You don’t have to live with someone to be the victim of domestic abuse, says Dr. Taish Malone, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health.
Domestic abuse refers to any pattern of behavior someone uses to gain or maintain power and control over you in relationships.
Examples of this type of abuse, according to Elizabeth Fedrick, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Evolve Counseling, include:
- Physical violence and aggression
- Verbal insults
- Emotional abuse, like invalidating emotions
- Psychological abuse, like blame-shifting
- Financial control
- Stalking and harassment
Anyone can experience domestic abuse, no matter their age, gender, race, or sexuality, and any type of abuse can negatively impact your overall well-being, sense of security, and ability to manage your life.
Abuse is never your fault. The first step to stopping the cycle, though, involves recognizing what’s happening.
Experts recommend taking note of these 9 red flags:
Constant put-downs disguised as jokes
One common form of verbal abuse is belittling or demeaning comments, especially in public, Fedrick says. These comments could be about how you dress, what you do for a living, or anything else.
They may also imply, if not say outright, that you’re too sensitive, in an effort to shun any responsibility for how their words hurt you.
“This can greatly impact your general self-worth, which can result in symptoms of anxiety or depression,” Fedrick says. “This can also lead to fears around being in a public setting with your partner, as you become unsure of what they’ll say or how they’ll act.”
Attempts to control your life decisions
Dictating who you can and can’t spend time with, what you can and can’t wear, and how you can or can’t spend your money are just a few examples of controlling behavior.
Fedrick says these behaviors often begin subtly, with complaints or “suggestions.” Then, as your partner becomes more comfortable exerting control, the “suggestions” may become demands.
Eventually, you might feel unable to make decisions for yourself, which can take a toll on your self-esteem and sense of identity, Fedrick says.
“Over time, you may lose confidence in your abilities, and this can affect other areas of your life,” Malone says.
Explosive, unpredictable behavior
It’s natural for people to feel angry now and then — but how you express your anger matters.
An abusive partner can use explosive anger to intimidate you so you’re less likely to question or challenge them. You may find yourself “walking on eggshells” around them for fear of triggering their rage, Fedrick says.
“It’s a control tactic used to make you feel anxious and afraid, so you give in to what the abuser wants,” says Kara Nassour, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Shaded Bough Counseling.
Nassour goes on to say that you might become afraid to:
- Speak up for yourself
- Disagree with your partner
- Set boundaries with them
Ignoring and crossing your boundaries
Boundaries refer to the limits you set in a relationship that dictate what kind of behavior you won’t accept. For example, you might set a boundary that you won’t tolerate yelling during an argument, or you don’t feel comfortable sharing passwords for devices.
According to Malone, boundaries can frustrate, irritate, or anger abusive partners because they threaten their sense of power over you.
“Setting a boundary is an assertion of reclaimed control,” Malone says.
Your partner might demonstrate a lack of respect for your boundaries by:
- Repeatedly questioning them
- Crossing or pushing against them to determine what they can get away with
- Guilt-tripping you for even having them
- Ignoring them altogether
As a result, you may give up on trying to express or reinforce them, which allows them to exert even more control.
Excessive jealousy and possessiveness
Jealousy is a natural human instinct, but when a partner starts acting on their jealousy or using it to justify abusive behavior, that’s not OK, Nassour says.
- Constantly accuse you of cheating on them or flirting with others
- Lash out at you for spending time with certain friends when they aren’t present
- Get mad at you for talking to other people at a social event
Snooping or spying
In some cases, abusive partners might use jealousy as a justification to read your texts or emails. Or, they may demand the passwords to your social media accounts so they can “keep tabs” on your communications.
Every relationship is different, and only you and your partner can decide your boundaries around sharing devices or information. That said, a partner who accesses your communications and activities without your consent is violating your trust and right to privacy.
Minimizing or denying your feelings and experiences
One of the subtlest and most damaging forms of domestic abuse is a pattern of invalidation, Schroeder says. By denying your feelings and experiences, an abusive partner can leave you questioning your own reality.
Some examples include:
- Saying you’re overreacting when something they do upsets you
- Insisting you’re exaggerating or lying when you confront them about something they did or said
- Dismissing your needs or requests
- Invalidating your emotions or telling you how you “should” feel
- Suggesting your needs or wants are unreasonable or calling you selfish for having them
What is gaslighting?
This form of manipulation, often known as gaslighting, can also be used to minimize abuse or defer blame.
Gaslighting is also linked to other patterns of controlling behavior, like denying you access to your social networks. This form of abuse is also covert and hard to recognize, which makes it particularly damaging.
Limiting your access to money or dictating how you spend it
Financial abuse, also known as economic abuse, happens when a partner:
- Takes control of your money
- Withholds it from you and restricts your spending
- Conceals financial information from you
Examples of financial abuse include:
- Making significant spending, banking, or investment decisions without consulting you
- Giving you an “allowance”
- Running up debt on joint accounts and ruining your credit score
- Not allowing you to work, forcing you to quit your job, or sabotaging your career opportunities
- Hiding or lying about assets
- Demanding to see receipts and constantly questioning your purchases or reprimanding you about them
Financial abuse can also make you feel trapped in the relationship. You may feel financially dependent on your partner and worry you won’t be able to pay for housing and other necessities if you leave.
Using threats to keep you around
When an abusive partner senses a loss of control in the relationship, Schroeder says they may resort to threats in an effort to regain some power.
Threats are emotional abuse. By instilling fear about what they might do if you leave, they put you in an impossible situation where you feel you have no choice but to stay.
Remember: If a partner threatens physical harm to themselves or other people, you don’t have to navigate that traumatic situation on your own. Calling the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) will connect you to a trained expert who can help you figure out how to proceed safely.
What to do next
If any of the above signs sound familiar, or your partner is otherwise abusive, know that you’re not alone and you have options for getting support.
Malone recommends finding a therapist or support group to help you:
- Identify and work through effects of abuse
- Bolster your self-esteem if it’s been affected
- Come up with a safety plan for leaving
If therapy isn’t accessible to you or you don’t feel comfortable talking to a therapist, Fedrick suggests telling a trusted loved one about what’s going on. This loved one can help validate your experiences and provide emotional support.
When the abuse has triggered intense and overwhelming emotions, it can be hard to figure out what to do next. So, even if you don’t feel able to leave right away, you can begin protecting yourself by devising a safety plan.
A safety plan includes a list of clear steps to take and people to call when you feel like you’re in danger, as well as helpful strategies you plan to use to cope with emotional distress related to abuse.
“Know who you can call that will provide an encouraging ear or a safe place to spend time when needed,” Malone says. “I also encourage clients to have code words with friends and family members, which they can use to warn them if they’re in an unsafe environment.”
Be specific about what actions you want your loved ones to take when you use this code word. For example, you might have a code word that cues them to come over, call you, or contact the police.
Important: An abusive partner might hide your phone or keys during a conflict, Fedrick says. She recommends writing down contact information and keeping this in a safe, accessible place like your wallet, along with a spare car key. You might include numbers for:
- Friends and family
- Law enforcement
- Domestic abuse hotlines
- Your therapist
It can also help to pack a small “go bag” of essentials so you’re ready to leave immediately whenever necessary, Nassour says. Try to keep this bag somewhere you, but not your partner, can easily access it — like hidden in the trunk of your car or at a close friend’s house.
Some items you might include:
- ID cards
- Car registration and insurance documents
- A fully charged prepaid cell phone
- Prescription medications
If and when you do decide to leave, Schroder recommends waiting until your partner isn’t home so that they can’t manipulate you into staying.