Don't Wait For the Worst: Know the Warning Signs of Domestic Abuse
Most people associate intimate partner violence, also known as domestic violence or domestic abuse, with physical assault, but abusers wield more than their fists to inflict pain and exert control.
Bodily harm typically only occurs after months or years of more insidious forms of cruelty. Many people have experienced controlling behavior, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. It is possible to help someone in an abusive relationship. Here is what you should know.
How common is domestic violence?
"This could happen to any one of us. No one enters a relationship knowing that it is going to be an abusive relationship," said Brianda Diaz de Leon, L.C.S.W., a therapist with Thriveworks in Arlington, Texas, who specializes in domestic abuse and trauma.
In the initial stages of a relationship, abusers tend to be charming and romantic: the seemingly ideal partner. This "love bombing" is a manipulation tactic—and it doesn't take long for abusive behaviors to emerge.
Intimate partner violence gradually becomes more pervasive. In the United States, approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men are affected every year, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Additionally, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical intimate partner violence in their lifetime. These extreme acts of violence can be deadly.
About 20 percent of homicides are committed by intimate partners and more than 50 percent of women murdered in the U.S. are killed by current or former male partners, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Intimate partner violence-related suicide may claim more than 2,900 lives yearly, according to a 2022 study.
To protect yourself or a loved one from potentially grievous harm, early intervention is crucial. Understanding the warning signs and your options can empower you to decide what to do.
Is verbal abuse domestic violence?
Intimate partner violence is a pattern of abusive behavior in which one partner exerts and maintains power and control over another, said Crystal Justice, chief external affairs officer with the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) based in Austin, Texas.
Everyone's experience with abuse is different, and it can take many forms, from psychological manipulation to stalking and rape. Roughly 40 percent of stalking victims are stalked by current or former intimate partners, per the Stalking Prevention, Awareness and Resource Center.
Usually, the pattern begins with psychological abuse that may be emotional, verbal or both, before escalating to sexual or other forms of physical violence.
Financial abuse—which includes withholding a victim's access to assets or forbidding them to work—is another component in around 99 percent of domestic violence cases, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV).
Even in circumstances in which physical or sexual violence doesn't occur, psychological and financial abuse's impacts can be devastating.
What are the warning signs of domestic abuse?
The early warning signs of abuse can be subtle and hard to spot, both for the survivor and their friends and family, said Justice, Diaz de Leon and Avigail Lev, Psy.D., a psychotherapist and founder and director of the Bay Area CBT Center in San Francisco.
Your partner may be abusive if they exhibit the following behaviors, they said:
- Showing extreme jealousy when you spend time with anyone else
- Discouraging you from spending time with others, especially peers, family or friends
- Making jokes at your expense, particularly those that are disrespectful and play on your insecurities
- Put-downs or insults that can make you feel unworthy of love and respect
- Making important decisions that affect both of you without consulting you first
- Dismissing or disrespecting your feelings, opinions, needs or boundaries
- Attempting to control you, even in small or subtle ways, such as telling you what to wear, wanting to know where you are or pressuring you to stop doing things you enjoy
- Projecting or accusing you of doing something they are doing, such as lying or cheating, without evidence
- Moving too fast, such as pressuring for commitment, claiming love at first sight, engaging in grand gestures early on or pushing you to move in together quickly
- Making you feel guilty for not wanting to do something and pressuring you to do it, especially sexual acts or the use of alcohol or drugs.
"We often say, 'trust your gut'—if something feels off or not right in your relationship, that is a warning sign itself," Justice said.
What are the signs a loved one may be in danger?
Physical signs of abuse, such as bruises, cuts, broken bones or sprained wrists, might be conspicuous. You might also notice your loved one wearing scarves or long sleeves in summer, donning heavy makeup or refusing to remove their sunglasses, all common tactics to conceal injuries.
Signs of psychological and financial abuse are usually less noticeable.
If your loved one displays one or more of the following behaviors, it might be a red flag, according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.
- They cancel plans frequently or become unresponsive or withdrawn.
- Their personality changes dramatically. For example, they might seem uncharacteristically meek or have diminished confidence and self-esteem.
- They seem anxious or afraid around their partner.
- They're constantly checking in with their partner.
- They seem excessively concerned with pleasing their partner.
What should you do if you're experiencing intimate partner violence?
"If you are experiencing abuse or aren't sure but know something isn't OK in your relationship, it's important to know that you are never alone," Justice said.
Connecting with a domestic violence professional is a vital first step. Advocates at multiple local and national organizations can provide various forms of support, though if you are in immediate danger, call 911.
You can contact the National Domestic Abuse Hotline 24/7 by texting "START" to 88788 or calling 1-800-799-7233 to talk with an advocate. The website also contains valuable information, including tips on creating a safety plan.
Other steps to take may include:
- Talk to a safe person, such as a trusted friend, family member or counselor, about your experience.
- Ensure access to financial resources, which might mean diverting money into a secret account or stowing cash in a private safe deposit box or at a loved one's home.
- Document the abuse, whether in a journal or with audio and photographs, if it's safe. You can also ask trusted confidantes to collect or store evidence for you. This may be crucial if you decide to take legal action.
- Learn about your options, either online or with the help of a domestic violence advocate. Domestic abuse organizations can connect you with resources, including law enforcement contacts, safety planning tools, shelters and pro-bono legal counsel.
- Pack a bag with all your essentials—and your kids', if applicable—in case you need to get out fast. Consider storing it at a loved one's home or another safe location.
- Remember, your partner might look through your phone or browser history, so keep things as secure as possible and clear your browser history when looking for resources and support.
- Determine a safe place to go and tell as few people as possible.
How to help a loved one
"Knowing how to start a conversation if you suspect someone is experiencing abuse can be difficult," Justice said. "Often, we fear saying the wrong thing, but with a few simple sentences, we have the power to change someone's life and help them find a path to a safer future."
When broaching the topic, it's important to be non-judgmental and avoid language that could make them feel guilt or shame, she and Diaz de Leon said. Don't pry, use ultimatums or tell them what they "should" do. They know their situation better than you do and need support without conditions.
"Do not judge them or take away their power by thinking you know what's best for them," Diaz de Leon said.
Even at the Hotline, Justice said she and her colleagues don't give advice. Instead, they remind survivors how strong and brave they are and provide information and resources so they know their options for reclaiming their power and autonomy.
Authentically expressing your concern and simply asking if everything is OK can open the door for a loved one to share their experience, Justice said.
"Ask how you can support them and if you can be part of their safety plan and remind them that they always deserve to feel loved, safe and respected," she said.
You can share information if your loved one is open to it. Offer to help them make a safety plan and connect them with resources such as domestic violence helplines, websites and shelters.
Educating a loved one about what abuse is can be helpful, Diaz de Leon said, as some people don't realize it's not just physical violence, nor is it always overt.
Can you report domestic abuse for someone else?
You can report domestic abuse for a loved one, but calling the police is not necessarily the right thing to do, according to the NDVH. In some cases, it could put the victim in more danger.
Instead, loved ones can reach out to organizations like the NDVH for information on how to best support a friend or family member, Justice said.
Is domestic violence a crime?
Different states have distinct legal definitions of—and ramifications for—intimate partner violence, said Lisa Gill, P.L.L.C., founding member at Gill Family Law in Germantown, Tennessee. There may also be variations between the state criminal and civil codes.
Domestic violence can include the following, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women:
- Technological actions
- Threats of actions
- Other patterns of coercive behavior
This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone," the DOJ states.
The definition can apply to situations involving current or former intimate partners.
State laws vary, but domestic violence is a federal crime under the Violence Against Women Act. Despite its name, the act covers all survivors of intimate partner violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking, regardless of sex, gender or sexual orientation, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Most states allow for parallel penalties in both criminal and civil court, said Gill and Allison Mahoney, ESQ, founder and managing lawyer at ALM Law, LLC in Aspen, Colorado.
"For example, an aggressor can be charged and convicted criminally, and that same aggressor can be subject to a civil suit for attorney's fees, an order of protection, exclusive use of a shared residence, child custody, and child and spousal support under civil code," Gill said.
Survivors may also be able to seek damages with a civil lawsuit for tort or personal injury claims, such as medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering, Mahoney said. If the abuser engaged in image-based sexual abuse, such as non-consensual pornography or "revenge porn," some jurisdictions now offer victims remedies for those offenses as well.
Under the criminal code, according to Gill and Majoney, aggressors can typically be charged with the following:
- Violation of prior protection orders
- Sexual abuse
- Harassment, which includes some forms of psychological and emotional abuse
Most criminal and civil codes also have definitions that include threats of harm to alleged victims, their loved ones or pets, Gill said.
Proceedings for criminal charges or civil pursuits, such as permanent custody and child support, can take time, but survivors can seek orders of protection while other cases are pending, Mahoney said.
Most orders of protection statutes allow judges to award temporary financial support, custody of minor children and exclusive use of the marital residence, and attorney's fees along with the protection order, Gill said.
How can you take legal action in a domestic violence case?
If you are interested in taking legal action, finding a domestic violence and trauma-informed family lawyer is essential, as is connecting with a domestic abuse organization and trauma-informed therapist, Mahoney and Gill said.
Domestic aggressors can be very manipulative, Gill said. It can be easy for inexperienced attorneys, therapists or even a judge to become confused by the false narratives a perpetrator creates.
"It's important to remember intimate partner violence is all about control—and when legal proceedings begin, that effort to control does not necessarily end," she said. "This is why it is critical to hire a lawyer who understands the nuances of intimate partner violence and can help educate judges and other players about what is unfolding."
The bottom line
If you're experiencing intimate partner violence or think you might be, know that you are not alone and this is not your fault, Justice and Diaz de Leon said. There is nothing you can do that would justify any type of abuse, and you deserve to feel safe and respected.
"There is hope for you to have the life you want and deserve," Justice said. "I am a survivor, and in my darkest moments, it was the hope for a better future that kept me going."
Loved ones, domestic violence-informed therapists and lawyers, and professional organizations can support you in doing what you think is best for your physical and emotional safety. Domestic violence affects millions of men and women.