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Are you in a toxic relationship?

If you've seen the popular Netflix series 'Maid' you'll know that domestic abuse is not always about black eyes and bruises. As top UK family lawyer Claire O'Flinn explains, abuse comes in all guises.

Photo by Zohore Nemati on Unsplash.

The Netflix series Maid maybe be overshadowed in the headlines by the Korean dystopian drama Squid Game – but this poignant and sad story about a young mother fleeing an abusive relationship is on target to beat The Queen’s Gambit as Netflix’s most watched limited series reaching 67 million households.

Maid, which stars Andie MacDowell and her real-life daughter Margaret Qualley, tackles domestic abuse, homelessness and poverty.

It’s not an easy subject, but the story – inspired by Stephanie Land’s best-selling novel Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to SurviveMaid is thought-provoking, tender and real.

And as Claire O’Flinn, one of the UK’s top family lawyers explains, it demonstrates that domestic abuse is complex, involved and difficult to navigate.

If you only take one thing away from what you are about to read it is this; abuse can happen to anyone.  It is one of the few things in life that exists without prejudice. It pays no heed to wealth, class or sexuality. 

Abuse is such a wide term and for so many victims, it is hidden with shame.  Abuse can be financial, emotional, physical, sexual or psychological and more often than not, it starts slowly and crescendos leaving the victim feeling powerless, isolated and lonely.  A healthy relationship is one of love, trust and respect, not of domination.  Abusers are fuelled by their need to empower and crucially, to see the effect of that upon others. 

To even ponder the question “is my relationship toxic?” is an indicator in itself.

Signs of physical or sexual abuse are more obvious but from my experience as a family law specialist and mediator, here are red flags of other toxic relationships.

  1. The cold shoulder.  Every relationship has disagreements and arguments and in fact, it is a sign of a healthy relationship that you can safely express your opinion and for that opinion to be heard.  It can also be healthy to allow a cooling off period after an argument but if your partner is regularly giving you the silent treatment for hours or days, that is a display of control over the situation is a form of abuse.
  2. Making you feel small and unworthy.  Outright arguments, screaming, slamming of doors and demeaning language are noticeable signs of a toxic relationship and we can all spot those but the more subtle digs, the constant nature of “below the belt comments” and low level humiliation in front of your friends and family is not acceptable.  Initially you can brush it off and think perhaps you are being precious but actually, this is a sign of manipulation.
  3. Gaslighting.  This is a term we didn’t really hear of 10 years ago but that doesn’t mean it is a new phenomenon.  Gaslighting is when your partner makes you feel that you are losing your mind, that you are losing your grip on reality and makes you question things that have happened or have been said.  You have a clear recollection or memory but your partner tells you otherwise and you begin to question yourself.  Your partner is otherwise lovely to you and there are days when you get on really well peppered with these incidents where your partner makes you feel in the wrong, but are you?  Gaslighting is a serious form of abuse and if you fear you are experiencing it, you should seek advice from a family solicitor as soon as possible.  
  4. Isolation.   Abusers are bullies and bullies like to isolate their victims.  This comes back to their need to be in control and seeking to isolate you from your friends and family is another form of abuse.  Abusers are often jealous and insecure and cannot handle their partner enjoying love and support from other people and so they will look to isolate you in order for you to need them.  But we all need different things from different people and it is healthy to have relationships of friendship and trust with others.
  5. Financial dominance.  It is still common for there to be a “breadwinner” and a “homemaker” in relationships and we all make our own choices but when one partner takes full financial control to the detriment of the other, that is a form of abuse.  An abusive partner may refuse to share passwords to online banking, refuse to say where money is invested or even refuse to say how much they earn.  Phrases like “you are hopeless with money” or “you spend too much” or “you are too stupid to understand” are toxic phrases and are a sign that in fact, you really do need to understand the financial picture.  You partner may be siphoning off money or have a spiralling debt problem.  If your joint funds are involved, you need to know.
  6. Your friends and family tell you that they are concerned.  This can be a major indicator.  As you have just read, abusive partners can be subtle and will often bully behind closed doors but when your friends and family begin to notice and more than that, they take you to one side and ask if you are ok, this is a big red flag.  Take it seriously, don’t brush it off.  Just to satisfy your own mind (because you are not crazy), speak to a family solicitor. 

 Do not ignore your instincts.  Toxic relationships are shrewd and you deserve better.

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