Let’s get this straight: abuse is real, happening in Aotearoa, and should always be addressed. If you’re concerned you’re in an abusive relationship these resources can help you identify it and find your next steps.
Family violence information line: 0800 456 450
rangatahi can text lovebetter to 234
Dating someone you don’t really get on with has become a weird rite of passage in modern society. We put up with people who don’t make us feel that great for a bunch of different reasons – we might be flattered, or lonely, or don’t want to pay $275 a week for a single bedroom in a freezing Pōneke flat. So we shack up, split the rent, and do our best to get along. Relationships like this are shit. But sometimes they’re just that.
You shouldn’t be in it, that’s for sure, but that doesn’t mean the relationship is dangerous or manipulative or controlling.
So why is it that it seems like every second person talks about their bad relationships as if they were abusive?
If you spend a lot of time online you’ve probably noticed that words like “toxic”, “gaslighting” and “red-flags” show up on a daily basis – words that ten years ago were only being used in counsellors offices and pamphlets in your GP’s waiting room. But suddenly the internet is a flood ground for this kind of talk.
You also might’ve heard the phrase “therapy speak” come up recently. The term generally refers to the filtering of our feelings through clinical and professional language that we just weren’t using before. Abuse is a hot topic in the world of therapy speak, with many, many people getting a better understanding of their relationships as they discover language that seems like it accurately expresses what they’re feeling.
But the prevalence of abuse-coded language, used heavily on Twitter and Tiktok, might be twisting our ideas around what an abusive relationship really is – and leading people who haven’t actually been in one to believe that they have.
A few years ago, I was in a very ugly relationship that caused me immense amounts of long term damage to my self esteem that I’m still working through. I described it to many people as an abusive relationship after things ended because I felt I’d been abused, but over the years I’ve come to the realisation that my boyfriend, who negged me, ignored me and patronised me, wasn’t an abuser who was trying to gain control over me… he was just an asshole.
And that’s the hard to grasp issue: You might feel hurt by careless negging, unsupported by a partner who’s not meeting your needs, or rejected by someone who’s a poor communicator - but that doesn’t mean you’re in a relationship with a “toxic person” – they might just be a shit partner. The danger comes when people in unhappy relationships, who still need support and care, start to assign the language of abuse to their partners and relationships, which in some ways ends up minimising the brutal reality of abuse.
So what really is abuse? Therapist Jo Robertson told VICE that “an abusive relationship is a relationship where one partner uses various tactics, such as physical violence, emotional manipulation, and coercion, to control or have power over the other partner,” whereas an unhealthy relationship is one where “one or both partners engage in behaviours that are detrimental to the relationship's well-being or the other's well-being.”
These behaviours might be poor communication, lack of trust, disrespect, and ignoring each other's needs, and they can still be harmful and cause emotional distress.
A lot of us may feel like we don’t have the words for this, or are worried that our harm won’t be taken seriously if we can’t emphasise the devastation caused by an unhealthy relationship, so we lean into language that isn’t totally accurate.
“Language can fundamentally shift and change culture”, counsellor Maria Milmine told VICE, and it’s easy to see how we’ve evolved to this point. Milmine points out that “labels are amazing tools designed for the human brain to make shortcuts, like saying ‘this is green’ even though there are thousands of greenish hues. So labels can be helpful, however there is no such thing as a one size fits all label.”
So what are some of the reasons people lean on “technical language” in lieu of more nuanced conversations around harmful relationships?
It’s much easier to explain to others what happened in a relationship when we can use concise and well understood terms, rather than explore the nuances of the relationships or complex emotions. When there is a specific term it can feel enlightening and empowering.
ACCESS TO RESOURCES
The reality is that access to professional support to get a diagnosis is limited under a struggling health system, but the use of psychological diagnoses or terms can lead to a higher level of support. The labels we gravitate towards allow people to ask for help with more confidence when they feel like they’re deserving of that support.
Basically, we just don’t have the words. We aren’t good in the early years at cultivating the vast array of words that can explain our experiences, so we lean on the clear and binary terms we hear around us.
You’re not doing anything wrong if you find yourself using “therapy speak” and abuse coded-language, but here are some things worth considering when it comes to the bigger cultural picture of understanding abuse.
People exploring and discussing abuse or harmful experiences online – without a professional present – can also share misinformation, myths or inaccurate legal information that may put themselves and others at further risk.
For those who have experienced an abusive relationship, or an assault, a casual use of psychological terms can feel minimising or triggering. Using technical language to simplify or more easily communicate a relationship dynamic can dilute the diagnosis for survivors. Constantly hearing other stories of abuse and harm can be triggering, overwhelming and in worst cases, re-traumatising for survivors.
This is where it gets even messier. If we want people to change and rehabilitate, we have to give them the room and the tools to do it. If a previous or current partner labels your behaviour as abusive, when you more accurately lack communication skills, impulse control, or relationship tools it can be extremely distressing.
Stigmatisation may also mean fewer people who are perpetuating harmful behaviours come forward to receive help for fear of judgement.
With increased awareness and access to information about abuse, there is a risk of overdiagnosis, where individuals may falsely believe that they or someone they know is being abused.
It’s not all negative – our developing awareness of genuine abuse tactics is a great drive for social change. When more people highlight problematic patterns we see cultural shifts in relationships, certain behaviours become socially unacceptable and abuse is challenged.
If you’re at the point where you’re relating your experiences to abuse then that’s already telling you something huge – the relationship is unhealthy and it needs to end (for help leaving an unsafe relationship check out the professional advice explored in this article.)
Being able to share with people irl, or online, also gives us a community and a space to feel safe and listened to.
It’s possible that your “toxic ex” wasn't that “toxic”, but was still an absolutely shithouse partner, and that’s enough of a reason for it to matter. What you’ve experienced is still real and worthy of support, so know that people will listen to your experiences and take them seriously, in both situations of unsafe, abusive relationships and unhealthy, harmful relationships.
If you do feel your relationship is or has the potential to be dangerous or you’re concerned by abusive behaviours please check out the resources below.
Own the Feels is brought to you by #LoveBetter, a campaign funded by the Ministry for Social Development.
LoveBetter Youthline support channels:
Or rangatahi can text lovebetter to 234
Rachel Barker is a writer / producer at VICE NZ in Aotearoa.