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"But... it wasn't abuse" ... why survivors struggle to name it, despite the evidence.

Explore the emotional hurdles survivors face in recognising abuse in relationships.

One of the most frequent feedbacks I get on my book (from men and women) is how it was powerful and resonated so perfectly with their past relationship... but that their partner wasn't abusive. (Here's a powerful story of a Psychologist who presented in therapy, with these exact words).

I could both laugh and cry, except that I know the deep fog of confusion people live in during and after abusive relationships that gets in the way of insight - an insight that is critical to achieving freedom and personal power.

In this article, I delve into the many challenges that hinder survivors from making the pivotal step of acknowledging abuse and reframing their experiences.

The Complexity of Recognition

Recognising abuse within a current or past relationship is not a straightforward task.

It's not merely a matter of identifying outward signs of abusive behaviours (many of which are very difficult to spot) but rather the deeply nuanced process that is influenced by a myriad of psychological factors.

Trauma bonding, for instance, creates a powerful attachment to the abuser, blurring the lines between love and abuse. This intricate psychological phenomenon often leaves survivors feeling trapped in a cycle of hope and despair, making it challenging to discern the abuse they are enduring.

Additionally, a psychological process called 'cognitive dissonance' further complicates the recognition of abuse. When the reality of the abusive relationship conflicts with survivors' beliefs or self-image, they may experience cognitive dissonance—a state of psychological discomfort that arises from holding conflicting beliefs or attitudes. This internal conflict can lead survivors to rationalise or minimise the abuse, further obscuring their ability to recognise it. In short, it is too difficult to blame the abusive partner and so we blame ourselves, which is made easier by the fact that the abuser is blaming us too!

It can sound complex and too much to learn about - but the knowledge is key to recovery. We spend a lot of time on these ideas in the programme.

The main takeaway here - it is confusing and difficult to see reality, in and after abusive relationships.

Emotional Barriers

The emotions that bind survivors to their abusers—shame, fear, obligation, and guilt—also serve as formidable barriers to acknowledgment.

Shame, in particular, can be paralysing, leading survivors to internalise feelings of unworthiness and self-blame. Fear of retaliation, further harm, the inability to survive alone or of never feeling loved again - may prevent survivors from speaking out or seeking help. Feelings of obligation, whether due to societal expectations, financial dependence or the effect of regularly being abused for 'getting it wrong' can create a sense of duty to stay in the relationship despite the abuse. Moreover, guilt, often perpetuated by the manipulative tactics of the abuser, can leave survivors feeling responsible for the abuse inflicted upon them. Emotions that are reinforced on a repeated cycle and linked to our very survival.

Fear, Obligation, Guilt and Shame we refer to as the FOGS in our programme - fogs that blind us to reality, which we are deep within and often unaware of.

The main takeaway - when we lean into the idea that we may have experienced abuse - expect fear, shame and guilt to visit with force. These feelings are not because we are wrong, they are the very feelings that come with abuse - they are in fact more evidence of it! Complex and confusing, I know! We have tricky brains that can be tricked.

The power of the word 'abuse'

The reluctance to label a relationship as abusive is often rooted in the stigma and misconceptions surrounding the term "abuse."

For many survivors, the word carries heavy connotations of extreme violence or trauma, making it difficult to reconcile with their own experiences. They may struggle to see themselves as victims of abuse, believing that their experiences do not align with society's portrayal of abuse. As a result, survivors may downplay or compartmentalise their experiences, minimising the severity of the abuse they have endured.

So much attention is put on the abusive behaviour of partners that we can fail to see the effect on us. We don't ask, "what happened to me as a person?", we ask, "were they really that bad?". It's hard to call someone we love or loved an abuser, but easier to see the effect inside of ourselves. For this reason, we created an assessment tool called 'How relationships should not feel'... it's free and can offer help to understand the effect of a current or past relationship (it's here).

The Power of Naming

However, naming the abuse for what it is—an abusive relationship—can be a transformative and liberating act. It shifts the narrative from one of self-blame and shame to one of empowerment and personal responsibility. By acknowledging the abuse, survivors validate their experiences and can reclaim their voice. They recognise that they are not alone and that their experiences are valid and deserving of attention and support. This shift in perspective can ignite a desire for change and set survivors on the path to healing and recovery.

Without realising we were victims, we don't ignite the fight for what victims need... we don't activate survivorship. I've met many clients, years after a relationship, who still carry the emotional effects and spend great energy trying not to notice.

Making this step is incredibly difficult, I know. We spend the first third of the GOGL programme supporting the full understanding of this past experience, through the language of Psychology and the effects of abuse. Not to drill in the idea that we are abused, but to educate us about what abuse does to people - why we are not alone - and why there is work to do, to recover.

As a therapist I support the recognition of the word abuse with a rapid shift towards a shared curiosity about what this experience (abuse) does to us as humans and how we can be kind to ourselves as we learn about it and recover from it.


In conclusion, recognising and labeling abuse in a past relationship is a deeply personal and nuanced process. It requires courage, self-compassion, and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths.

By acknowledging the abuse and embracing the path to recovery, we can reclaim our power, rewrite our narratives, and build a future filled with hope, resilience, and healing.

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