The other day during a group meeting, Gary described in some detail the words and actions he’s directed toward his partner over the years. Recently, his wife notified him that his behavior was abusive. Gary was surprised and confused, so he sought feedback from the group by asking a very good question: “Is what I’m doing abusive?”

It’s a question most of us have asked when first accused of abuse. We don’t think of ourselves as abusers. In fact, we don’t want to hurt anyone, especially the people we love. So when we’re charged with being abusive, we wonder if it’s really true, or is this just our partner’s way of making us feel bad?

Is it really true, or is this just our partner’s way of making us feel bad?

Gary researched the definition of abuse on our website and he realized that some of his actions matched the meaning. Still, he could see that some of his wife’s behavior fit the descriptions, too. In fact, everyone he knew, including his family of origin, was guilty of doing some things on the list.

Abuse is hurting others

Relationship abuse is treating someone in a way that harms him or her. Physical abuse is an act that causes bodily injury, could cause injury, or threatens injury. Emotional abuse is using words or taking actions that damage a person’s sense of well-being and independence.

We are responsible for our behavior so that it doesn’t injure others.

Intent doesn’t matter. Most of us don’t intend to hurt the ones we love, but we may be harming them nonetheless. The fact is, we are responsible for our behavior so that it doesn’t injure others, even unintentionally.

Everyone hurts others sometimes

Gary was right—everyone does some of the things that could be considered abuse some of the time. If that’s true, then why should we change? The danger in that thinking is that it makes it too easy to justify our own bad, unacceptable behavior.

Being abusive is not about occasionally hurting the ones we love. Frequency, duration, and severity all factor into the amount of damage we do. I like to think about the level of abuse as an equation:

Frequency x Duration x Severity = Level of Abuse

For example, yelling at someone twice a year is far less hurtful than yelling at them twice a day. Similarly, calling our partner a name in the heat of an argument does less damage than consistent put-downs said over a long period of time. Some behavior, like physical violence, is more damaging than others and should never occur because of its severity.

“Is what I’m doing abusive?” is the wrong question

It’s fine to ask the same question as Gary asked: “Is what I’m doing abusive?” However, it’s pretty easy to start minimizing the numbers or adjusting the threshold to justify bad behavior. We are unlikely to count the frequency or measure the severity the same as someone else. Each of will probably draw the line separating abuse from not abuse in a different place. Miraculously, we’re likely to set the maximum allowable bad behavior somewhere above our own.

A better question to ask is, “Is what I’m doing good?”

Since we could argue all day about the level of abuse perpetrated, a better question to ask is, “Is what I’m doing good?” Another way to evaluate our actions is to ask, “Is what I’m doing helping me to have a close, loving relationship?” When our partners are treated well, our relationship with them thrives.

This question gives us a less squishy and much clearer “yes” or “no” answer. If the answer is yes, great. But if the answer is no, then why would we want to continue the behavior? If what I’m doing is not good, then I should be motivated to make changes for my own benefit.

Honest reflection is the key

The bottom line is, we all need to learn what types of actions can hurt our intimate partners. While it is hard to be objective, especially when we feel guilty about the harm we’ve done, being in denial is worse. Remember, your actions don’t define you, and stopping hurtful behavior is one of the most respect-worthy moves you can make.

Faith note

I know that having someone point out our errors doesn’t sound like a blessing, but it is. If we want to get better, it’s helpful to have an expert coach providing feedback. And if that coach is going to be helpful, he or she will need to point out our mistakes, including answering the question, “Is what I’m doing abusive?”

One of the ways God guides us is by conviction.

That’s exactly what God does when we have a relationship with him. One of the ways God guides us is by conviction—thoughts that come into our mind that tell us we are wrong. As weird as that sounds and as difficult as it is to describe, millions of people experience God in this way.

Not every thought is from God. As we invite him into our lives and get to know him, we begin to discern his voice from our own thoughts. This happens when we talk to him and take time to listen for his answer.

The good news is, God’s guidance is gentle so we feel encouraged while we are being corrected. He is patient, too. While he may not like everything we do, he always loves you and me, even when we mess up.

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