Are You in an Abusive Relationship?


It's a sad truth: Lots of women are abused by their husbands or boyfriends. Could you be one? Learn how to recognize these 12 signs of an abusive relationship... 

Think abuse could never happen to you? Even if he never raises a hand, you could be hit with emotional abuse or verbal smackdowns that are equally damaging.

Yet, “women tend to overlook these signs because we’re trying to be understanding, or because we can’t believe that our man would do anything like that,” says Michele Sugg, MSW, a therapist in Branford, Conn.

The number of women who don’t make headlines or get personal pleas from Oprah is staggering: Each year, two million are battered and 1,200 are killed by their partners, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Even more live in fear of violence or face emotional abuse every day.

Check out these 12 signs of abuse, which can help you avoid becoming another statistic.

1. He makes snide jokes at your expense.
Although boorish and rude, the occasional zinger isn’t an automatic ticket to the Abusers Hall of Fame.

But aiming poison barbs in your direction and then brushing it off – like “Can’t you take a joke?” – shows a lack of respect.

“It’s a sign of emotional distancing, which can very quickly turn into abuse,” says Gilda Carle, Ph.D., (aka Dr. Gilda), an advice columnist on and author of 
He’s Not All That (Collins).

Emotional abuse can become physical with very little notice. Just ask Aimee, 41, of San Francisco, who was in an abusive relationship for eight years – while working at a battered women’s shelter!

It was so subtle, says Aimee (whose name was changed to protect her privacy).

“It went from unhealthy to pathological in such tiny increments that I accepted every little increment completely.”

By the time it crossed over into physical abuse, “I couldn’t name it. I was in absolute denial,” she says.

2. The relationship is on the fast track.
He’s infatuated with you and is already talking commitment. But slow down.

A light-speed lothario often has something to hide, says relationship therapist Joyce Morley-Ball, Ed.D. (aka Dr. Joyce).

If he’s quick to say “I love you” and soon makes plans for moving in, getting married and having a baby, he may be trying to lock up the relationship before you can see what he’s really about.

He knows you’re less likely to leave him after you get involved, she says.

3. Nothing is ever his fault.
That speeding ticket? The cop had it in for him. The job he lost? The boss had a grudge against him. The promotion he didn’t get? The woman who did must have been sleeping with the boss.

Maybe your guy has the worst luck ever. Or consider this: The man who never takes responsibility for any of his actions may be quick to blame you when he ultimately loses control of his temper – and his fists. “If you hadn’t done _____, I wouldn’t have hit you.”

If he can get you to believe it’s your fault, he’s off the hook in his mind. So take notice of his blame list – you could be next.

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4. You’re always making excuses for his behavior.
He’s tired. He had a hard week. He’s under a lot of pressure. He’s only like that when he’s had too much to drink.

Sure, these excuses may explain the rare social gaffe and could, in fact, be true. But it could be a warning sign of abuse to come.

If you’re regularly trying to explain away rude, violent or disrespectful behavior, you could be emotionally abused.

“There’s this wall of denial that we put up when we’re in a relationship, and we all do it to some extent,” Sugg says. “But you shouldn’t have to explain away someone else’s behavior.”

It’s just like a slap in the face, she says. “How many of those slaps would you take?”

5. You bend over backward so he doesn’t get upset.
Are you walking on eggshells because of his hair-trigger temper that erupts for everything big (a blown business deal) to small (his warm beer)?

But you can’t keep the peace by being perfect because you can’t control his emotions, Dr. Joyce says. “His anger has nothing to do with you and everything to do with him.”

Chances are, no matter how hard you try to make things “perfect” – there’s no such thing, by the way – he’ll still find something that’ll set him off.

“If you’re living in fear of upsetting him because he’ll blow up in your face, understand that eventually he’ll blow up on your face,” Dr. Gilda says.

6. He controls the money.
It’s one thing if your man is the designated bill-payer (as mutually agreed upon). It’s a different story if you have no access to your personal money, no credit cards in your name and you get only a small allowance. Maybe he even runs up your credit cards, then tanks your credit score.

This is a warning sign of abuse – in fact, it's financial abuse, says Brian Namey, spokesman for the National Network to End Domestic Violence ( It’s meant to keep you dependent on him.

To learn more about financial independence, check out this joint venture between NNEDV and AllState Foundation with 
financial tools for women in an abusive relationship.)

7. He doesn’t like your family or friends.
Maybe your mom is a piece of work and your best friend is a teensy bit shallow. But isolating you from people you love and trust until there’s no one left in your life except your guy?

That’s Rule No. 1 in the Abusers Handbook.

When you have no one else to turn to, then he really has you under his thumb.

8. He keeps tabs on what you wear, where you go, who you call…
At first, this may seem loving. If you’re used to emotionally distant guys, the attention he pays will seem wonderful – but it's a warning sign of abuse.

All that attention is a way to reel you in so you become dependent on his approval and fear losing it.

“It’s about power and control,” not love, Namey says.

9. He gets in your face when you fight.
All couples fight. But if he comes closer to you during an argument or follows you when you’re trying to walk away, “That’s a sign that he’s so frustrated, he could hit you at any moment,” Dr. Gilda says.

10. He raises his hand (or fist) in anger.
Even if he catches himself before he slaps you, who knows if next time he’ll have such self control?

Denise, 42, of Cleveland, recalls a heated argument with an ex-boyfriend. “It was a stupid discussion about a movie,” says Denise, who requested that her name be changed to protect her privacy.

“All of a sudden his arm flew back,” she says, “and I could see the supreme effort it took him not to smack me. Right then, I knew there’d be a point when he wouldn’t be able to stop himself. I broke up with him the next day.”

11. He’s gotten physical – even once.
Pushing, shoving, pinching, hair pulling or other rough treatment is physical abuse. Don’t blow it off.

“Domestic violence is incremental. It escalates,” Dr. Joyce says. “The woman who loses her life probably started with name-calling, a push, a shove, hair pulling or something like that.”

12. He threatens to kill you.
Believe him and leave. Even if he’s never kept his word before, you don’t want to be there when he decides to follow through.

“When a person is brash enough to make threats, we need to take it at face value,” Dr. Joyce says. “The reality is, if he said it, he probably meant it.”

There are no statistics about how often threats translate into homicide, but Namey says the following situations increase the odds that an abused woman will be killed by her partner:

·         He has a weapon and has threatened you with it before.

·         He’s threatened your children.

·         He’s unemployed.

·         He’s forced you to have sex.

·         He’s jealous and controls most of your daily activities.

·         He says if he can’t have you, nobody can.

·         He’s threatened or attempted suicide.

·         You believe he could kill you.

If any of these signs of an abusive relationship sound familiar, what's your next step?

Start by talking to someone you trust, like your girlfriends or family. They have the distance to see red flags in your relationship that you may not.

“If you’re hearing from people that you’re not being treated very well, listen to them and think about that,” Sugg says.

You can even talk about it at your next gynecology visit. In fact, if you feel unsafe in your relationship, ob-gyns hope you’ll talk with them.

“When a woman feels she’s in danger, we can bring her into the hospital, provide a safe zone and help her figure out ways to get out of the relationship,” says ob-gyn Rakhi Dimino, M.D., of Woman’s Hospital of Texas in Houston.

You can also call the National Domestic Violence hotline (available 24/7 in every state) at (800) 799-SAFE (7233) or at (800) 787-3244 for the hearing impaired.

Contrary to its name, it’s not only for physical abuse victims. For emotionally abused women, phone counselors can offer crisis intervention and referrals to other agencies.


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