Six Early Signs of Abuse in Relationships

Domestic violence is a complex issue. Few survivors of domestic violence realize how abusive their partners will become, since at the beginning of the relationship, many abusers can be very charming. However, many abusers will slowly increase control over a period of months or years, so by the time things become physically abusive, it is difficult for their partner to leave.

Unfortunately, there is no simple formula for predicting future abuse. However, there are six warning signs that abusive partners often demonstrate towards the beginning of the relationship:

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash
1. Excessive jealousy

Jealousy is not an uncommon feeling in relationships. However, an article from Domestic Shelters notes that “jealousy, when in response to a real threat to the relationship is normal, as long as it’s dealt with by…talking about establishing healthy boundaries that both partners can agree upon. Jealousy becomes problematic …if one person becomes jealous even when no threat is present.” 

There is a big difference between a partner asking, “Did you have fun last night?” and being interrogated when you come home. Questions like “Who were you with? Why didn’t you answer your phone? How many men were there?” signify a pattern of jealousy, paranoid accusations and constant interrogation, all of which can be abusive behavior. 

2. History of unhealthy/unstable relationships

All of us have at least one unhealthy or chaotic past relationship. However, if you meet someone who has numerous chaotic/unstable past relationships, that can be a red flag. While a history of unstable relationships is not abusive, a pattern of jobs, friendships and/or marriages that ended with, “She/he/it was crazy, so I left,” or being vague about previous relationships should be a warning that they may have a history of abusive behaviors.

3. “Playful” aggression

Many victims of domestic violence share that their partners didn’t hit them early on. Instead, their partners would use playful aggression as a way to test their reactions while dating. If your partner hugs you to the point of pain or smashes his fist on a wall and laughs when you jump, he is testing your reaction. If you find yourself blowing it off, "Maybe he didn't realize how scary that was," find someone to give you honest feedback about a way to end things safely..   

4. Intimidation tactics
Many survivors share their partners don’t always use physical violence to keep them terrified. Instead, their partners use intimidation tactics like punching walls, kicking and slamming doors, throwing or breaking things mixed with occasional physical violence to keep them scared. Many of the domestic violence survivors I've worked with said the intimidation tactics were far more terrifying because it kept the household in a constant state of tension and fear. If your partner is exhibiting these behaviors, it can easily escalate into physical violence in the future.

5. Controlling behaviors

Some spouses control their partner’s computer use, choice of friends, car use and bank account. If your new partner demands access to all of your social media, restricts you from your friends or family, or wants to know every movement you make, be careful. It may be a test to see how much they can control you in the future.

6. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting his or her own memory, perception, and sanity. People who are abusive will use this technique to leave the victim confused and disoriented. If you end up questioning yourself endlessly after an argument or find yourself asking friends, "Am I crazy? He started screaming at me the moment he came home, not the other way around," please be cautious. Once you start questioning yourself, your memory and your perception, it becomes a challenge to examine your partner's behaviors objectively and through a healthy lens.

While all of these signs are good to watch out for, the most difficult part of predicting future abuse is that many abusers are very good at hiding abusive behaviors. However, many do start exhibiting irrational jealousy or a desire to control their phones or time with friends long before they become physically abusive. 

If you are dating someone who is exhibiting any one of these six signs, (carefully) consult with someone you trust. A friend, family member, pastor, coworker or a counselor. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is also a great resource if you are scared or uncertain about your partner's behaviors. 

No one should have to be in a relationship where they feel controlled, fearful, or disoriented. If you are, please seek help immediately. Abusive relationships typically escalate over time and can became very dangerous, so don't dismiss unhealthy behaviors as unimportant. We all deserve to be safe.

*Originally published on in 2016


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