Domestic Violence and Abuse
Recognizing the Signs of an Abusive Relationship and Getting Help
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. If you recognize yourself or someone you know in the following descriptions of abuse, reach out now. There is help available. No one should live in fear of the person they love.
What is domestic violence and abuse?
When people think of domestic abuse, they often focus on domestic violence. But domestic abuse occurs whenever one person in an intimate relationship or marriage tries to dominate and control the other person. 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 their thumb. Your abuser may also threaten you, hurt you, or hurt those around you.
Domestic violence and abuse do not discriminate. Abuse 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. 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.
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, 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.
|Are you in an abusive relationship?|
|Your inner thoughts and feelings|
|Your partner's belittling behavior|
Does your partner:
|Your partner's violent behavior or threats|
Does your partner:
|Your partner's controlling behavior|
Does your partner:
Physical and sexual abuse
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.
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 domestic violence. Furthermore, people whose partners abuse them physically and sexually are at a higher risk of being seriously injured or killed.
It is still domestic 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 people are emotionally and verbally assaulted. This can be just as frightening and is often more confusing to try to understand.
Source: Breaking the Silence Handbook
Emotional abuse: It’s a bigger problem than you think
Not all abusive relationships involve physical 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.
The aim of emotional abuse is to chip away at your feelings of self-worth and independence—leaving you feeling that there’s 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.
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.
The scars of emotional abuse are very real and they run deep. 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 emotional abuse can be just as damaging—sometimes even more so.
Economic or financial abuse: A subtle form of emotional abuse
Remember, an abuser’s goal is to control you, and they 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
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 their 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, including:
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 their possession.
Humiliation – An abuser will do everything they 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 them, an abusive partner will cut you off from the outside world. They 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. They 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, or even on you and the kids, the victims of their abuse. Your abusive partner may minimize the abuse or deny that it occurred. They will commonly shift the responsibility on to you: Somehow, their 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:
Abuse – 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 they’ve done. They’re more worried about the possibility of being caught and facing consequences for their abusive behavior.
Excuses – Your abuser rationalizes what they have 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 they can to regain control and keep the victim in the relationship. They may act as if nothing has happened, or they 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. They spend a lot of time thinking about what you’ve done wrong and how they'll make you pay. Then they make a plan for turning the fantasy of abuse into reality.
Set-up – Your abuser sets you up and puts their plan in motion, creating a situation where they can justify abusing you.
Your abuser’s apologies and loving gestures in between the episodes of abuse can make it difficult to leave. They may make you believe that you are the only person who can help them, that things will be different this time, and that they truly love 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.
Recognizing the warning signs that someone is being abused
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 these warning signs of abuse in a friend, family member, or co-worker, take them very seriously.
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 their life.
Talk to the person in private and let them know that you’re concerned. Point out the things you’ve noticed that make you worried. Tell the person that you’re there, whenever they feel ready to talk. Reassure the person that you’ll keep whatever is said between the two of you, and let them 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.
|Do's and Don'ts|
Ask if something is wrong
Wait for them to come to you
Judge or blame
Listen and validate
Support their decisions
Place conditions on your support
Source: NYS Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence
Where to turn for help
Help for women:
- In the US: Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).
- In Canada: Visit ShelterSafe to find the helpline of a women’s shelter near you.
- UK: Call Women’s Aid UK at 0808 2000 247.
- Ireland: Call Women’s Aid at 1800 341 900.
- Australia: Call 1800RESPECT at 1800 737 732.
- Worldwide: visit International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies for a global list of helplines and crisis centers.
Help for men:
Resources and references
Red Flags for Abusive Relationships (PDF) – Checklist of warning signs and red flags that you’re in an abusive relationship. (YWCA)
Breaking the Silence Handbook (PDF) – Guide to domestic violence including spotting the signs and where to turn for help. (Nebraska Health and Human Services)
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)
Domestic Violence and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Relationships – Learn about the unique problems victims of same-sex abuse face, and how to get help. (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence)
Information for Immigrants – Domestic violence resources for immigrant women. Also available en Español. (Women’s Law Initiative)