The subtle signs of relationship abuse

The subtle signs of relationship abuse October 13, 2011
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October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Are you aware of domestic violence?

Of course you know it exists. Turn on Lifetime for five minutes and you’ll figure that one out. But do we really understand what domestic violence looks like?

When you think of an abusive relationship, you may think of physical violence, bruises, and yelling. But the fact is, in most cases, by the time these obvious symptoms appear, the abuse has probably been going on for while.

The roots of domestic violence are harder to notice and harder to dig out and drag into the sunlight. But they’re dangerously powerful, twisted and complicated, and constantly growing deeper. They provide the obvious fruits of abuse with a solid foundation.

These roots aren’t completely ignored, but they’re often connected to the wrong tree. Instead of recognizing subtle signs of domestic abuse for what they are, our movies, magazines, and novels tend to romanticize some of them. Instead of connecting these dangerous roots to abuse, we connect them to romance.

So let’s grab some shovels and dig up some of these roots, shall we? Let’s

expose them for what they really are.

Here are a few subtle signs of an abusive relationship:

Your significant other controls who you spend your time with: This isn’t always as obvious as it sounds. It usually starts off sounding reasonable. Protective, even– “Please don’t hang out with that ex-girlfriend. She still wants you.” or “Stay away from that creepy guy who keeps hitting on you at work.”

But it progresses.

“I know she’s your best friend, but she’s not good to you. She’s just using you. Stay away from her.”

“Your parents don’t want us to be together because they don’t trust you.”

“You really shouldn’t hang out with your male friends. All men are perverts. I’m just trying to protect you.”

Soon, the abuser has isolated his/her victim, cut him/her off from any support or help. The victim feels like the abuser is the only person he/she can rely on.

Your significant other manipulates you sexually: I’m going to talk about two scenarios here. You’re probably familiar with the first one. You’ve probably heard about it in youth group, or seen it played out on several sitcoms.

It’s the story of an innocent female virgin who doesn’t want sex, and an over-bearing man who can’t control his sexual desires. The man says things like, “If you love me, you will.” or “I’ll cheat on you if you don’t.”

This scenario is loaded with assumptions about gender, so let’s expand it. Men, you can be manipulated by women in the same way. Don’t think that just because you’re a man you should welcome this kind of sexual manipulation.

Women, you don’t have to be an innocent virgin or lack a sex drive in order to have the right to say no to sex. Even if you want sex from this man, he has no right to pressure you like that.

This first situation isn’t just men being men. It isn’t just something women should watch out for. It’s not just a clichéd sitcom plot.

It’s sexual abuse.

Now, for scenario two. What if two people are having sex, with mutual consent? There are still signs of abuse that we need to watch out for, especially if other signs of abuse are present in a relationship.

For instance, does the man refuse to wear condoms or allow the woman to use birth control? Obviously, there could be religious reasons behind this that both partners adhere to, or both partners might be trying to start a family.

But abusers will do whatever it takes to keep their victims dependent on them, therefore male abusers will often try to impregnate female victims. So watch for other signs. And women, I don’t care if you’re married to a Catholic or you’re sleeping with a random guy you met at the bar– you have the right to safe sex.

–Your significant other refuses to give you privacy: Does your significant other ask to know your Facebook and email passwords? Does he/she demand that you share an email address, in order to keep you from the temptation of cheating? Does he/she constantly text you, asking where you are, and get upset if you don’t answer right away?

Your significant other stalks you: I had a friend in high school who was dating an emotionally abusive boy. They would get into fights, and she would ask him to leave her house. He would sit on the front porch for hours and hours, crying, begging for forgiveness, until she finally let him back in.

Several of our other friends would say things like, “Aww! How sweet!  That’s true love.”

No, people. That is stalking. It’s not cute. It’s not romantic. It’s abusive.

Your significant other threatens to commit suicide if you break up with him/don’t give him what he wants: Remember that scene in The Notebook where the male lead climbs up the Ferris wheel to ask the female lead on a date and he says he’ll jump off if she refuses?


Your significant other is physically rough: Physical abuse doesn’t have to be hitting and slapping. I once thought that, which is why I didn’t realize until months after my break up with my first boyfriend that I had been in a physically abusive relationship.

He would grab my arm so tightly if I tried to walk away from him that it’d leave hand print shaped bruises. But he’d claim that he just “didn’t know his own strength” and I’d dismiss it as an accident. He’d push me into walls. He’d tickle me until I would cry, and sometimes throw up. He’d shake me, and he’d pick me up and throw me over his shoulder.

But because my physical abuse didn’t look like the physical abuse on television, I assumed I was over-reacting.

I wasn’t. Physical abuse manifests itself in different ways. Your pain is real and your problem is legitimate.

Your significant other makes you feel worthless and undeserving of his/her love: This is perhaps the strongest and most dangerous root of relationship abuse. The abuser strips away his/her victim’s self-esteem, one insult at a time. Eventually, the victim truly believes that he/she is stupid, ugly, damaged goods…

It starts with light-hearted “jokes” here and there.

“Hah, you’re so stupid.”…”You dumb blonde!”…”Oh, quit bitching.”…”You know you’re my whore.”

When the victim complains about these insults, the abuser says, “Geez, can’t you take a joke?”

By the time the insults get worse, and the jokes become less and less funny– by the time the relationship is obviously verbally abusive in nature the victim has already been conditioned not to question.

The abuser will hold past mistakes over the victim’s head.

“I shouldn’t love you after what you did. You owe me.”

Or the abuser will treat the victim as a charity case.

“No one else would want you. You’re damaged goods. You’re lucky I’m so good to you.”

At this point, escape not only feels impossible for the victim, but it feels undesirable.

Your significant other dictates your personal appearance: An abuser lives in fear that his/her victim will realize the truth– that there are other fish in the sea, so why date a shark?

So the abuser will do his/her best to keep the victim from being noticed by other fish.

For me, it started with, “Stop wearing make-up. You look better without it,” or “Why are you wearing that? You don’t have to dress up like that.

You’re beautiful in sweat pants and baggy t-shirts.”

And it became my abuser throwing my purse out of a moving vehicle because he caught me taking mascara out of it. It became my abuser not letting me shave my legs or shower for days at a time.

Women, you are pretty without make-up. You are pretty in baggy sweat-pants. But don’t trust any guy who says you’re only pretty without make-up. Don’t trust any guy who doesn’t allow you to wear what you want to wear.

Your significant other makes you doubt your dreams: When you share your goals and dreams with your significant other, how does he/she respond? If it’s with a “I don’t think you could handle that,” or “No, I think you’d be better off doing ____, instead,” be careful.

Of course, your partner might just know you very well, and might be giving you loving, honest advice. But if your partner immediately shoots down your dreams, or actively stands in the way of them (for instance, a man using religion to tell a woman that she cannot go to college or get a job because her place is  in the home), this is a problem.

Unfortunately, these aren’t the only signs of abuse. I haven’t covered even all of the tricks that my abusive boyfriend used on me. But I feel like I needed to start this conversation. I hope you’ll continue it in the comments, or submit a guest post for Join the Chorus! Let’s not let these subtle symptoms of relationship abuse stay under ground any longer. Let’s let our voices be heard! 

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  • Some people will mistakenly see signs of abuse you’ve mentioned as signs of love and affection. What they don’t realize is that this is just the beginning, and will escalate into full blown mental or physical abuse.

    • Yeah, it’s unfortunate that these abusive traits are so often portrayed as romance. That just makes the problem harder to solve.

  • chelsea

    Really, really good. And pretty comprehensive. I like your thoughts Sarah Moon!!

  • shan k

    Thank you for this. The mind games of abuse are so insidious that even yrs later I feel guilty valling it that. Sometimes it takes someone else speaking that truth to help us feel released to do that. Thanks for speaking truth.

    • “The mind games of abuse are so insidious that even yrs later I feel guilty valling it that. ”

      I feel the same way now and then. It’s always good to be reminded of truth.

  • Out of curiousity, what was the domestic abuse in Jane Austen? Nothing is coming to mind, but I guess that’s the point of the article.

    • You know, the incident I was thinking of was the case of Mr. Wickam and his lying and manipulating in Pride and Prejudice (the only one I’ve read) But, now that I think of it, that wasn’t really glorified as romantic in the book, was it? It’s been so long since I’ve read the books. Forgive me for being unfair to Jane Austen! (I wrote this at 2 am if that’s any excuse) I think I shall take out her name and change it to Nicholas Sparks. hah.

      • Whew! I love Jane Austen and wouldn’t want to feel guilty about that 🙂

        • Thank you for pointing that out! I hope I didn’t make anyone else feel guilty.

  • scary and sad thoughts. many of us need to hear this. many feel alone even though they are not. thank u much. keep on.

  • Lori

    I’m new to this so forgive me if I ramble on.I’ve recently realised that I am in an abusive relationship(my husband of 23 yrs).We were “high school sweethearts” so the abuse has actually been going on for longer than the 23 yrs.He was manipulative and controlling then, only I was so young and naive that I did not recognise it for what it was.So much of what you have mentioned I have gone through plus more.Our oldest daughter is also being subjected to the abuse and this is the motivating factor that has made me understand that our family is not what it should be.My problem at this point is that I’m terribly confused.The yelling, screaming,”playfully” hard pokes,prods, squeezings have stopped for the past month.This “good” behavior began after I found out that he threatened our oldest daughter with physical harm while I was out.Before this time he belittled us,called us names, made fun of us,I,m treated as hired help, my opinion doesn’t count,and I’m questioned if I take longer running errands than he thinks I should.My confusion arises from the fact that it’s not as bad as it was but I still am not comfortable in voicing my opinions and ideas.I guess I’m trying to keep the peace because I dread what has always happened in the past.I have checked into where to go if I need to take my children and get away and I have made plans for leaving at a moments notice.Could he have realised what he was doing and be making an effort to change or will things just continue to get worse after a short calm period?I need advice and someone else’s perspective.He’s very good at defending his cause and if I do leave then it will effect this whole family. I need to do what is right for my children.I feel he does love us in his own way, but it is a self-serving love; one in which requires no effort on his part.His income is the only income we have and his work hours are so long that it is difficult for me to find a job for the hours I could be available to work.This has been just the tip of the ice burg so to speak so any advice would be apprciated.

    • I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through so much. My heart goes out to you right now.

      I will tell you my thoughts, but I would like to say that, while I’ve been in an abusive relationship and know what abuse looks like, I am not a professional when it comes to relationship knowledge. I think it would be very good for you to find a professional counselor that can help in this situation. Also, it helps so much to share your story with family and friends. Outside support can be so helpful.

      I think it’s good that you’ve looked into where you can go to escape and that you’re prepared to leave should things get worse. I hope that your husband’s change is real this time, but I would advise you to not let your guard down. Also, I wonder if your husband would be willing to get outside help from a professional. If he were willing to do so, I think that would be a sign of genuine effort toward change.

      Also, I would say, trust your intuition. If something inside tells you that it’s time to leave–listen! Don’t feel guilty or feel obligated to “wait it out.” Your safety and the safety of your children is important. I believe God gives us intuition to protect us.

      I hope you’ll be able to find help from people who know more than me. And please, always feel free to email me if you need to talk, need encouragement, or prayer, or have questions. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  • More often than not, women cannot leave an abusive relationship because of financial dependence on the man. What can prevent a woman from leaving if she can be on her own and be able to support herself and her family ? That’s how men get away with abuse. That’
    s the sword of Damocles hanging over a woman’s head…. financial ruin.

  • Thanks for posting. This is so important for women to recognize so they can get out before they are trapped. I’m reposting your article to Athenians, a Christian news aggregator. You can see the discussion it generates at