What Are the Signs of Domestic Abuse?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Domestic abuse goes beyond physical abuse or violence. Abusers use many physical, mental, or emotional tactics to assert their power and control over the victim and to keep them in the relationship. There are patterns of behaviors in an abusive relationship. Identifying them is the first step to breaking free from abuse.

Senior woman looking through the window - stock photo

FG Trade / Getty Images

Signs of Domestic Abuse

In domestic abuse relationships, there are many behaviors that are used by the abuser to gain and maintain power and control over their partner. While all relationships are different, understanding the various ways that abuse manifests can help you identify signs of abuse and prepare you to respond to situations safely.

You may be experiencing abuse if your partner has or repeatedly does any of the following behaviors:

Physical Abuse

Someone is committing physical abuse when they:

  • Pull your hair or punch, slap, kick, bite, choke, or smother you
  • Forbid or prevent you from eating or sleeping
  • Use weapons against you, including firearms, knives, bats, or mace
  • Prevent you from contacting emergency services, including medical attention or law enforcement
  • Harm your children or pets
  • Drive recklessly or dangerously with you in the car or abandon you in unfamiliar places
  • Force you to use drugs or alcohol, especially if you have a history of substance use issues
  • Trap you in your home or prevent you from leaving
  • Throw objects at you
  • Prevent you from taking prescribed medication or deny you necessary medical treatment

Do You Need Help Now?

If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.
If you are not in immediate danger, but you are experiencing abuse or concerned about a loved one, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline:

  • Call: 800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • Text: "START" to 88788
  • Chat: www.thehotline.org/

The hotline is a service that provides safe care, support, and resources to help you through options for your unique situation.

Emotional Abuse

Signs of emotional abuse include:

  • Calling you names, insulting you, or constantly criticizing you
  • Acting jealous or possessive or refusing to trust you
  • Isolating you from family, friends, or other people in your life
  • Monitoring your activities with or without your knowledge, including demanding to know where you go, whom you contact, and how you spend your time
  • Attempting to control what you wear, including clothes, makeup, or hairstyles
  • Humiliating you in any way, especially in front of others
  • Gaslighting you by pretending not to understand or refusing to listen to you; questioning your recollection of facts, events, or sources; making your needs or feelings seem unimportant; or denying previous statements or promises
  • Threatening you, your children, your family, or your pets
  • Damaging your belongings, including throwing objects, punching walls, and kicking doors
  • Blaming you for their abusive behaviors
  • Accusing you of cheating, or cheating themselves and blaming you for their actions
  • Cheating on you to intentionally hurt you and threatening to cheat again to suggest that they’re “better” than you
  • Telling you that you’re lucky to be with them or that you’ll never find someone better

Sexual Abuse

Someone is committing sexual abuse when they:

  • Force you to dress in a sexual way you’re uncomfortable with
  • Insult you in sexual ways or call you explicit names
  • Force or manipulate you into having sex or performing sexual acts, especially when you’re sick, tired, or physically injured from their abuse
  • Choke you or restrain you during sex without your consent
  • Hold you down during sex without your consent
  • Hurt you with weapons or objects during sex
  • Involve other people in your sexual activities against your will
  • Ignore your feelings regarding sex
  • Force you to watch or make pornography
  • Intentionally give you or attempt to give you a sexually transmitted infection (STI)

Traits of an Abuser

There is no one set of identities or personalities of an abuser. Abusers come from all different cultures, religions, economic backgrounds, and occupations. They can be any gender or sexuality. They could be your neighbor, your child's teacher, your coworker, your friend, or your spouse.

It's not always obvious or detectable when somebody is an abuser. However, abusers also have a set of common traits, including:

  • Abusers deny or minimize the seriousness of violence on the victim and other family members.
  • Abusers objectify the victim and view them as their property or sexual object.
  • Abusers may appear successful but, internally, they have low self-esteem and feel powerless and inadequate.
  • Abusers put the blame on others or on circumstance. For example, they may blame a violent outburst on stress, their partner's behavior, having a bad day, drugs, alcohol, or other factors.
  • Abusers are not constantly abusive. They go through periods in which they are loving and kind and often seem nice and charming to those outside the relationship.

Warning Signs of an Abuser

Some red flags or warning signs of abusers can include extreme jealousy, possessiveness, unpredictability, a bad temper or mood swings, controlling behavior, threatening, demeaning or humiliating the victim, sabotaging the victim's ability to make personal choices, rigid beliefs about roles of men and women in relationships, or cruelty to animals.

Power and Control Wheel

Since the 1970s, the term "cycle of abuse" has been talked about in the courtroom, therapy sessions, and the media. This language is outdated and harmful to the victim because it implies that there are four predictable, repetitive patterns in the relationship (tension building, incident, reconciliation, calm).

The implication that domestic abuse is a cycle is often used in courts to put the blame on the victims. However, domestic abuse is not predictable, and victims are not able to know what and when to expect incidents of abuse.

Instead, the National Domestic Violence Hotline uses the Duluth Model of Power and Control developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs to more accurately describe an abusive relationship.

The outer ring of the diagram represents physical and sexual violence. The inner part of the diagram (the spokes of the wheel) describes the more subtle and systematic behaviors that the abuser uses. These continuous threats, intimidation, and coercion tactics instill fear, while physical and sexual violence holds the wheel together.

Power and Control Wheel by The Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, MN
Copyright by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs, 202 East Superior Street, Duluth, MN, 55802 218-722-2781.

Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs

The diagram assumes she/her pronouns for the victim and he/him pronouns for the perpetrator, but the abusive behavior can happen to people of any gender or sexuality.

Domestic Abuse Resources

The process of leaving an abusive relationship takes an immense amount of courage and careful planning, as well as taking precautions to avoid physical danger. Many resources are available if you or somebody you know needs support in helping to leave an abusive relationship. The following websites and hotlines may be able to help you manage a crisis, create a safety plan, and plan your future, including financial education resources and service referrals.

What Is a Safety Plan?

During moments of crisis, it can be difficult to think clearly and logically. A safety plan is a personalized, practical plan to improve your safety while experiencing abuse, preparing to leave an abusive situation, or after you leave.

It provides vital and specific information such as where you'll have an accessible phone, whom you'll contact, where you can go in or out of the home, reasons to leave the house, or how to safely leave the house. If children are involved, it can include what they should do during an incident. This plan helps prepare you for high stress situations to protect yourself or others.

National Domestic Violence Hotline 
800-799-7233 (SAFE)
www.ndvh.org

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
303-839-1852
www.ncadv.org

National Dating Abuse Helpline 
866-331-9474
www.loveisrespect.org

National Resource Center on Domestic Violence 
800-537-2238
www.nrcdv.org and www.vawnet.org

National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health
312-726-7020 ext. 2011
www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org

Futures Without Violence: The National Health Resource Center on Domestic Violence 
888-792-2873
www.futureswithoutviolence.org

How to Help Someone Else

If you witness or become aware of abuse, it can be difficult to know how to react, if, and when to intervene. The National Domestic Violence Hotline suggests the following tips:

  • Consider your own safety as well as the victim's. If you're in a public place, gather a group of people to intervene physically or verbally. If you believe there is immediate danger, you have the right to call the police.
  • If an incident is happening in public or you overhear it happening, record the incident on your phone to pass to authorities.
  • Approach the person you suspect is experiencing abuse in a safe and private space. Ask them, "Are you okay?," and listen carefully and believe what they say. Tell them it is not their fault, and they deserve support. Do not blame them or tell them what to do in their situation.
  • Direct them to a crisis hotline and continue to offer your support as somebody they can speak with safely or discuss their safety plan.
  • Honor their autonomy. Only they can decide what is right for them, whether they choose to leave the relationship or press charges. You can provide your concern, but you do not have the right to make choices for them.

All types of abuse are serious, and no one deserves to experience abuse for any reason.

Summary

Domestic abuse occurs when an abuser uses physical, sexual, and/or emotional tactics to control their partner. There is no one set of identities or personalities of an abuser. They can be any gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and age. Many abusers exhibit common traits that can help you identify them, such as jealousy, possessiveness, unpredictability, a bad temper or mood swings, and more.

The process of leaving an abusive relationship takes an immense amount of courage and careful planning. Many resources are available if you or somebody you know needs support in helping to leave an abusive relationship.

A Word From Verywell

If you are experiencing abuse by your partner, remember that it is not your fault. There is nothing you have done or are doing to cause the abuse. There is nothing that you can do that will change or control your abuser. It is their sole choice to abuse and their sole responsibility to change, not yours.

You may feel afraid or even trapped by your abuser, so it is important to have hope. While it will be difficult, it is possible to change your circumstance. When you feel ready, help and resources are available to help you stay safe and leave your abuser.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you recognize the signs of domestic abuse?

    Signs of domestic abuse are different in all relationships. However, a shared trait of most abusive relationships is the abuser tries to establish power and control over their partner. Methods used can include intimidation, shaming or demeaning you, isolating you from friends and family, and preventing you from making your own decisions.

  • Do abusers hide in plain sight?

    Abusers can hide in plain sight. Between periods of abuse, they can be pleasant and charming. To those outside their abusive relationship, abusers are often seen as "nice" people.

  • Can abusive relationships improve?

    It is possible, but unlikely that an abusive relationship can improve. Abuse is a result of learned attitudes, feelings, and behaviors, which can be very difficult to change. It can be a decades-long journey to a lifetime commitment that involves various interventions, such as counseling, anger management programs, and mental health treatments. As a result, only a very low percentage can truly change.


Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Types of abuse.

  2. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Signs of abuse.

  3. Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs. Understanding the power and control wheel.

  4. National Domestic Violence Hotline. What is a safety plan?
  5. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Tips for intervening if you witness domestic violence.