Abuse: When Love Hurts

“If you walked away from a toxic, negative, abusive, one-sided, dead-end low vibrational relationship or friendship—you won.”  ~Lalah Delia

Healthy relationships involve respect, trust, and consideration for each other. Relationships where abuse is present, on the other hand, involve mistreatment, disrespect, intense jealousy, controlling behavior, and/or physical violence. I tend to focus more on building healthy relationships in my blog posts, but after attending a recent training, I realized I cannot ignore a topic that so many readers can relate to. While Hollywood is depicting the vast majority of relationships as happy and fulfilling, more than 12 million American women and men experience some type of abuse in their relationship over the course of a year. Relationships where abuse is present, unfortunately, are NOT uncommon. I hope this post is not only informative for my readers that may find themselves in a relationship where any kind of abuse is present, but also motivational for them to speak up.

What types of relationship abuse are there?

Abuse is the misusing or regularly/repeatedly treating someone with cruelty or violence. While that definition is straightforward enough, there are many types of abuse that need to be discussed when defining abuse.

There is physical abuse (any form of violence, such as hitting, punching, pulling hair, and kicking).

There is emotional or psychological abuse (threatening the physical health of the victim or the victim’s loved ones, purposely controlling the victim’s freedom, and/or acting to undermine or isolate the victim, intimidation, gaslighting, putdowns, controlling behavior, and betrayal).

There is sexual abuse (being forced into any sort of sexual activity).

There is verbal abuse (yelling, put-downs, name-calling, making threats, constantly correcting or interrupting a person, and even employing the silent treatment).

There is spiritual abuse (also known as religious abuse; a form of controlling a person under the guise of religion or the misuse of religion for selfish or secular ends).

Basically, abuse is about domination and submission; it is about giving and withholding in the extreme. In a relationship where abuse is present, a form (or multiple forms!) of abuse is (are) employed by one partner to maintain power and control over the other partner in an intimate relationship. The feelings of love, loyalty, and devotion in the relationship make it difficult to recognize reality, break the cycle, and get help.

Who can be in an relationship with abuse?

Anyone can be a victim to a relationship where abuse is present. No matter the race, age, sexual orientation, religion or gender, anyone can be a victim (or perpetrator!). It can happen to people who are married, living together or who are dating. It affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels.

What causes abuse in relationships?

In relationships where abuse is present, often the offender has low self-worth, or has a history of abuse in their family-of-origin and thus feels powerless. Because of this, they use behaviors, such as threats, violence, and mind games to gain a sense of power and control over their partner. The following infographic from the National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines and gives specific examples of abuse in relationships. Regardless of where you start reading on the wheel, everything comes back to the center, the true motive for any kind of abuse: power and control.












What are the signs of relationships with abuse?

As previously mentioned, relationships with abuse are not limited to physical violence. Here are some warning signs to be aware of for any type of relationship where abuse is present:

  1. Trying to control where you go/who you see/what you say.
  2. Demanding to know where you are every minute.
  3. Accusing you of being unfaithful or of flirting.
  4. Isolating you from family and friends, often by behaving rudely to them.
  5. Constantly comparing you unfavourably to others.
  6. Deliberately breaking things you value.
  7. Threatening to use violence against you, your family, friends or pets.
  8. Harming you physically.
  9. Forcing you into unwanted sexual encounters.
  10. Punishing you by withholding affection.
  11. Insulting, demeaning, criticizing, or shaming you with put-downs.
  12. Controlling every penny spent.
  13. Preventing you from making your own decisions.
  14. Refusing to trust you and acting jealous or possessive.
  15. Telling you that you are a bad parent; threatening to harm or take away your children.
  16. Intimidating you with guns, knives or other weapons.
  17. Pressuring you to use drugs or alcohol.
  18. Making everything your fault (gaslighting)
  19. Controlling your appearance: your clothes, how much/little makeup you wear, etc.
  20. Using sarcasm and unpleasant tone of voice.
  21. Saying things like “I love you but…” or, “If you don’t _____, I will_____.”

It is common for someone who is being abused to believe that the abuse he/she is experiencing is his/her own fault and that the abuse is somehow deserved. This is a form of abuse itself and could not be farther from the truth! If you walk away with nothing else from this article, I hope that you know that you are never to blame for the abuse!

Being a victim of any type of abuse in a relationship is traumatizing. It can cause anxiety, lowered levels of self-esteem, diminished self-worth, distrust or difficulty connecting with others, and–in severe cases–post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Getting out of and moving on from a relationship where abuse is present will require a steady support system of family, friends, and often a support group. In many cases, the victim needs drugs an advocate–someone to give them a voice in order to break free from the toxic relationship.  That is where I come in; I am an experienced, licensed therapist who has seen multiple couples and individuals work through relationships with abuse. I can help. If you are concerned that you may be a victim of a relationship where abuse is present, please do not hesitate to contact me with questions or to schedule a session. My door is always open and I am here to help.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.





When #metoo Isn’t Enough: A Response

Metoo Campaign - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville Therapist

According to the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), each year 321,500 Americans 12 and older are sexually abused or raped. More than 60% of women are sexually assaulted in college and 88% of them do not report it. The prevalent #metoo movement filling our feeds begs the question–what now? What can be done to stop sexual harassment?

Recently, there has been an outpouring on social media of the hashtag #metoo. You may have wondered what it means, and its purpose. Harvey Weinstein, American film producer and co-founder of Miramax, was recently fired by his company’s board of directors following numerous allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. Over the weekend, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted out this hashtag as a call-out to victims “so we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” The hashtag, #metoo, was created as a bold declarative statement that ‘I’m not ashamed of what I went through” and ‘I’m not alone’ , as well as a way to say–from survivor to survivor–‘I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you.'” This hashtag has gone viral; it has been tweeted and re-tweeted, posted and reposted, and received thousands of comments, from both men and women!

If Alyssa Milano’s intent of re-tweeting #metoo was to “give the people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” it is working! This movement has caught fire across our nation. Many are shocked to see their friend, classmate, neighbor, cousin, or family member post #metoo. The numbers are staggering; sexual abuse and sexual harassment have touched the lives of too many. The sheer quantity of #metoo posts filling our social media newsfeeds is absolutely alarming. According to RAINN, every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, and every eight minutes that victim is a child. This statistic takes my breath away.

To further understand the #metoo movement, I think it is important to understand the definitions of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Sexual abuse, or molestation, is unsolicited sexual behavior by one person toward another, often done repeatedly.  When the interaction is infrequent, or of short duration, it is called sexual assault. Beth’s story is sadly a common example of this: she and her boyfriend were watching a movie alone in her apartment, when cuddling led to kissing, kissing led to him carrying her back to her bedroom, where he forced himself upon her despite her persistent pleas to stop. Once he finished, he left her alone in the dark, feeling sweaty and dirty, where she justified his behavior by thinking she had not done enough to stop him.

Sexual harassment occurs in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, and involves unwelcomed sexual advances or obscene remarks, often by a person in authority toward a subordinate. Sara’s story exemplifies this: One day, during work at the retail supercenter, her boss approached her from behind and stuck his hand up her miniskirt. When Sara approached him to talk about the inappropriate placement of his hand, he advanced again, forcing her into the corner of his office. She fled the scene and lost her job.

The above abridged stories are only two of the many, many that exist. I share them not to invoke anger or to be triggering; I share them in the hope that it will empower–empower parents to teach their children, and for others to know that they are not alone and that it was not their fault. This movement has definitely served as a strength to so many women (and men) who have dealt with the repercussions of being sexual abused or harassed. But is solidarity enough? Is there more that can be done?

Admitting #metoo takes an incredible amount of courage. Many have never told anyone about their experience, and know that they may re-experience pain by recalling the memory.  By putting #metoo on your social media, you are adding credence to the significance of the problem. And to those of you who keep typing and deleting, #metoo, I see you. I understand where you are coming from. There is nothing wrong with not putting yourself out there and wanting to keep your experiences from the public eye of social media. Sharing your story with close family and friends can be just as powerful and important!

If you are not posting because you feel that what happened to you is not as significant as someone else, I would like to encourage you to reconsider. Your story is yours. What happened to you is no less significant because it is different than what you are reading on social media. My hope would be that by reading all of the #metoo posts, you will feel validated and not alone. I am certainly not saying that it is imperative for all victims of sexual harassment or abuse to share the hashtag, #metoo! What I am saying is that absolutely no amount of unwanted sexual advances or behavior is okay; regardless of “how far it got”, sexual assault or harassment, in any form, is wrong! Please do not invalidate your experience by thinking you are somehow to blame!

So we have said, read, or felt, #metoo. Now what? Yes, this movement has been striking and powerful, but we cannot let the momentum stop there. We need to act. I urge you to get involved in raising awareness so we can decrease the staggering statistics of those affected by sexual abuse. Here are some ideas:

  1. Speak out. On Thursday morning, the Chicago Tribune released an article urging men to speak out against sexual assault and harassment.  Women are not the only ones that are affected here! You have a voice. Within the realm of your comfort, speak out, speak up, and raise awareness.
  2. Share what you have read or experienced (to the degree that it is appropriate) with close friends and family members. Many people are not on social media; tell them what is going on around them and help them understand the implications of movements such as these.
  3. Teach your children about appropriate and inappropriate touch, and create a safe relationship where they feel comfortable asking any questions they may have.
  4. Listen to and support survivors. We all know someone who has been affected by sexual abuse or harassment. If someone comes to you saying they have been sexually mistreated, be there for them. Believe them first and ask questions later. It is astounding how many people around us have experienced some form of sexual abuse. Let us be a safe place for each other.
  5. Respect. Women and men do not like to be groped, receive cat-calls, or have certain body parts be the object of attraction. Operating like this means you are more likely to commit sexual harassment, assault, or rape–even if you think you are not capable of those horrors. Men and women need to stop objectifying each other!
  6. Advocate for better education and prevention. Meaningful, lasting change can happen through a series of  educational and institutional messages about prevention, and comprehensive training for staff and leadership. Holding one assembly at schools/campuses, or bringing in a single speaker isn’t enough to shift attitudes and behavior. Get involved in your community to improve education and prevention.

If you are one of the many people who typed, thought, or relate to the #metoo sentiment, please do not stop there. Now is the time to seek further healing. You do not need to do it alone. As a trained, experienced therapist, who has seen many clients in similar situations, I encourage you to honor yourself by seeking help and support. I urge you to not push this to the backburner. Get the help you need and deserve; schedule your first session with me today.

If you have experienced sexual assault, you can call the free, confidential, National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access 24-7 help online by visiting hotline.rainn.org.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Allure: “A Note to Survivors Who Aren’t Ready to Share Their Sexual Assaults”
CBS: “‘Me Too’ trend on Twitter raises awareness about sexual assault”
Chicago Tribune: “It’s time for men to join the chorus of voices speaking out against sexual assault”
Cluff Counseling:  “Are You are Secondary Survivor?”
Cluff Counseling: “Choosing the Right Therapist for You”
CNN: “An activist, a little girl and the heartbreaking origin of ‘Me too’”
Huffington Post: How To Respond If Your Partner Has Been Sexually Assaulted Or Harassed”
LiveYourDream.Org: “Understanding Domestic Violence: Facts and Figures”
Mashable: “5 crucial ways men can help end sexual assault”
RAINN Website
Refinery29: “Alyssa Milano Details What Needs To Change In Hollywood After Harvey Weinstein”
TSM: “Literally, Why Can’t I Say #MeToo?”
Wikipedia: “Harvey Weinstein”
Wikipedia: “Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct allegations”
Wikipedia: “Sexual Abuse”

Are You a Secondary Survivor?

Cluff Counseling - Sexual Trauma SupportI read an article last week about a young woman, barely 18, who was accosted and raped as she walked to the beach near her house one night. She wrote about her journey to finding self-worth and peace after that traumatic incident. Her story, and all those like hers, strikes a chord with me. One of my areas of focus is trauma; I see many patients who are survivors of rape and sexual abuse. While their experiences are heartbreaking and difficult to work through, I am always amazed by the courage these people have to pick themselves up and get on the path of healing. This process of restoration takes time and requires support from family, friends, and loved ones. According to recent research, whether you know someone who has been a victim of rape or sexual abuse or not, it is likely you will come to know someone touched by sexual abuse, and so this article is for you.

If you have a family or loved one that was sexually assaulted, you are a secondary survivor. Although what primary survivors go through is horrifyingly difficult, your job is also quite strenuous. You sit by, walk next to, and cry with the primary survivor–or the individual who suffered the abuse. You hear their story, comfort them, remind them they are not to blame, and support them to pick up the pieces of their seemingly-shattered lives. You play a fundamental role in their healing and progression!

Secondary survivors commonly feel helpless and incapable of being a support to those who suffered the trauma. They may wonder what to say, what to do, and what specific steps they can urge the primary survivor to take to recover. I fully understand that watching your friend or loved one suffer also causes you great pain. It is difficult to think clearly in this situation! I have five pieces of advice that I would like to share with you secondary survivors:

1) Know that you are capable of helping your loved one through this incredibly difficult trauma. They need you–your love and your support. Your mere presence will play a crucial part of the healing process!

2) Remember that they need your compassionate and validating responses. This can make a real difference for primary survivors–especially as they may suffer feelings of guilt or shame for something that was not necessarily their fault or choice.

3) Remind yourself that it is okay to not have all the answers. You may not know the perfect things to say, and that is 100% okay. Remember #1, they need you. They need your empathy and to know they are not alone. Just because you may not have all the answers, please don’t avoid your loved one during this shared painful time.

4) Use your resources. There are a plethora of resources online and in libraries for both you and the primary survivor. This page contains a list of helpful reads tailored especially for survivors of rape and sexual abuse.

5) Get help. I am trained to assist survivors of rape and sexual abuse in the healing process. I have completed years of school and specialized training in order to be educated and qualified enough to do so. I know how to guide your brave loved one along the path of recovery. Feel free to contact me with any questions you may have, or click here to schedule your first appointment.

Pandora’s Project: “Resources”
Pandora’s Project: “For Friends, Family & Partners of Rape & Sexual Abuse Survivors”