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Domestic Violence and Abuse

Signs of Abuse and Abusive Relationships

Domestic Violence and Abuse: Types, Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Effects

Domestic violence and abuse can happen to anyone, yet the problem is often overlooked, excused, or denied. This is especially true when the abuse is psychological, rather than physical. Noticing and acknowledging the signs of an abusive relationship is the first step to ending it. No one should live in fear of the person they love. If you recognize yourself or someone you know in the following warning signs and descriptions of abuse, reach out. There is help available.

Understanding domestic violence and abuse

Women don’t have to live in fear:

In the US: call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).

UK: call Women’s Aid at 0808 2000 247.

Australia: call 1800RESPECT at 1800 737 732.

Worldwide: visit International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies for a global list of helplines and crisis centers.

Male victims of abuse can call:

Domestic abuse, also known as spousal abuse, occurs when one person in an intimate relationship or marriage tries to dominate and control the other person. Domestic abuse that includes physical violence is called domestic violence.

Domestic violence and abuse are used for one purpose and one purpose only: to gain and maintain total control over you. An abuser doesn’t “play fair.” Abusers use fear, guilt, shame, and intimidation to wear you down and keep you under his or her thumb. Your abuser may also threaten you, hurt you, or hurt those around you.

Domestic violence and abuse does not discriminate. It happens among heterosexual couples and in same-sex partnerships. It occurs within all age ranges, ethnic backgrounds, and economic levels. And while women are more commonly victimized, men are also abused—especially verbally and emotionally, although sometimes even physically as well. The bottom line is that abusive behavior is never acceptable, whether it’s coming from a man, a woman, a teenager, or an older adult. You deserve to feel valued, respected, and safe.

Recognizing abuse is the first step to getting help

Domestic abuse often escalates from threats and verbal abuse to violence. And while physical injury may be the most obvious danger, the emotional and psychological consequences of domestic abuse are also severe. Emotionally abusive relationships can destroy your self-worth, lead to anxiety and depression, and make you feel helpless and alone. No one should have to endure this kind of pain—and your first step to breaking free is recognizing that your situation is abusive. Once you acknowledge the reality of the abusive situation, then you can get the help you need.

Signs of an abusive relationship

There are many signs of an abusive relationship. The most telling sign is fear of your partner. If you feel like you have to walk on eggshells around your partner—constantly watching what you say and do in order to avoid a blow-up—chances are your relationship is unhealthy and abusive. Other signs that you may be in an abusive relationship include a partner who belittles you or tries to control you, and feelings of self-loathing, helplessness, and desperation.

To determine whether your relationship is abusive, answer the questions below. The more “yes” answers, the more likely it is that you’re in an abusive relationship.

SIGNS THAT YOU’RE IN AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP
Your Inner Thoughts and Feelings Your Partner’s Belittling Behavior

Do you:

feel afraid of your partner much of the time?

Does your partner:

humiliate or yell at you?

avoid certain topics out of fear of angering your partner?

criticize you and put you down?

feel that you can’t do anything right for your partner?

treat you so badly that you’re embarrassed for your friends or family to see?

believe that you deserve to be hurt or mistreated?

ignore or put down your opinions or accomplishments?

wonder if you’re the one who is crazy?

blame you for their own abusive behavior?

feel emotionally numb or helpless? 

see you as property or a sex object, rather than as a person?

Your Partner’s Violent Behavior or Threats Your Partner’s Controlling Behavior

Does your partner:

have a bad and unpredictable temper?

Does your partner:

act excessively jealous and possessive?

hurt you, or threaten to hurt or kill you?

control where you go or what you do?

threaten to take your children away or harm them?

keep you from seeing your friends or family?

threaten to commit suicide if you leave?

limit your access to money, the phone, or the car?

force you to have sex?

limit your access to money, the phone, or the car?

destroy your belongings?

constantly check up on you?

Physical abuse and domestic violence

When people talk about domestic violence, they are often referring to the physical abuse of a spouse or intimate partner. Physical abuse is the use of physical force against someone in a way that injures or endangers that person. Physical assault or battering is a crime, whether it occurs inside or outside of the family. The police have the power and authority to protect you from physical attack.

Sexual abuse is a form of physical abuse

Any situation in which you are forced to participate in unwanted, unsafe, or degrading sexual activity is sexual abuse. Forced sex, even by a spouse or intimate partner with whom you also have consensual sex, is an act of aggression and violence. Furthermore, people whose partners abuse them physically and sexually are at a higher risk of being seriously injured or killed.

It Is Still Abuse If . . .

  • The incidents of physical abuse seem minor when compared to those you have read about, seen on television or heard other women talk about. There isn’t a “better” or “worse” form of physical abuse; you can be severely injured as a result of being pushed, for example.
  • The incidents of physical abuse have only occurred one or two times in the relationship. Studies indicate that if your spouse/partner has injured you once, it is likely he will continue to physically assault you.
  • The physical assaults stopped when you became passive and gave up your right to express yourself as you desire, to move about freely and see others, and to make decisions. It is not a victory if you have to give up your rights as a person and a partner in exchange for not being assaulted!
  • There has not been any physical violence. Many women are emotionally and verbally assaulted. This can be as equally frightening and is often more confusing to try to understand.

Source: Breaking the Silence: a Handbook for Victims of Violence in Nebraska

Emotional abuse: It’s a bigger problem than you think

When people think of domestic abuse, they often picture battered women who have been physically assaulted. But not all abusive relationships involve violence. Just because you’re not battered and bruised doesn’t mean you’re not being abused. Many men and women suffer from emotional abuse, which is no less destructive. Unfortunately, emotional abuse is often minimized or overlooked—even by the person being abused.

Understanding emotional abuse

The aim of emotional abuse is to chip away at your feelings of self-worth and independence. If you’re the victim of emotional abuse, you may feel that there is no way out of the relationship or that without your abusive partner you have nothing.

Emotional abuse includes verbal abuse such as yelling, name-calling, blaming, and shaming. Isolation, intimidation, and controlling behavior also fall under emotional abuse. Additionally, abusers who use emotional or psychological abuse often throw in threats of physical violence or other repercussions if you don’t do what they want. 

You may think that physical abuse is far worse than emotional abuse, since physical violence can send you to the hospital and leave you with scars. But, the scars of emotional abuse are very real, and they run deep. In fact, emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse—sometimes even more so.

Economic or financial abuse: A subtle form of emotional abuse

Remember, an abuser’s goal is to control you, and he or she will frequently use money to do so. Economic or financial abuse includes:

  • Rigidly controlling your finances
  • Withholding money or credit cards
  • Making you account for every penny you spend
  • Withholding basic necessities (food, clothes, medications, shelter)
  • Restricting you to an allowance
  • Preventing you from working or choosing your own career
  • Sabotaging your job (making you miss work, calling constantly)
  • Stealing from you or taking your money

Violent and abusive behavior is the abuser’s choice

Despite what many people believe, domestic violence and abuse is not due to the abuser’s loss of control over his or her behavior. In fact, abusive behavior and violence is a deliberate choice made by the abuser in order to control you.

Abusers use a variety of tactics to manipulate you and exert their power:

  • Dominance – Abusive individuals need to feel in charge of the relationship. They will make decisions for you and the family, tell you what to do, and expect you to obey without question. Your abuser may treat you like a servant, child, or even as his or her possession.
  • Humiliation – An abuser will do everything he or she can to make you feel bad about yourself or defective in some way. After all, if you believe you're worthless and that no one else will want you, you're less likely to leave. Insults, name-calling, shaming, and public put-downs are all weapons of abuse designed to erode your self-esteem and make you feel powerless.
  • Isolation – In order to increase your dependence on him or her, an abusive partner will cut you off from the outside world. He or she may keep you from seeing family or friends, or even prevent you from going to work or school. You may have to ask permission to do anything, go anywhere, or see anyone.
  • Threats – Abusers commonly use threats to keep their partners from leaving or to scare them into dropping charges. Your abuser may threaten to hurt or kill you, your children, other family members, or even pets. He or she may also threaten to commit suicide, file false charges against you, or report you to child services.
  • Intimidation – Your abuser may use a variety of intimidation tactics designed to scare you into submission. Such tactics include making threatening looks or gestures, smashing things in front of you, destroying property, hurting your pets, or putting weapons on display. The clear message is that if you don't obey, there will be violent consequences.
  • Denial and blame – Abusers are very good at making excuses for the inexcusable. They will blame their abusive and violent behavior on a bad childhood, a bad day, and even on the victims of their abuse. Your abusive partner may minimize the abuse or deny that it occurred. He or she will commonly shift the responsibility on to you: Somehow, his or her violent and abusive behavior is your fault.

Abusers are able to control their behavior—they do it all the time

  • Abusers pick and choose whom to abuse. They don’t insult, threaten, or assault everyone in their life who gives them grief. Usually, they save their abuse for the people closest to them, the ones they claim to love.
  • Abusers carefully choose when and where to abuse. They control themselves until no one else is around to see their abusive behavior. They may act like everything is fine in public, but lash out instantly as soon as you’re alone.
  • Abusers are able to stop their abusive behavior when it benefits them. Most abusers are not out of control. In fact, they’re able to immediately stop their abusive behavior when it’s to their advantage to do so (for example, when the police show up or their boss calls).
  • Violent abusers usually direct their blows where they won’t show. Rather than acting out in a mindless rage, many physically violent abusers carefully aim their kicks and punches where the bruises and marks won’t show.

The cycle of violence in domestic abuse

Domestic abuse falls into a common pattern, or cycle of violence:

  • Cycle of violenceAbuse – Your abusive partner lashes out with aggressive, belittling, or violent behavior. The abuse is a power play designed to show you "who is boss."
  • Guilt – After abusing you, your partner feels guilt, but not over what he's done. He’s more worried about the possibility of being caught and facing consequences for his abusive behavior.
  • Excuses – Your abuser rationalizes what he or she has done. The person may come up with a string of excuses or blame you for the abusive behavior—anything to avoid taking responsibility.
  • "Normal" behavior – The abuser does everything he can to regain control and keep the victim in the relationship. He may act as if nothing has happened, or he may turn on the charm. This peaceful honeymoon phase may give the victim hope that the abuser has really changed this time.
  • Fantasy and planning – Your abuser begins to fantasize about abusing you again. He spends a lot of time thinking about what you’ve done wrong and how he'll make you pay. Then he makes a plan for turning the fantasy of abuse into reality.
  • Set-up – Your abuser sets you up and puts his plan in motion, creating a situation where he can justify abusing you.

Your abuser’s apologies and loving gestures in between the episodes of abuse can make it difficult to leave. He may make you believe that you are the only person who can help him, that things will be different this time, and that he truly loves you. However, the dangers of staying are very real.

The Full Cycle of Domestic Violence: An Example

A man abuses his partner. After he hits her, he experiences self-directed guilt. He says, "I'm sorry for hurting you." What he does not say is, "Because I might get caught." He then rationalizes his behavior by saying that his partner is having an affair with someone. He tells her "If you weren't such a worthless whore I wouldn't have to hit you." He then acts contrite, reassuring her that he will not hurt her again. He then fantasizes and reflects on past abuse and how he will hurt her again. He plans on telling her to go to the store to get some groceries. What he withholds from her is that she has a certain amount of time to do the shopping. When she is held up in traffic and is a few minutes late, he feels completely justified in assaulting her because "you're having an affair with the store clerk." He has just set her up.

Source: Mid-Valley Women's Crisis Service

Recognizing the warning signs of domestic violence and abuse

It's impossible to know with certainty what goes on behind closed doors, but there are some telltale signs and symptoms of emotional abuse and domestic violence. If you witness any warning signs of abuse in a friend, family member, or co-worker, take them very seriously.

General warning signs of domestic abuse

People who are being abused may:

  • Seem afraid or anxious to please their partner
  • Go along with everything their partner says and does
  • Check in often with their partner to report where they are and what they’re doing
  • Receive frequent, harassing phone calls from their partner
  • Talk about their partner’s temper, jealousy, or possessiveness

Warning signs of physical violence

People who are being physically abused may:

  • Have frequent injuries, with the excuse of “accidents”
  • Frequently miss work, school, or social occasions, without explanation
  • Dress in clothing designed to hide bruises or scars (e.g. wearing long sleeves in the summer or sunglasses indoors)

Warning signs of isolation

People who are being isolated by their abuser may:

  • Be restricted from seeing family and friends
  • Rarely go out in public without their partner
  • Have limited access to money, credit cards, or the car

The psychological warning signs of abuse

People who are being abused may:

  • Have very low self-esteem, even if they used to be confident
  • Show major personality changes (e.g. an outgoing person becomes withdrawn)
  • Be depressed, anxious, or suicidal

Speak up if you suspect domestic violence or abuse

If you suspect that someone you know is being abused, speak up! If you’re hesitating—telling yourself that it’s none of your business, you might be wrong, or the person might not want to talk about it—keep in mind that expressing your concern will let the person know that you care and may even save his or her life.

Do's and Don'ts

Do:

  • Ask if something is wrong
  • Express concern
  • Listen and validate
  • Offer help
  • Support his or her decisions

Don’t:

  • Wait for him or her to come to you
  • Judge or blame
  • Pressure him or her
  • Give advice
  • Place conditions on your support

Adapted from: NYS Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence

Talk to the person in private and let him or her know that you’re concerned. Point out the things you’ve noticed that make you worried. Tell the person that you’re there, whenever he or she feels ready to talk. Reassure the person that you’ll keep whatever is said between the two of you, and let him or her know that you’ll help in any way you can.

Remember, abusers are very good at controlling and manipulating their victims. People who have been emotionally abused or battered are depressed, drained, scared, ashamed, and confused. They need help to get out, yet they’ve often been isolated from their family and friends. By picking up on the warning signs and offering support, you can help them escape an abusive situation and begin healing.

Next step…

Caregiving Tips for Family CaregiversGetting out of an abusive relationship. Do you want to leave an abusive situation, but stay out of fear of what your partner might do? While leaving isn’t easy, there are things you can do to protect yourself. You’re not alone, and help is available. Read Help for Abused and Battered Women.


More Help for Domestic Violence

Help for Abused Men

Help for Abused Men – Getting out of an abusive relationship isn’t easy for men, either, but help is available. Learn how to protect yourself while you explore your options.

Help for Abused & Battered WomenHelp for Abused & Battered Women – Getting out of an abusive relationship isn’t easy, but help is available. Learn how to protect yourself while you explore your options.

Child Abuse & Neglect

Child Abuse & Neglect – Learn the signs and symptoms of child abuse and help break the cycle, finding out where to get help for the children and their caregivers.

Healing Emotional & Psychological TraumaHealing Emotional & Psychological Trauma – When bad things happen, it can take time to get over the pain and feel safe again, but with help, you can learn to heal and move on.

Anger ManagementAnger Management – Does your loved one have an anger problem? If he or she is willing to learn how to express emotions in healthier ways, the following tips can help.

Resources & References

Warning signs of abusive relationships and emotional abuse

Red Flags for Abusive Relationships – Checklist of warning signs and red flags that you’re in an abusive relationship. (Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance)

Symptoms of Emotional Abuse (for women) and Symptoms of Emotional Abuse (for men) – Guide to emotional abuse and the warning signs, including common characteristics of abusers. (Lilac Lane)

What Does Love Got to Do With It? Why People Stay in Relationships with Angry People – Discusses codependency in abusive relationships, how to evaluate the health of your relationship, and tips for getting out. (Get Your Angries Out)

Emotional Abuse – In-depth discussion of emotional abuse, including types of emotional abuse and signs of abusive, authority-based relationships. (EQI.org)

Domestic violence and physical abuse

Domestic Violence Awareness Handbook – Guide to domestic violence covers common myths, what to say to a victim, and what communities can do about the problem. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

The Problem – Describes the problem of battering and signs of domestic violence. (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence)

Domestic Violence Warning Signs – Describes common warning signs that an individual is being emotionally abused or beaten. (Safe Place, Michigan State University)

For men

Intimate Partner Abuse Against Men (PDF) – Learn about domestic violence against men, including homosexual partner abuse, sexual abuse of boys and male teenagers, and abuse by wives or partners. (National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, Canada)

Abused Men: Domestic Violence Works Both Ways – Women are not the only victims of domestic abuse and domestic violence. Learn more about the problems abused men face. (AARDVARC.org)

For teens

Dating Violence – Guide to teen dating violence, including early warning signs that your boyfriend or girlfriend may become abusive. (The Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence)

Teens: Love Doesn’t Have To Hurt (PDF) – A teen-friendly guide to what abuse looks like in dating relationships and how to do something about it. (American Psychological Association)

For gay men and women

Domestic Violence in Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Relationships – Learn about the unique problems victims of same-sex abuse face, and how to get help. (LAMBDA)

For immigrants

Information for Immigrants – Domestic violence resources for immigrant women. Also available en Español. (Women’s Law Initiative)

Domestic violence hotlines and help

National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) – A crisis intervention and referral phone line for domestic violence. (Texas Council on Family Violence)

State Coalition List – Directory of state offices that can help you find local support, shelter, and free or low-cost legal services. Includes all U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence)

The Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men & Women – Specializing in providing support to male victims of abuse. (DAHMV)

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: February 2014.

©Helpguide.org. All rights reserved. This reprint is for information only and NOT a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Helpguide.org is an ad-free non-profit resource for supporting better mental health and lifestyle choices for adults and children.

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