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Stages of Relationship Health

When we are unhappy in a romantic relationship and lack a blueprint for what constitutes functionality, we may wish for improvement but not know how to achieve it and, in frustration, turn misguidedly to food. Most of us know what physical and sexual abuse are and are clear that we need to put a stop to them, but we’re less clear about what makes for or how to handle emotional abuse or neglect. Hence, it continues and we continue to rely on food for comfort, consolation, and distraction.

Lots of folks, mostly women, who are victims of emotional abuse or neglect, lay low, hoping it will end on its own. Let’s call this Phase 1. They walk on eggshells and try to fly under their partner’s radar, all too well aware of how they feel when their partner flagrantly rejects, belittles, shames, ignores, yells or curses at them, but unsure of how to respond. Often they bend over backwards to make nice in the hopes of mollifying their abuser and think they can control the situation or even that they’re the cause of it.

In Phase 2, they recognize they’re not at fault and start to value and assert themselves. At this point, they stop passively taking the abuse and start arguing back, attempt to set limits with their partner, and often match them in rage and verbal abuse. However, they’re often uncomfortable with this behavior because it makes them feel as if they are being abusive. They feel better standing up for themselves than being passive, and can’t see any other way out of the situation. Most of us know couples, siblings, or parents and adult children who spend their entire lives like this in fight mode. Phase 2 is a crucial step to empower the abusee, giving her strength and practice taking care of herself. Nevertheless, prolonged fighting between an abuser and abusee ultimately changes very little.

What people who are emotionally abused fail to realize is that a Phase 3 exists: leaving the situation and disengaging from the relationship. For folks who grew up in families in which there was constant battling or abuse, it comes as a surprise to learn that fighting back is not the endpoint, but rather a stepping stone towards opting out of an abusive relationship. The final, healthy shift comes when the abusee refuses to either withdraw passively in silence or engage in ongoing battle. If you find yourself turning to food because you are regularly being diminished in your romantic relationship, it’s time to take stock of your options. Unless it will put you in physical jeopardy, try fighting back (not physically). If that doesn’t improve the situation, seek counseling and, if that doesn’t help, it’s time to get out of the relationship.