The Symptom Of Abuse Nobody Talks About

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In the December 13 episode of Dan Savage's podcast Savage Lovecast, one listener called in to report a very specific problem with her boyfriend. "Things are good, but one thing is that he constantly monitors what I eat," the call begins. She goes on to detail some habits that are a bit concerning.

For instance, the caller describes herself as a healthy, active person, but her boyfriend frequently orders for her at restaurants, reminds her of the things she's eaten that day, and tells her to slow down or be careful if she's eating a big meal. He'll even go as far as to take the food from her and either eat it himself or throw it away. "I’m just saying it because I care about your health," the boyfriend claims.

Savage's take on the situation? "He is a monstrous piece of shit."

"This is not the end of the ways he is going to control, undermine, and gaslight you," Savage warns. "This is the first front in his long war against your agency."

This caller is not the first person to come head to head with the issue of food control in a relationship. Some people have taken to Reddit to express similar problems.

"It all started a few months ago when we were grocery shopping together," one post begins, detailing a boyfriend's switch from health advocate to full-on obsessive. He would make the couple eat the same meals, admonish his girlfriend for getting a snack, and similarly remove and throw away food she was eating if it didn't fit his standards.

"I don't believe any of this is malicious on his end," another post reads. "He doesn't obsess about anyone's diet besides ours, so I'm inclined to believe that he does all of this because he truly cares about my wellbeing."

So is that something a "monstrous piece of shit" would do?

"It’s really difficult to say, because it depends on so many different factors, and it sounds like we just have a snippet of what’s happening in their relationship," says Jen Caudle, DO, family physician and assistant professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. Dr. Caudle has worked with many patients experiencing domestic violence over the years and has lectured nationally on the subject.

Cameka Crawford, Chief Communications Officer at The Hotline (of the National Domestic Violence Hotline), agrees. "I think it’s really important to step back when you’re thinking about this, really look at the larger pattern of behavior in the relationship that your partner is exhibiting," she says.

Domestic violence is a very big umbrella that covers a variety of abuse (physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, etc). According to the NDVH, "abuse is a repetitive pattern of behaviors to maintain power and control over an intimate partner."

Food control is not necessarily a warning sign of abuse, but it could be a symptom.

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Crawford lists some red flags as jealousy of your friends and family, isolating you from them, controlling your finances, as well as making demeaning comments, shaming you, or pressuring you into sex. Food control is not necessarily a warning sign of abuse, but it could be a symptom.

But Dr. Caudle stresses you don't need some objective higher power to tell you whether or not this is a problem. "If you think it’s problem or if it’s a problem for you, if you’re uncomfortable, that’s when I say, 'Hey, then this really is something that needs to be looked into,'" she says.

"The people in the relationships can often know in their gut if something isn’t right," says Crawford. "When someone feels uncomfortable with what their partner is doing or requesting, again, that is a sign that things crossed a line and that the relationship dynamic is moving into unhealthy or even abusive."

There are a few possible roads, and which one you take depends on your safety within the relationship. If you're comfortable approaching your partner and don't feel this is part of a larger abuse problem, then Dr. Caudle recommends you tell them: "When you say this or ask me this or do this, it makes me feel like this." That begins the conversation and paves the way for an understanding.

If the conversation doesn't help the situation, that could be cause for concern. "One of the signs of a healthy relationship is that you are able to communicate with your partner," Crawford says. "So if you are trying to have conversations about how you feel and your partner is not necessarily respecting your conversations, or maybe they’re dismissing your feelings, that is also a sign that you could be in an unhealthy relationship."

If you do fear your relationship leans more towards the category of abuse, then the problem should be handled a little differently.

"If you are safe, I think it’s really important to reach out to a couple different people or options," Dr. Caudle says. "If it seems appropriate to bring up with a friend that you trust, fine, do that. If you’d be more comfortable speaking with your doctor, do that. I often have patients coming in and saying, 'My husband is behaving this way, I’m not sure what to do about it.' So that’s a very real conversation to have."

But let's say the situation has escalated one step further and, in addition to food control, you're dealing with violence and threats: Crawford and Dr. Caudle recommend getting in contact with The National Domestic Violence Hotline as soon as possible. If you're worried that your partner will look through your phone or computer and find these things, then you can always make an appointment with your doctor. Dr. Caudle says she will call state and local domestic violence shelters for patients that are in her office.

Or, Crawford says, a family or friend can make the call for you. "The second biggest call group that we get are concerned coworkers, friends, and family members," she says.

"There’s no cut and dry," Dr. Caudle says. "But the bottom line is people need to be safe."

If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.
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