It’s Not Your Relationship That’s Abusive, It’s Your Partner – Here’s Why That Distinction Matters

Couple holding hands and standing on a dock; an arrow points to one of them

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(Content Warning: Intimate partner violence)

So, I used to date a scumbag.

He was nice in plenty of ways, but it was clear that he ultimately thought he was better than me, that I was somehow inferior to him.

But because he was a full-on gay cis guy who had no problem being with a trans man – and I had such a bad track record with being rejected by cis people at the time, especially in relationships – I stayed with him. I think I thought my scenario with him was the best I could do. (Internalized trans hate, anyone?)

Flash forward a few months after we met. My friends start pulling me aside, gently telling me they don’t like the way Boyfriend is treating me.

There was no hitting, no throwing things, no unexplained marks or bruises on my body. Rather, it was all verbal and mental: the way he’d shush me, talk me down, passive-aggressively make fun of me. The way he’d roll his eyes or sigh at something I did, how he’d make it perfectly clear that I couldn’t do right by him – often achieved without uttering a single word.

I shooed my friends’ concerns away. I found their explanations hair-splitting and finicky. But soon after, I found out Boyfriend had been sleeping with other men – primarily strangers and occasionally unprotected.

While we waited for his STI test results before sleeping together again – as per my demand – he began to nonetheless pressure me for sex.

He hemmed, he hawed, he belittled me, he twisted my words around. He did everything he could in the world of mind games to get me into bed with him, his favorite calling me STI-phobic.

He was relentless.

Two weeks later, he found out he’d tested positive for something. He called and told me. But there was no apology, no bowing of the head. Instead, he somehow figured out a way to use it to again call me STI-phobic, and complained about how now he’d be sexless for even longer because of the treatment time combined with how “I’d been holding out on him.”

Also, he let slip that he’d still been sleeping with someone else.

I broke up with him. He cried. I told him he had no right to cry and demanded he stop it immediately if he had any respect for me.

He not only kept crying, but later told people that I broke up with him as punishment for him “doing the right thing” and “being a good, honest guy.”

Hrm.

But this is all backstory. What’s important for this article is what happened soon after, when my friends threw me a party in celebration of my getting rid of the guy once and for all.

Amidst all of the hugs for me and bashing of him, the term “abusive relationship” came up.

I was surprised by the usage. Still too close to the situation to see it properly, I never would have thought to categorize the guy as abusive. I tried to reject the notion.

Only one friend was on my side. Well, kind of.

“You’re right, James,” my friend said. “You weren’t in an abusive relationship – because there’s no such thing as an abusive relationship. You had an abusive partner.”

We all wondered what the hell he was talking about.

We had a very long talk that night.

This is what I learned about the importance of using the term “abusive partner” instead of “abusive relationship.”

Oh, and that my ex is a serious dick.

1. ‘Partner’ Keeps the Blame Focused on the Abuser

It’s pretty simple. If you say “partner,” you think about the partner. If you say “relationship,” you think about the relationship.

When it comes to something as important as abuse, it’s imperative to keep the focus where it deserves to be. When it’s directed at the partner, it’s keeping an appropriate eye on who’s actually at fault here: the abuser.

And with that focus in place, we as a culture can actually start to remedy the issue: that being, once again, the abuser.

It’s not the relationship that’s the problem. It’s a single person.

And that person needs to change.

2. ‘Partner’ Takes the Blame Off of the Survivor

With the blame being appropriately focused on the abuser, blame is automatically taken away from the survivor.

There’s no more implication that abuse somehow happened or continued because the survivor stayed in the relationship, but rather because the abuser abused.

Getting out of an abusive relationship is tough. I consider myself lucky in comparison to most, my situation being short-lived, quick to show, and not including my life being threatened.

The fact is that plenty of “abusive relationships” continue not because a survivor didn’t leave, but because they couldn’t.

Plenty of abusers don’t show their true colors until far down the line, and the longer you’re in a relationship with an abuser – regardless of when they show their true colors – the harder it is to get away.

With the use of “abusive partner,” we can say all of that in just five syllables.

3. ‘Partner’ Implies That the Relationship Involves a Survivor and an Abuser Partner, Not a Provoker and a Provokee

As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. And that sadly seems to be the belief when it comes to abuse in romantic situations.

Is an abuser still an abuser if they don’t have anybody around to abuse?

We’ve all heard the excuses before: The survivor set the abuser off, they didn’t back away or appease when they were expected to, they pushed buttons that they knew better than to push.

In other words, it’s claimed that an abuser abused only because somebody else drove them to it. Or, in plainer language, it’s a survivor’s fault if they’re abused, if they got into an abusive relationship.

Bullshit. That argument is nothing more than  an “if a tree fell in the forest” conundrum. And an excellent use of misdirection. *slow clap*

Philosophical debate doesn’t make it okay to imply that an “abusive relationship” wouldn’t exist unless there was, in fact, a relationship.

The abuser isn’t a victim who has been paired with a provoker. The abuser is not the hapless provoke in this scenario. They are the self-provoking provoker.

4. ‘Relationship’ Misdirects How the Problem of Abuse Can Be Solved

In case I’ve failed to be completely clear on this matter, let me say it again: Abuse is an abuser’s fault. End of discussion.

By using the term “abusive relationship” instead of “abusive partner,” we lose sight of what’s important here: what’s going on, how we as a society can stop it, and how we as a society can keep it from happening in the future.

“Abusive relationships” aren’t going to end by survivors simply leaving said relationships. The abusers will still be abusers, and they’ll just find somebody else to abuse.

Focus on the abuser to stop the abuse and focus on telling future potential abusers (and, PS, that’s anyone) that it’s not okay to abuse.

When you don’t take matches away from your children, are you surprised when your home catches on fire? When your home catches on fire, do you yell at it for being made of wood?

Damage control, people. Damage control.

5. ‘Partner’ Adds Strength to the Survivor in Everyday Language

Just as the usage of “abusive partner” takes guilt and blame away from the survivor, it equally empowers them in the simple way our language is used.

Essentially, sentences start to read as “They have an abusive partner” as opposed to “They are in an abusive relationship.”

The relationship sentence implies a feeling of being stuck, and yet simultaneously being the survivor’s fault. It also muddles the entire abuse situation. Because if you want to get technical, the abuser is in an abusive relationship, too.

But it’s seriously wrong to imply that an abusive situation is somehow equal. If things were equal, then it wouldn’t be, you know, abusive.

The partner sentence instead gives insight into who exactly stands where – who is being abused, who isn’t, and who is at fault. The survivor is able to take their proper place as the survivor and be empowered as such.

***

The party night I spent with my friends was a real game changer for me.

I was away from a bad partner, and I was surrounded by supportive people, but most of all I learned that being with the guy – by “being in an abusive relationship” – didn’t mean that I deserved anything that had happened.

This can be a difficult thing for a survivor to comprehend. I mean, the whole point of abusers is to mess with survivors to the point that they question reality itself. It’s one of the many ways they manipulate them into not leaving.

And it’d be a big help if society became more aware of its own assumptions and how they’re catering to the behavior of abusers instead of aiding the safety and healing of survivors.

Quite a bit of work needs to be done in order to dramatically cut down the amount of partner abuse in this country, everything from educating friends and family to recognize warning signs to creating better prevention programs targeted at (primarily) cis men.

Using the word “partner” instead of “relationship” may seem like a small, petty thing, but its necessity shows how ingrained our societal beliefs are when it comes to who’s at fault in an abusive situation.

Don’t disregard it because it seems to basic. Embrace it because it’s an incredibly easy way to help out.

James St. James is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He isn’t particularly fond of his name, but he has to admit it makes him easier to remember. When he’s not busy scaring cis gender people with his trans gender agenda, he likes to play SEGA and eat candy. Follow him on Twitter @JamesStJamesVI.