Domestic Abuse: How to Spot Relationship Red Flags

How to escape an abusive relationship
Domestic Abuse: How to Spot Relationship Red Flags

When you hear the words “domestic violence,” do you think of physical assault?

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Most people do; however, relationship abuse can go beyond the physical. If any intimate partner belittles you or tries to control you, that is also abuse.

“It can be difficult to break the power and control dynamic found in a domestic violence,” says social worker Karen Salerno, MSSA, LISW-S. “It’s important to know that the abuse is not your fault even if your partner tries to make you feel like it is.”

A widespread problem

More than 12 million women and men are abused annually in the United States, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

“Knowing the early warning signs can help you avoid a potentially abusive relationship,” says Salerno. Be wary of any partner who:

  • Limits your contact with others/tries to isolate you.
  • Becomes jealous of your friends and views them as a threat to your relationship.
  • Speeds the relationship up (like wanting to move in together or open a joint bank account after just a few dates).
  • Insists on rigid relationship roles.
  • Downplays the impact of abusive behaviors.

“There tends to be a cycle of abuse,” she explains. “In the first phase, tension builds and a person may feel like they are ‘walking on eggshells.’ In the second phase, the abuse occurs.

“In the third, or “honeymoon,” phase, the abuser may apologize and all may seem well — until the cycle repeats.”

Abuse comes in many different forms, says Salerno. There are four main types:

Physical abuse

Spotting clues in your partner’s past can help you avoid physical harm.

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“If your partner has been violent with someone else, there is a higher likelihood that they will get violent with you,” says Salerno.

You also have cause for concern if your partner:

  • Hurts children or pets.
  • Hits, punches or kicks others.

Less commonly, abusers can block your access to food or medication, or force you to drink or use drugs.

Do you worry about a friend with unexplained injuries, anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts? These may be signs of physical abuse.

Other signs include dressing inappropriately for the weather (for example, wearing a heavy sweater in the summer) and wearing heavy makeup (to hide bruises).

Financial abuse

Although it may be less familiar, some abusers can use financial means to try to keep you dependent in the relationship. Be concerned if your partner:

  • Prevents you from getting and/or keeping a job.
  • Gives you an allowance or takes your paycheck away.
  • Forces you to account for every penny you spend.

If a friend or loved one says they must ask permission from their partner to meet you for lunch or to make small purchases, that can also be a sign of financial abuse.

Emotional/verbal abuse

Emotional, or verbal, abuse is intended to make you feel bad about yourself. Salerno says. An abusive partner may:

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  • Put you down, criticize you, or call you names publicly.
  • Engage in passive-aggressive behavior.
  • Make you feel guilty about your actions.
  • Blame you for anything that goes wrong.
  • Harass or belittle you on social media.

“Outsiders can usually recognize emotional and verbal abuse,” she notes. “It makes people uncomfortable.”

Sexual/reproductive abuse

Sexual or reproductive abuse can begin early in a relationship and then escalate, says Salerno. An abusive partner may:

  • Refuse to use birth control or prevent you from using birth control/protection.
  • Sabotage your birth control efforts (by poking holes in condoms, for example).
  • Make you perform sexual acts against your will.
  • Hurt you during sex. 

Planning your exit strategy

If you recognize any of these behaviors in your partner, know that help is available. It is important for your own safety to plan your exit strategy carefully. “Only you know when it will be safe for you to leave,” says Salerno.

She recommends taking these measures for safety:

  • Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.7233.
  • Tell a loved one to call police if you don’t make contact by a certain time.
  • Develop a code word with children or family to prompt them to call 911.
  • Keep important documents (birth certificates, social security cards, etc.) in a safe place in case you need to leave quickly.

Fortunately, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“There is hope and help for people in abusive relationships,” says Salerno. “You can live a happy and healthy life, free of domestic violence.”

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