Human Rights Office: Dear Jen: Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships (August 2003)
I’m a student in fourth year and have been involved with someone who is also graduating this year. We now have to make a decision about our future – do we stay together or not, do we tie the knot or go to grad school first…? You get the picture. I’m seriously considering a terrific job offer in Vancouver while the love of my life is considering grad school in California. The thought of us not being together is tearing me apart, but at the same time giving up on a one-of-a-kind job offer to take my chances and follow someone else’s dream is worrying me because of one small flaw in this relationship: He can sometimes be like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - one minute he’s “good” (sweet and romantic), and the next he’s “bad” (cold and distant). Sometimes, during particularly stressful periods, he is verbally abusive (but he’s not physically abusive: he has only hit me once at the very beginning of our relationship and he was so shocked by what happened himself he cried and never did that again.) Is it normal for couples to have jitters when facing major decisions like this, or do I have reason to worry?
It is normal for couples to have jitters… and doubts and questions… all the time. People usually handle it by confiding in close friends who have gone through the same experiences and weighing the various options and potential outcomes. It’s called “listening to reason.” Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith, but even then you need to listen to what reason is telling you. This time, reason is telling you that something is not quite right, and I am agreeing wholeheartedly with whatever that something is: your loved one is a person who is emotionally and verbally abusive. This is not a minor flaw. There are no ‘good’ periods and ‘bad’ periods in a relationship like this one, there are only periods where he is controlling. If he were always ‘bad’ you would leave; if he were always ‘good’ he would not feel in control. That’s how abuse works. Why do you want to follow it to California? It sounds like Vancouver holds so many promises, provided you don’t get caught up in another similar relationship. Is an attraction to this kind of partner a pattern in your life or is this a first for you? Either way you should take a good long look at the reason you have been attracted to someone who treats you so badly so that you can break the pattern and not repeat it. Remember, no matter how “locked in” you may feel right now, you always have choices. By choosing to put up with his emotional abuse, what are you saying about your own self-worth? You deserve better treatment don’t you?
Don’t lie to yourself about his abusive personality or your reasons for following him. There exist some great web sites that discuss healthy vs. unhealthy relationships for both heterosexual and same-sex couples that can help you make a healthy choice. One of the best for linking up to a host of other resources is www.cyberisle.org; if you click on Teen Clinic (it’s the sputnik looking object) and go to the resource room once you are in the clinic, you can then search for all sorts of information on the whiteboard. Another is www.canadian-health-network.ca.
Oh and one more thing – “he only ever hit me once and he was so shocked himself he cried and never did it again” is the type of minimizing that leads to ‘he only hits me once in a while’ and ‘he never hits me hard’ and so on. You might be one of the lucky ones whose partner recognizes the signs of being an abuser and takes steps to change. But then again, research indicates that you’re more likely end up enduring ever more dangerous levels of abuse while denying the fact that this is definitely not healthy. If you do choose to follow him hoping you fall in the first scenario and find later that you are actually facing the second scenario, there is help out there – look up your local shelter or assault crisis centers. They are usually listed in the front of the telephone directory. There are also two excellent web site for quick referral: shelternet.ca and www.awhl.org. Telephone crisis lines will be available to assist you whether you are a woman or a man facing an abusive situation, and whether you are in a heterosexual or a same-sex relationship.