Originally published on September 26, 2003 on http://wanderingpaths.bravepages.com/

Abuse. It is a powerful word, which evokes an immediate reaction when it is used. It carries with it images of battered women, molested children, people who have forever been scarred by the things which were done to them. Few people would acknowledge it as a word which is unfamiliar to them. But do people really understand the full extent of what abusive situations entail? For the purposes of this article, an abusive situation is defined rather simply as any situation which is destructive to one or more of the people affected by it. This destructiveness can take place on many different levels, ranging from something as concrete as physical harm, to something as subjective as emotional harm, or even to such things as mental or financial harm.

Unfortunately, there are a great many examples of abusive situations, far too many to present a comprehensive list of. They include situations ranging from the extremes of physical and sexual abuse which make up the popular images of abuse in the media, to more common situations such as verbally abusive relatives, friends or coworkers who are manipulative, or even relationships in which one partner is overly controlling at the expense of the other. In the cases of physical abuse, it is easy to see how such situations are destructive to the person being assaulted, but while the other cases are destructive on a more subtle level they are still quite destructive. Verbal abuse can leave you emotionally scarred, and make you doubt yourself even when there is no reason to, because your self-esteem has been shattered. Manipulative friends or coworkers often turn you against other people in order to get their way in certain matters, which can have a significantly negative effect on your friendships with those others while leaving you feeling like the very person who has manipulated you is the only friend you have left. And controlling relationships can involve harm ranging from causing poor self esteem all the way up to the extremes of physical and sexual abuse.

With such profound affects on those who are ensnared by them, it seems as if abusive situations would be easy to recognize for what they are. Unfortunately, many people who are involved in them do not seem to recognize that fact. The tale of the housewife who refuses to leave her husband even though he beats her has become a well-known one in our society, a tribute to just how difficult it is for people to recognize or accept that they are in fact the victims of abuse. There are, however, at least five major warning signs that can be relied upon to determine whether or not a situation is abusive. These signs are adapted slightly from a list given in the article “How to Define and Identify Destructive Cults”, an essay on how to tell a destructive cult from healthy organizations based on the group´s practices and effects, rather than on their religious beliefs. Sadly, the website this article was published on (http://www.factsource.com/cut/) has since been discontinued, and the article has not been mirrored anywhere else that I can find.

The five major signs that a situation is destructive towards those affected by it are:

  1. Mental and emotional problems are created or increased.
  2. Health is damaged as a result of the situation.
  3. Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse is involved.
  4. Supportive relationships you have with others are destroyed, leaving you isolated.from everyone but the abuser/abusers.
  5. A loss of freedom caused by the abuser/abusers taking control of much of your life, with resulting damage to your individuality and your ability to take responsibility for your own life. This has also been described as “oppressive control” (Evans, Controlling People: pg 112)

It is fairly easy to see the dangers inherent in the first three signs, even if those being subjected to them are not always willing or able to admit that fact to themselves. However, the last two may require some further explanation.

The destruction of supportive relationships you have with others, and the resulting isolation, is a key factor in many abusive situations, because it is through this tactic that abusers remove from your life anyone who might help you leave the abusive situation, even by giving you a little confidence in yourself. Without that natural network of support, it is much harder to break free from the influence of an abuser, or even to recognize that what is happening is in fact abuse. Even such extreme groups as cults use this tactic. “Many cults put great pressure on new members to leave their families, friends, and jobs to become immersed in the group´s major purpose. This isolation tactic is one of the cult´s most common mechanisms of control and enforced dependency.” (Singer, Cults in our Midst: pg 10)

The most dramatic example of individuality-quenching control, and of control which damages your ability to take responsibility for your own life, is also found in cults; specifically in the modern systems of persuasion or “thought reform” they use, which are notably more effective than older attempts at brainwashing which relied solely on attacking a person´s political beliefs. “Today´s programs are designed to destabilize an individuals sense of self by undermining his or her basic consciousness, reality awareness, beliefs and worldview, emotional control, and defense mechanisms. This attack on a person´s central stability, or self concept, and on a persons capacity for self-evaluation is the principle technique that makes the newer programs work.” (Singer, Cults in our Midst: pg 60) In short, this is control which makes you behave, feel, and even think in a manner which is in accord with the way the abuser wishes you to, rather than who you really are and what your beliefs and values are. It is this sort of manipulation which gives an abuser control over everything from your personal finances to what you eat, and which makes it extremely difficult for you to make choices on your own even once the influence of the abuser is removed.

As is plainly evident, there are many forms of abuse, and it is impossible to speak of them all in detail in any one text. The best way to protect yourself from abusive situations is to educate yourself on the subject, and try to keep an awareness of these major warning signs in your mind as you go about your daily life. Passing that information on to others is also a good idea, as more people being aware of the truth about abusive situations means that fewer abusers will be able to get away with the destruction they are causing in the lives of others. Here are some resources to help you in starting your own studies of abusive situations:

  • The Advanced Bonewits´ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame – (ABCDEF)
    http://www.neopagan.net/ABCDEF.html
    This document is labeled specifically as a guide to how dangerous cultic groups may be, but in practice it works well for evaluating any kind of group for destructive behavior.
  • The Coven Abuse Self-Help Index – (CASHI)
    http://www.wyrdweavers.org/files/cashi.html
    This is also a very good resource for evaluating a group, particularly a metaphysical or pagan group. It is based in part on the ABCDEF, but goes into much more detail with specific questions rather than the general ones that the ABCDEF uses.
  • Evans, Patricia. Controlling People. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2002.
  • Singer, Margaret Thaler and Janja Lalich. Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1995.
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