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Recognizing Signs of Exploitation in a Relationship

Updated: Jan 28

sad woman; photo by brooke cagle; being exploited in a relationships
When you feel insecure about yourself, you attract people who are likely to exploit that

Are you being exploited in relationship?

One of the most common issues I see in people who come from dysfunctional families of origin is that you might allow yourself to be exploited in relationships. This can be at work by bosses who make you work overtime and won't acknowledge your hard work, or friendships where others take more than you give. Sometimes your own family takes advantage of you because they -- and you -- are so used to the exploitation. But where it really seems to hurt many people the most is in their love or sexual relationships.

Some of the things that might set you up for being exploited in a relationship include poor boundaries, both within yourself and between you and other people; low self-esteem; fear of abandonment or rejection; and the inability to distinguish who can meet your emotional needs versus who can’t. Unfortunately, if your parents or caregivers were unkind and disrespectful to you, you might think certain behaviors are normal, whereas someone with a less disturbed upbringing might see the same behaviors as red flags for being in a damaging relationship. Use this blog post as an awakening to the idea of exploitation in your relationships, so you can avoid being hurt repeatedly and foster better relationships.

How Do You Know You're Being Exploited in Relationships?

If other people violated your boundaries in small or significant ways growing up, you might think that you don’t have a right to assert your boundaries now. With repeated boundary violation, you may tolerate offensive behavior. An example of a big violation would be physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Smaller-scale violations include being forced to do things that you should not have had to do or having your parents live vicariously through you. If this happened to you, you might question whether you have a right to receive decent or even good treatment. The problem is, offensive behavior becomes normal if it happens enough and you find a way to adapt to having your boundaries trounced on.

How do you know whether someone’s behavior is offensive? Often, you feel uncomfortable emotionally or physically, or some part of you thinks that what is being asked is unfair. Nonetheless, you go along with it. You worry that if you don’t, the other person will get angry and either abuse or reject you.

Low Self-Esteem Can Lead to Being Exploited in a Relationship

If your self-esteem is low, you don’t understand why someone would want to be in a relationship with you. As a result, you fear abandonment or rejection. Therefore, you might give more than you receive because you don’t feel worthy of receiving anything back from your friends, lovers, or family. This can make you an easy target for exploitation or abuse. Some examples people have told me about include rushing into sexual relationships before they feel ready; putting in most of the emotional or physical effort in a relationship; or being overly accommodating of other people who rarely return the favor.

When this happens repeatedly, you might not know what to do in Relationships that are normal and healthy. The prospect of being in a close relationship might be scary or uncomfortable. This is very understandable. The good news is that with time and practice, you can move beyond feeling this way and have relationships with more reciprocity (give and take).

Are You Making Yourself Vulnerable to Exploitation?

Sometimes it is hard to know what behaviors make you vulnerable to exploitation or abuse, because it is such a strong, enduring habit. However, you know when you start to feel resentful, hurt, or other people make observations of your relationship that draw your attention to the exploitive nature of the relationship. You might ignore those feelings so you can preserve the relationship, but you do so at great cost to your self-respect. The idea is not to shame yourself, but to become aware of patterns that work against you.

Anyone familiar with the lives of Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin knows that while those women appeared strong and sassy in public, they allowed themselves to be treated very poorly by their partners. This is not to say that they deserved what happened to them, but it is useful to see the choice points in everyone's relationships. You may be the perfect couple in public, but behind closed doors, your partner may be lying to you, cheating, verbally abusing you, or even physically hurting you.

Angry woman with hands up; Photo by Engin Akyut; being exploited in relationship;
Exploitive relationships can drive you to the brink sometimes.

Questions to ask yourself about your relationship

Some things to consider in your relationships include:

1) How do I know how much to give this person? Am I my receiving the same consideration in return?

2) Am I staying with this person because I am afraid to be alone, or do I really want to be with them?

3) Do clearly understand what I want in the relationship? What have I sacrificed so that the other person is comfortable?

4) Do I ever feel resentful or angry at the person when they do what they want? Is what they want harmful to me, or do I expect them to sacrifice their own happiness for my sake?

5) Are my expectations of myself and others realistic?

6) How do I express my expectations, wants, and needs? Does my expression honor both myself and the other person by being respectful, clear and honest?

7) Is what the person’s asking me to do reasonable or unreasonable? Will it infringe on my rights, or is it likely to benefit us both?

You can probably think of other questions as well, but these get to the heart of unhealthy power dynamics in your relationship.

Can You Assert Yourself to Avoid Victimization?

Another thing to notice in your relationships is whether you can speak your mind when you are unhappy with something the other person is doing or saying to you. If you had a traumatic history, you may have difficulty expressing what you want and need. Even if you know how, you might not have the courage to do so often enough.

It takes a lot of work to become assertive about your wants and needs, but it can be very rewarding when you do finally let others know what you need and want. With time, you will see that being assertive might be lonely at first because you will lose some of the people who exploit or harm you. In the long run, you start to attract healthier people who treat you more respectfully.

Ultimately, you'll break the pattern of being exploited in a relationship and gain so much more in your relationship with yourself and others. Trust me, it’s worth it! If you want to break this pattern and start to get what you want out of relationships, please give me a call at 661-233-6771 to see how we can work on this together.

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