What if something happens to him or her if I leave?” “Will I regret that I left?” “He didn’t really mean to say that to me. I shouldn’t have gotten so angry.” These are normal thoughts and feelings. However, it’s important to remember to care for yourself first. If the abusive behavior is causing you distress, tolerating it is the last thing you need to do to ensure you’re well-being.

It takes a lot of practice, but once we know our internal warning system and determine how to respond to it – we save ourselves and our loved one(s) a great deal of emotional, physical and spiritual suffering. ______________________________________________________________________   April Koontz is a family caregiver and founder of Daughters Unite, the first social networking site created for caring daughters by caring daughters. April has a master’s degree in social work and has worked as an individual, group and family therapist and a product marketing manager in the health information technology field. She’s intensely committed to patient advocacy especially with the older adult population and helping individuals and families have meaningful conversations about end of life planning. She’s also a songwriter. You can check out her music at here:

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