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Healthy vs unhealthy relationships

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We form so many relationships during our lifetime, with partners, our families, friends, and colleagues. When these are healthy relationships, they have the potential to lift us up and fill our life with joy and happiness.

But sometimes relationships may start out as healthy and then turn into something negative, damaging or even abusive. Looking out for signs of an unhealthy relationship can help prevent further pain or damage it may cause. Most of the time unhealthy or abusive relationships occur within a romantic relationship. However, relationships between friends, family members and colleagues can always be abusive and must be treated as seriously.

What does a healthy relationship look like?

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Respect, equality, safety, good communication, and honesty all come to mind when thinking about healthy relationships.

Relationships evolve over time, and all have their ups and downs. But there is one key difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship, and that’s consent.

Consent

When it comes to any relationship, consent is an absolutely necessary part of maintaining a healthy relationship.

The Sexual Offences Act of 2003 defines consent as: “a person consents if he agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.”

In other words, consent means that those involved in a relationship should be able to express their opinions and agree on the activities they engage in.  

Consent is all about choice

If you give someone consent but then change your mind, that is ok. You are entitled to withdraw that consent, to ask the person to stop or to say NO. Performing sexual acts without someone’s consent is illegal and punishable by law!

Consent doesn’t just apply to sex. Consent applies to everything and anyone.

And remember, it might not really be consent if…

You say yes because you feel:

  • threatened
  • you feel you have no other choice
  • you are asleep or unconscious
  • have lost your capacity to consent because you are intoxicated with drugs or alcohol, for instance

There are also legal age protections around consent. Children under 12 cannot legally consent to sexual activity, and any activity carried out will be considered rape. In the UK, the legal age of consent is 16, for men and women.

What does an unhealthy relationship look like?

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There is no perfect formula or list we can give you to what a healthy relationship looks like. You should feel happy, comfortable and safe with whoever your partner(s) is. We can however, give you a few pointers on what an unhealthy relationship looks like and the signs to look out for..

There might be some aspects of your relationship that you aren’t quite happy with, but you feel like:

  • you are overreacting, and in hindsight it is not as bad as you thought
  • you think it will pass or change, if you just try harder and stick to it
  • you acknowledge the relationship is bad for you but prefer to be hurt then alone
  • you are clever, strong, independent, and in control of the situation, so it can’t be all that bad
  • other people always tell you how great your partner is, so maybe it’s all just in your head

You might not realise it now, but some of the bad moments you are experiencing are not normal, and are actually signs that you are in an abusive relationship.

The questions below can help you recognise signs of an unhealthy relationship. But remember, people experience things in different ways, so it is important to speak to someone if you are still in doubt.

Do you…

  • feel like they could be less possessive or jealous?
  • feel afraid of their reactions to the way you act?
  • feel isolated? Have you stopped talking to or seeing family or friends?
  • often wonder whether you deserve this, are going crazy, or just feel a bit numb and helpless in the relationship?
  • feel embarrassed of the way they treat you, or would be embarrassed if someone was in the room watching you two?
  • feel it would be scary to break up with your partner?

Does your partner/friend/family/colleague/carer…

  • get controlling, temperamental, or threatening when you are trying to communicate?
  • turn situations around and often blame you for their mistakes, actions, or abuse.
  • say if they act a certain way it is only because you asked for it/made them feel that way?  
  • control your finances and questions you about your spending?
  • often criticize you and put you down?

If you have answered yes to any of the above questions, then you may be experiencing abuse. It would be good to speak to a friend, family, or professional about how you feel. You deserve to be happy and respected with the partner you have chosen to share your life with.

Still unsure if you are in an abusive relationship, or things are just sort-of-bad at the moment?

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Ask yourself, is your relationship is causing you stress, making you miserable and/or causing emotional anxiety?

It’s always useful to regularly take a moment to check in with yourself to reflect on how that person and relationship are making you feel at that moment, and ask yourself whether that is where you want to be.

If you’re unsure, you can use this questionnaire on the Women’s Aid website to help you spot the signs of an abusive relationship: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/the-survivors-handbook/am-i-in-an-abusive-relationship/

If you’re a young person looking for more information on abusive relationships, this questionnaire on The Hideout website could also help you: http://thehideout.org.uk/young-people/is-it-happening-to-me/whats-my-relationship-like/

Read more about two prominent theories of how and why abusers exert control over their partners: the Power and Control Wheel an the Biderman's Chart of Coercion.

How did this happen to me?

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Abuse shouldn’t happen to anyone, ever! But it does – and it is happening now to someone you know, or even to you.

We are here to help you understand what is happening, to answer any questions you might have, and to help you overcome this.

The first thing you need to do is not blame yourself. It is not your fault.

Abuse is more common than you might think. In fact, 1 in 3 women worldwide, and 1 in 4 women in England and Wales will experience abuse in their lifetime.

Abuse…

  • could happen at any age, from children, to teenagers, adults, and the elderly.
  • is not always physical. There are many types of abuse which don’t involve someone hitting you, such as financial, psychological and emotional abuse. They are still abuse!
  • has no social, ethnic, financial, gender or cultural boundaries. It can happen to anyone.
  • could happen at any point in your relationship – whether you have recently started dating your partner or you have been married for 10 years.

There is no reason or justification for abuse to happen, which makes it all more confusing for the person being abused. You will likely feel there is no way to change your current situation and that you will never be able to leave, as there are too many factors involved in your relationship. It might seem like there is no way out of your situation, or that there are just too many factors involved that prevent you from leaving.

But you can get out! And if you decide you want to, it is VERY IMPORTANT that you speak to someone that can help you through this, make a plan and find support. Read more about how to look for help on our 'Get Help' page.