When the abuse first begins, many women in abusive relationships aren’t sure if what they are experiencing is abusive. In fact, one of the biggest hurdles to addressing domestic violence is that very few victims self-identify as experiencing abuse. Many think abuse happens to “those women” and don’t want to have the stigma of being one of “those women.”
The most telling sign that you are in an abusive relationship is living in fear of your spouse. If you feel like you have to walk on egg shells around him—constantly watching what you say and do in order to avoid a blowup—your relationship is unhealthy and likely abusive. Other signs include your spouse’s belittling of you, his attempts to control you, and feelings of self-loathing, helplessness, and desperation.
An abuser typically has a well-stocked arsenal of ways to exert power over you. He may employ domination, humiliation, isolation, threats, intimidation, denial, blame, and more. What’s more, he is often creative and strategic in when—and how—to put these to their most effective use.
None of this is your fault. Your abuser is the only one to blame.
And because he is so good at deceptively wielding control, it can often be difficult to discern if you are being abused. From the perspective of outside observers, these signs of abuse may be cut-and-dry. But for those trapped in the cycles of abuse, making sense of these complicated relational dynamics—especially when the relationship is intimate—can be suffocating and confusing.
If this is where you find yourself right now, here are some ways to discern if your relationship is abusive.
What the abuser does: eight common profiles
Some abuse victims may be so confused by the relational dynamics in their relationship—understandably so—that they need to hear stories and common experiences from others in order to make sense of their own. Some find it helpful to identify domestic abuse by understanding the common profiles of abusers—and recognizing their partner among them.
Since abuse is defined by an abuser’s behavior—not yours—we’ll start with identifying just that. Here are eight categories or personas abusers commonly exhibit:
- Smashes things
- Stops you from working and seeing friends
- Tells you what to wear
- Keeps you in the house
- Charms your friends and family
- Head worker
- Puts you down
- Tells you you’re too fat, too thin, ugly, stupid, useless, etc.
- Threatens to hurt or kill you or the children
- Says he loves you
- Threatens to kill himself
- Threatens to report you to social services
- Denies any abuse
- Says it was “only” a slap
- Blames drinking, drugs, stress, overwork, you, unemployment, etc.
- Bad father
- Says you are a bad mother
- Turns the children against you
- Uses access to harass you
- Threatens to take the children away
- Persuades you to have “his” baby then refuses to help you care for it
- King of the castle
- Treats you as a servant/slave
- Says women are for sex, cooking, and housework
- Expects sex on demand
- Controls all the money
- Sexual controller
- Sexually assaults you
- Won’t accept no for an answer
- Keeps you pregnant
- Rejects your advances and allows sex only when he wants it rather than when you initiate
Does your spouse:
- Yell at you?
- Embarrass, insult, criticize you, call you names, or put you down?
- Treat you so badly that you’re embarrassed for your family or friends to see?
- Put you down, but then tells you that he loves you?
- Ignore or belittle your opinions or accomplishments?
- Blame you for his abusive behavior?
- Use any mistakes you made in the past against you?
- Not allow you to disagree?
- Ignore your feelings and ideas?
- Tell you that you are a bad parent or threaten to take away or hurt your children?
- Act like the abuse is no big deal, tell you it is your fault, or even deny doing it?
- See you as property or a sex object, rather than as a person?
Does your spouse:
- Act excessively jealous or possessive?
- Withhold affection as a way to punish you?
- Control where you go, what you do, and demand your whereabouts?
- Keep you from seeing your family or friends?
- Limit your access to money, the phone, or the car?
- Withhold basic necessities (food, clothes, medications, shelter)?
- Make you ask for money or refuse to give you money?
- Restrict you to an allowance?
- Prevent you from working or sabotage your job?
- Steal from you or take your money?
- Constantly check up on you?
- Control your plans and friends?
- Stop you from seeing your family or friends?
- Force you to drop charges?
Violent behavior or threats
Does your spouse:
- Hit, kick, slap, choke, burn, shove, shake, drag, bite, push, punch, or physically harm you in any other way?
- Throw things at you?
- Have a bad and unpredictable temper?
- Threaten to hurt or kill you?
- Threaten to take your children away or harm them?
- Threaten to commit suicide if you leave?
- Intimidate you with guns, knives, or other weapons?
- Destroy your property or belongings?
- Threaten to kill your pet?
- Force, threaten, or coerce you to have sex?
- Destroy your belongings?
Three kinds of abuse
There are different kinds of abuse but all of them are wrong. To help you take inventory of your unique situation, let’s consider three different kinds of abuse:
When we talk about domestic violence, we are often referring to the physical abuse of a spouse or intimate partner. This means using physical force against someone in a way that injures or endangers that person. Physical assault or battering is a crime, whether it occurs inside or outside the family. The police have the power and authority to protect you from physical attack. And you have the right to protect yourself and your children, if you have them.
Any situation in which you are forced to participate in unwanted, unsafe, or degrading sexual activity is sexual abuse. Forced sex, even by a spouse or intimate partner with whom you also have consensual sex, is an act of aggression and violence. Sexual assault includes rape, but it also includes coercion, intimidation, or manipulation to force unwanted sex. We define sexual assault as any type of sexual behavior or contact where consent is not freely given or obtained and is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority.
Sexual assault is a display of power by the perpetrator against the victim. It is not a product of an “uncontrollable” sexual urge. In fact, it is not actually about sex at all; it is about violence and control. Perpetrators use sexual actions and behaviors as weapons to dominate, control, and belittle another person.
If you feel as though you are being pressured into sex or that you are doing something that you do not want in order to placate your spouse, then let us tell you now that your feelings are valid and that it is abuse.
Most people can identify physical abuse—pushing, hitting, kicking—if it is happening in their relationship. Emotional abuse, on the other hand, is not always so easily spotted.
It’s harder to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong, and easier to minimize what’s really going on. It doesn’t leave you bleeding or bruised. The neighbors can’t hear it (not always) through the walls. But emotional abuse is no less destructive than physical abuse, and it is no less wrong.
The aim of emotional abuse is to chip away at your feelings of self-worth and independence—a violent process, in that it degrades you and your sense of God-given worth. If you’re the victim of emotional abuse, you may feel that there is no way out of the relationship, or that without your abusive partner you will have nothing.
So how can you identify if what you’re experiencing is emotional abuse? There are several ways. Emotional abuse includes verbal abuse such as yelling, name-calling, blaming, and shaming. Isolation, intimidation, and controlling behaviors are also signs of emotional abuse. Sometimes, abusers throw in threats of physical violence or other repercussions if you don’t do what they want.
Emotional abuse also includes economic abuse such as withholding money and basic necessities, restricting you to an allowance, sabotaging your job, and stealing from you or taking your money.
These are just some examples. But if you don’t see your particular experience listed here, use this as a general guide: Does your partner do something deliberately and repeatedly that puts you down or thwarts your plans? If the person who is supposed to be providing love, support, and guidance is keeping you in a situation where you are constantly made to feel inferior, you aren’t in a healthy relationship.
Your thoughts and feelings
The descriptions above are focused on your spouse’s behavior, which are all the telltale signs of abuse. These next questions are for you—to determine how you feel regarding this behavior. The more “yes” answers here, the more likely it is that you’re in an abusive relationship.
- Feel afraid of your spouse most of the time?
- Avoid certain topics out of fear of angering your partner?
- Feel afraid of your spouse’s temper?
- Feel afraid to disagree?
- Feel that you can’t do anything right for your spouse?
- Believe you deserve to be hurt or mistreated?
- Have to justify everything you do, every place you go, every person you talk to in order to avoid your spouse’s anger?
- Feel afraid to leave or break up because your spouse has threatened to hurt you, himself, or someone else?
- Avoid seeing family or friends because of your spouse’s jealousy?
- Wonder if you’re the one who is crazy?
- Feel emotionally numb or helpless?
Reflect on your spouse’s abusive behavior. Do you see him in these descriptions? Can you see evidence that the behaviors were deliberate, controlled, or planned? Does he act differently toward you when there are other people around? How has he attempted to stop your resistance to his abuse? Does he treat others with respect, while treating you with disrespect?
Take a look at your own experience to get clarity on your situation. Our hope is that as we spell out the nuances of what you may be experiencing, you will be able to call it what it is, plain and simple—abuse.
Editor’s note: Although this excerpt is addressed to women, we know domestic abuse happens to both men and women. If you believe you are in an abusive relationship, please seek godly counsel from your pastor or a counselor. Depending on your particular situation, you may also need to seek legal protection and make a safety plan. For a more complete exploration of what Scripture has to say about abuse, please read the Holcombs’ entire book, Is It My Fault: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence.You can also hear more of what the Holcombs have to say about domestic abuse on FamilyLife Today®.