Q: My partner and I have gone through some changes in the last few months. I’ve been experiencing irregular periods, and they’ve increased to twice a month. This has resulted in a decrease in our sex life, although I don’t think it’s simply down to that.
He’s constantly saying he’s tired, busy and doesn’t seem to make the effort with me. I’ve gone through a lot of women’s health issues in the past 12 months but have not let it interfere with our relationship. Recently when we were abroad, he physically hurt me in a public place in front of our friends. He said he did it because I was flirty towards males — I’ve asked my pals if I was, and they all disagreed. I told him I will set boundaries if he feels I act that way.
We had a minor fight lately that he exaggerated and then stopped talking to me for two days. I really want to make it work but it feels like I’m the only one. Any thoughts?
Dr West replies: The immediate concern I have is not that he is not working to make it special or that you have had more frequent periods — it is that he has physically hurt you. This is absolutely not okay, and it is abusive behaviour. Physical abuse has no place in a healthy relationship, and it shows that he has no respect for you, especially as he did it in front of your friends.
Even if you had flirted with every man in town, physical abuse would not ever be justified. The flirting accusation is his jealous and controlling nature coming out. Perhaps he has an anxious attachment style, but this does not appear to be the case given the context that you have described here and even if he did, it is still no excuse for violence. If he felt anxious or insecure at the state of your relationship, he could have talked about it, but now everything has changed once he chose to physically hurt you. These accusations of flirting are incredibly common in abusive relationships and are often used as an excuse or a way to blame the victim for the choice of the perpetrator to enact violence on another person.
What also concerns me here is that there is no mention of remorse. Has he expressed any genuine remorse at choosing to hurt you? Even if he has, his abusive behaviour appears to be continuing by giving you the silent treatment for two days. There is nothing wrong with needing space and feeling like you don’t want to talk to your partner, but this still needs to be communicated. Ignoring someone for days is part of the spectrum of emotional abuse, as mentioned previously in this column. This tactic is proven to impact a person’s mental health and self-esteem.
Physical abuse does not always mean broken bones and black eyes — anything that hurts you is considered abuse. What also worries me is that physical abuse in relationships can start with something ‘minor’ and escalate to more severe violence on a more frequent basis. He has already demonstrated that he is lacking in respect for you, which might lead to other incidents.
What are the positives of this relationship? Your sex life is rare, you say he doesn’t treat you the way you would like, he fights with you then ignores you, while exaggerating the fight, and he physically abuses you? These are not healthy signs, and you deserve so much better than this. There is no mention of kindness or love in this letter, just hurt and a one-sided effort to keep it going. There is physical abuse and a suggestion of emotional abuse, and that will drain your energy and joy, and will make your health problems even worse as you tiptoe around this man.
Imagine putting all this energy into yourself instead. Your day could be filled with positive things, you could focus on your health, and you wouldn’t have to worry if he was going to hit you again or accuse you of flirting with other men. You could fill your life with love instead of fear and frustration. Your mental and physical health could improve, and you could be happier.
You wrote that you felt like you were the only one making an effort to keep the relationship going — if we look at this another way, you are fighting to stay in a relationship that only one person wants to be in, and where neither party seems to be happy. What if all that energy was productive instead of being spent on someone who is essentially telling you that you don’t deserve respect or to be free of violence?
I often recommend therapy as an answer to many problems, because therapy is a fantastic support for everything that should be open to all. However, most therapists will not work with a couple where there is violence. Therapy is meant to be a safe space, and the abuser may react to what the victim says and seek retaliation at home, and in abusive relationships there is an unequal power dynamic that will sabotage the therapeutic process. However, therapy for yourself is always a great idea, and a way to process these events with a trained professional in a comfortable environment.
If you would like some support around processing this, Women’s Aid can offer support and can connect you with support groups in your area. Their national number is 1800 341 900 and you can speak to someone in confidence.
You deserve to be treated with love, respect, and to be nourished by a partner. I do urge you to think carefully about a future with this person, and to envision what life would be like to be safe from harm in your intimate relationships. You are worth it, and it’s never okay to physically harm you.
Dr West is a sex educator and host of the Glow West podcast, which focuses on sex. Send your questions to email@example.com. Dr West regrets she cannot answer questions privately