A lot of people assume that abuse is caused by their partner’s mental health condition (for example, their partner might have bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), narcissistic personality, borderline personality or antisocial personality).
While these are serious mental health conditions, they do not cause abuse, although there are a few mental illnesses or disorders that can increase the risk of abusive patterns to show up in a relationship and in other areas of life.
Mental illness tends to affect all areas of a person’s life, such as work or school, interactions with friends or family members and personal relationships. In contrast, abuse primarily affects personal relationships and typically not the other areas of life. Abusive behaviour in an intimate or dating relationship and mental illness are two separate things.
We know that abuse in a dating relationship is about power and control, and that an abusive partner usually will not show their negative or harmful behaviours with friends, co-workers or family members. An abusive partner tends to put on what can be considered a “fake mask” for the rest of the world to see. When it’s just the victim and the abusive partner together, that mask comes off and the victim sees a different side that others aren’t allowed to see.
Being the only person to see this behaviour can be isolating, as a victim might think (or the abusive person may even say) that no one else will believe them, since no one else knows about or sees these behaviours. This also makes it easier for the abusive person to make their partner feel responsible for their abusive behaviour, which can make a victim feel even more isolated.
Lundy Bancroft, who has written several well-known books about abusive relationships, says that an abusive partner’s “value system is unhealthy, not their psychology.” If the abuse were caused by a mental illness, an abusive partner would also yell at and/or hit their family members, friends and co-workers when upset. With dating abuse, however, the abusive partner usually yells at and/or hits only their partner.
Abuse and mental illness can happen at the same time. There are people who have a mental illness and are also abusive to their partners. There are also people who have a mental illness and are healthy and supportive partners. If your partner has a mental illness and is abusive towards you, it’s important to keep in mind that the mental illness and the abusive behaviours need to be handled separately by the abusive partner. It is the abusive partner’s responsibility to seek out support and create their own plan for managing their mental illness and be accountable for their abusive behaviour.
If your partner is not owning up to their actions, is not admitting to how much they’re hurting you, and is not seeking out professional help then that’s a sign that your partner isn’t willing to change. If that’s the case, then the abuse in the relationship tends to continue and will escalate over time.
The following questions may help you figure out whether what you’re partner is doing is abuse or abuse with mental illness:
Does my partner yell or scream at others (friends, co-workers, family members) outside of our relationship?
Does my partner make others check in to see where they’re at and who they’re with?
Does my partner hit others outside of our relationship?
Does my partner minimize or verbally tear down others?
Does my partner pressure others to do things that they aren’t okay with?
Does my partner make threats to others when they say something my partner doesn’t agree with?
If you answered no to most of the questions, then most likely your partner is abusive without mental illness.
If you answered yes to most of the questions, then it’s possible your partner is abusive and also may be experiencing some form of mental health issue or illness.
There are resources that can help, and it’s a good idea to connect with a support network that might include counsellors or support groups that can help you figure out your options.
Even if your partner does have a mental illness, there is NEVER an excuse for abuse. Abuse is a choice someone makes in order to maintain power and control over a partner. If a partner is abusive towards you, regardless of whether they have a mental illness or not, they have no right to treat you that way.
You always deserve to have a healthy and safe relationship 100% of the time.