4 Signs of an Abusive Relationship

Being in an intimate relationship that causes fear or pain is not normal, yet abuse—defined as when one person dominates the other physically or emotionally—is often denied or ignored.  The majority of victims are women, but men can also be abused as well.

Experts say recognizing abuse is the first step toward ending it. Here's what they say to look for:

1. Abusive relationships involve a pattern of pervasive control which is enforced by threats and violence, says Joseph Caffaro, PhD, distinguished professor at the California School of Professional Psychology. "There may be sudden enforcement of petty rules, intermittent rewards and destruction of all competing relationships through isolation, secrecy, and betrayal," he explains. An overwhelming sense of helplessness often accompanies the problem.

2. Don't think it can't happen to you. Abuse knows no boundaries. Though it can happen to anyone, factors such as poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, and history of traumatic experiences increase the likelihood of abusive events in relationships. "Abusers are often brought up experiencing abuse in the family hence they may not recognize early symptoms of abuse," explains Linda Sapadin, PhD, a psychologist with expertise on self-destructive behavior.

3. An abusive partner may hit, kick, bite, or humiliate you. He or she may harm your possessions, destroy your property, accuse you of being unfaithful, or steal your money.

4. Emotional abuse, which is more common than physical violence, can be especially traumatic as it damages self-esteem and can lead to depression. "Words and actions that express contempt and degradation and deprive the victim of a sense of self-worth can have long-lasting scars on the victim," Cafarro says. Sapadin adds that emotional abuse is not the same as criticism: "Couples should be able to have disagreements and receive gentle fault-finding from one another," she says.

"Emotional abuse is different. It feels like a verbal assault and is designed as a put down to undermine a partner's self-worth."

Ending the Abuse

If you are the victim of abuse—or know someone who is—and your safety is being compromised, it's important to get help immediately. "A victim's safety should not be based on the offender's promise [to] 'never to do it again' but rather on her own ability to protective herself," Cafarro says. He also explains that a detailed and realistic contingency plan is needed along with a willingness to carry it out.

Here's how to stop the cycle:

Talk to someone you trust. Experts say reaching out to a supportive person is important not only for a reality check but to help gain perspective. "Don't be alone with your thoughts," Sapadin recommends. "They can be easily distorted."

Stop making excuses. Many victims minimize the harmful behavior and blame it on fatigue or that the abuser was temporarily annoyed. Denial can be a significant obstacle in getting help. "If you think you are in an abusive relationship, pay close attention to a powerful wish to repair or save the relationship," warns Cafarro. "It may interfere with your ability to think clearly and feel safe."

Locate a support group. Most communities have low-cost or free help for victims of abuse. There are 24-hour hotlines and safe shelters in almost every area. Contact your local government for more information.

Tap into online resources. The anonymity offered by the web is appealing in some circumstances but Cafarro cautions victims to be discriminating. "Some online support groups are better than others, of course," he warns.

Seek professional help. In severe cases, a trained therapist can help you leave a relationship that is deemed irreparable. However, in some cases it's possible to overcome abuse. Professional intervention-and a strong commitment to stay together—enables some couples to repair the damage. After all, once upon a time there was something positive that brought the two people together in the first place.

If your immediate safety is being threatened, call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at: 1-800-799-SAFE. The hotline is available around the clock, 365 days a year.

Joseph Caffaro, PhD, reviewed this article.




John Caffaro, PhD, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University in Los Angeles, California

Linda Sapadin, PhD, A psychologist specializing in overcoming self-defeating patterns of behavior. Author, How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age; http://www.psychwisdom.com


The National Domestic Violence Hotline

Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness