Intimate relationships: Signs of respect
Identifying abuse or violence in relationships can be tricky for anyone, but LGBTIQA+ communities face a unique set of challenges when it comes to spotting healthy and abusive behaviours.
We spoke to Karen Field, CEO of drummond street services and queerspace, and a partner in WithRespect, the first LGBTIQA+ specialist family violence service funded by the Victorian State Government.
WithRespect aims to raise awareness of family and intimate partner violence, and support queer people and communities to enjoy respectful relationships.
In addition to counselling and support services, the resources on WithRespect.org.au discuss what to look for in relationships that are respectful, nurturing and healthy, and how to spot signs of abusive or coercive behaviours – both in ourselves, and those around us.
Image: Polly Morwood
Some research in Australia and overseas indicates that queer communities in particular don’t always recognise behaviours as being indicative of family violence, or intimate partner violence.
Queer research shows us that LGBTIQA+ people can experience rates of family and intimate partner violence that are as high as, if not higher than, cis heterosexual people.
We also know that a number of groups within LGBTIQA+ communities are overrepresented as victims and face significant barriers to seeking support – these include First Nations folk, trans and gender diverse people, queer people of colour and those with disability, to name a few.
To reduce the rates of family violence we also know we need to address impacts of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, as well as other forms of discrimination such as racism and ableism.
We find that in working with LGBTIQA+ people, if they become accustomed to experiences of transphobia, homophobia or biphobia in their day-to-day life, it becomes difficult to separate or identify abusive behaviours and attitudes within their personal lives.
LGBTIQA+ communities have high rates of community violence and homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and it’s easy for us to internalise these experiences. This can set up a blueprint that makes it difficult to identify problematic behaviour within intimate partner relationships, and to look for and demand respect.
How do you separate family and intimate abuse and violence from all the other forms of abuse and violence you experience in the world?
Trans and gender diverse people in particular may have had experiences with the medical system, or with family members, that negatively impacted the way they feel about their own body. This can make intimacy difficult to access and navigate, and can stop someone from seeing themselves as deserving of respectful expressions of sexuality and intimacy.
Basically, even though we all deserve respect, if you do not expect to be respected, you do not tend to demand that within your intimate relationships.
WithRespect aims to understand the diversity of experiences and drivers of violence across and within LGBTIQA+ communities. This understanding will help us shift our communities to a place where we recognise our right to respect, and that we all deserve safe, nurturing, supportive and even healing relationships.
Conflict is not abuse. All relationships and families go through conflict and ups and downs. Conflict is when people disagree on something, but an individual doesn’t have a vested interest in forcing another person to take on their belief.
If one person uses threats or intimidation in order to assert their beliefs, or ascribe how they believe someone should identify or behave, or they assert power and control through the conflict, then the dynamic may have become abusive.
There are many ways this can take shape: through the use of physical or sexual abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, economic abuse, threats, coercion, or any other way a person attempts to control or dominate another.
Physical and sexual abuse are sometimes easier to identify, but what can be harder is the more subtle and coercive control: the way someone dominates or uses control over an intimate partner in order to get what they want.
A person might control which social supports exist around a relationship, or stop a partner from seeing their family or going to a particular health professional.
They might control an intimate partner economically, or coerce them into sexual behaviours they aren’t comfortable with but partake in for fear of losing the relationship. They might use children to intimidate or threaten a partner.
What is gaslighting? Gaslighting is a form of manipulation, or an attempt to control what someone thinks or feels, or how they behave.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation or abuse, which causes someone to question their own perception of events. A person can feel they are being bullied, controlled or intimidated, but if they raise it with their partner, they are told it’s all in their head, or that they are being irrational or overly emotional.
Their partner might change the story, or make them doubt their own recollection of events, or tell them they are “crazy” or they have mental health concerns.
They may tell support people, such as police, friends or health professionals, that it’s all an exaggeration, or that they are the one who’s being abused.
This can be very detrimental to a person’s state of mind, and can create a power dynamic in which one person takes control of another.
What is a healthy relationship? We have found it helpful to focus on what a healthy relationship might look and feel like.
There is a section on the WithRespect website around safe and respectful relationships, where we try to get people thinking about how it feels to be valued in a relationship: to feel physically safe, to feel emotionally safe, and to be supported around your identities and life goals.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t have conflict, or that you’ll agree on everything. But it means you have a voice in the relationship and you have agency.
Respect and care feels like your partner is interested in and supportive of your hopes, dreams and aspirations, and likewise, you are supportive of theirs. It means that when there is conflict, it is navigated in a way that feels safe: there aren’t constant threats that a person will leave the relationship, or hurt themselves, as a result.
In healthy dynamics, all partners are invested in the relationship, and there are respectful and open conversations about big life decisions. You’re able to share your emotions, fears and anxieties and feel safe, supported and nurtured while you do it.
Among our communities in particular, it’s important to feel supported and affirmed in terms of your identities. Our ideas about gender and sexuality can evolve over time, and being affirmed by your partner or partners to think about and explore your identities is really, really important.
These issues can be confronting, and there may be conflict around identities and how you explore them, either individually or together. It may be that two or more people have differing viewpoints, and the relationship could come to an end because of this. But it’s all about how you discuss these issues and navigate them in a healthy, respectful way.
If you’re unsure about your relationship or your own behaviour, there are people out there who can help.
WithRespect is a specialist group of LGBTIQA+ organisations that have come together to help people identify behaviours that are abusive or controlling, and to work through a process of helping them feel they deserve respect, guiding them to decide what they want, and supporting them to address issues or to leave an abusive relationship.
People can call 1800 LGBTIQ and an intake will help them work through issues and understand whether or not behaviour is abusive, and advise them what is available to them in terms of help and support.
WithRespect.org.au is being developed to help people understand what family and intimate partner violence looks like, where to go for support and services (1800 LGBTIQ), and how you might support a friend or family member you suspect could be in an abusive situation.
There is also an after-hours telecounselling and webchat service operated by Switchboard, where people can speak to someone about all things relating to relationships.
For more information, go to WithRespect.org.au.
WithRespect is a partnership between drummond street services – queerspace, Transgender Victoria, Thorne Harbour Health and Switchboard. WithRespect is a proud supporter of Archer Magazine.
This article first appeared in Archer Magazine #14, the GROWING UP issue. SUBSCRIBE TO ARCHER MAGAZINE