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How to Handle Abusive Relationships and Mental Illness

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One of the most harmful misconceptions about abusive relationships is that they are the product of mental illness. Research demonstrates that those who commit violence in their relationships are no more likely to be mentally ill than the general population, and it’s understood that it’s abusive people’s value systems that are unwell rather than their psychology. Even so, mental illness does play a role in destructive relationships, but not necessarily in the way you might think.

Domestic abuse victims are more likely to suffer from poor mental health, including depression, anxiety, and even severe conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. One study in Australia found that victims of domestic violence, in particular, have double the risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders after the end of their relationships. In an inverse study in the UK, researchers found that women who had talked to their doctor about mental health problems were three times more likely to go back to their doctor and report domestic abuse or violence.

The data show that mental illness can still be an issue after leaving an abusive relationship. While no one wants to be abused, it can turn into a cycle that causes people who do get out of abusive relationships to find themselves trapped in new unhealthy relationships.

Why Everyone Should Learn the Signs of Abuse

Too many people see abuse only as a form of overt and obvious violence: beatings, hitting, rape, and other types of physical harm. While these are forms of domestic violence, not all people recognize the less obvious signs of abuse, including the non-physical attacks or threats that can precede more severe violence.

Why is this such a common story? Often, an abusive partner will act like they’re healthy early in the relationship. Unfortunately, too many people find themselves deeply involved in abusive relationships and subsequently find themselves in circumstances where it’s difficult to extract themselves, even when the abuse becomes extreme.

As a result, it’s incredibly important for everyone to be able to recognize the early signs of abuse because it can happen to anyone. Some of the early signs of a potentially abusive relationship include:

  • Isolating victims from friends and family
  • Expressing jealousy towards friends, family, or imagined romantic partners
  • Gaslighting (psychological manipulation to question one’s sanity) and victim-blaming in arguments
  • Placing blame for their behavior on the victim
  • Offering hurtful criticisms of the victim’s character or appearance
  • Threatening emotional or physical violence

On paper, these signals may look obvious, but in the real world, they can be very subtle. For example, an abuser might suggest the partner stay away from a certain friend “for your own good,” but it’s really an attempt at control rather than protection.

Failing to recognize these early warning signs can lead to more emotional complications in the relationship. Moreover, it can leave the victim more and more isolated from outside help and more dependent on the abuser for everything from money, a place to live, companionship, and validation.

How Self-Esteem Plays a Role in Abusive Relationships

One of the reasons that the issue of mental health and abusive relationships seems to be a two-way street is related to self-esteem. Self-esteem has an intimate link to mental health in people of all ages. In one study, scientists found that high self-esteem correlated to fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.

While dealing with mental health and mental illness is a life-long battle, self-esteem (as well as anxiety and depression) plays a key role in relationships. Not only can self-esteem keep you away from an abusive relationship, but if you do enter one, you are likely to see a decline in your self-esteem.

Ultimately, low self-esteem creates the perfect storm of making you more likely to accept abuse as something you deserve and lead to even lower self-esteem and an increased likelihood of mental illness. A lack of self-esteem can leave you vulnerable to abuse, not only at home but also at work.

Why Improving Your Self-Esteem is so Important

Everybody’s journey to better mental health is lifelong and as unique as they are. But one thing that remains true is the importance of working on your self-esteem. Not only can it help you avoid abusive relationships at home, but it can improve almost every other aspect of your life. More importantly, you deserve to recognize your own value.

But how do you see your worth, particularly when the swings and roundabouts of mental illness seem to hold you back?

The first way to accomplish better self-esteem is to only focus on yourself. Comparing yourself to others is one of the fastest ways to deflate your sense of self, no matter how accomplished you are. It’s also important to remember that everyone makes mistakes and to learn to forgive yourself when things don’t go your way.

Another important way to promote your self-esteem is to manage or eliminate stress wherever you can. The relationship between stress and self-esteem can be another vicious cycle. Low self-esteem can predict stress, and stress can predict low-self esteem, especially if you already struggle with anxiety.  For example, negativity in the workplace can leave you not only vulnerable to toxic work relationships but also incredibly stressed out and unengaged at work. Resolving conflicts and contributing to a gossip-free culture can make work both a safe and healthy place to be, and it also models how helpful positive relationships can be for your life more generally.

Managing stress through your lifestyle is important, but when it’s not possible, you might try talking to your doctor about using medication or counseling to help you along the way.

Better Relationships Are Possible

Abusive relationships and mental health are two of the most uncomfortable topics of conversation out there, but the two are linked. People in abusive relationships are more likely to experience poor mental health, and those with poor mental health are more likely to find themselves in abusive relationships. It’s an unfortunate two-way street, but there is help.

Mental health is a lifelong journey, and the road to recovery is long. But one thing you can do right now is start practicing those things that will improve your self-esteem. By building resilience and an improved sense of self, you’re better empowered to protect yourself from abuse in almost every area of your life.



About the Author: Ainsley Lawrence is a freelance writer who lives in the Northwest region of the United States. She has a particular interest in covering topics related to good health, balanced life, and better living through technology. When not writing, her free time is spent reading and researching to learn more about her cultural and environmental surroundings.

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The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.

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2 thoughts on “How to Handle Abusive Relationships and Mental Illness

  1. ss says:

    Hello i was in a very abusive marriage for 25 years it ended due to abuse to me and my daughter, my other daughter is acting the same as her father but like him she wont get help what can i do to help her get help for herself, she is a new mother and i worry about the baby. please i need help asap for her i dont think she will hurt herself or the baby its just she is acting bipolar or maybe schizophrenic

  2. Jay Boll, Editor in Chief says:

    Dear SS,

    Thank you for commenting. I will ask one of our Resource Specialists to contact you in private to offer assistance when they are back on Monday. Should you need assistance in the meantime, I suggest you call 211 for information about services or 911 if it’s an emergency.

    Best wishes,


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