How to Tell if Someone You Love is in an Abusive Relationship – and What to Do About It

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so today we wanted to do our part to spread a little information about a topic that, despite being incredibly common, too often ends up getting swept under the rug. While most of us want to help victims of domestic violence (Republican politicians notwithstanding), one of the major reasons this important issue often goes ignored is that friends and family simply may not know how to spot an abusive relationship. Even if you have doubts about your loved one’s home life, you may not know how to bring up the issue or the best way to help out.

Remember, while most domestic violence situations involve women being abused by men, it can happen to anyone, gay or straight. Don’t assume that just because your friend doesn’t fit the “typical” mold of an abuse victim that nothing is wrong.

The Warning Signs of Domestic Violence

So, first things first, how can you tell if someone is in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship? The truth is, it can be harder to tell than you think. There are the obvious signs: black eyes, mysterious bruises and injuries, unexplained or frequent absences from work, school, and community events. But many times, the signs can be much more subtle.

Are you finding it harder and harder to spend time with your loved one? Does it seem like he or she is always busy or always has other plans already set up? It could simply be that they’re going through a busy patch…and if it’s a new relationship, it could just be a side effect of wanting to constantly spend time together.

The problem is, it could also be a sign that their partner is trying to isolate them from friends and family. Making the victim socially dependent on the abuser is the first step on the path to abuse. If it’s impossible to persuade your friend or family member to spend time with you, especially if this is completely out of character, it’s good to be concerned.

Is your friend’s partner an extremely jealous person? If he or she mentions having to constantly defend against accusations of infidelity, that’s a red flag. Abusive partners are frequently extremely possessive — they may call constantly to “check up” on the victim, pick fights with potential “rivals” in social settings in order to drive them away from the victim, and demand to know exactly who the victim is with and where they are at all times.

Maybe you just get an uncomfortable feeling seeing how your loved one interacts with their partner. Do they constantly call the victim “stupid” or toss insulting remarks their way? Do they accuse the victim of being “crazy” in any argument or disagreement? Do they often explode at the slightest hint of disagreement? Do they frequently accuse your friend of lying or cheating? If so, emotional abuse is almost certainly occurring — and quite possibly physical abuse, as well.

Perhaps the most troubling sign that something is wrong is when your loved one’s personality starts to change as a result of a toxic relationship. They may completely change their style of dress, interests and activities to please their partner. They may suddenly seem depressed, distant or withdrawn — or they may seem like they’re trying too hard to seem happy and enthusiastic, as if they’re trying to prove to everyone that nothing is amiss. Often these changes start out small, and it can be hard to tell if they have anything to do with the new relationship or not.

If you notice these changes along with any of the other warning signs on this list, don’t ignore them. At the very least, your loved one is in an unhealthy, controlling relationship.

Next page: Find out how you can help…

How You can Help Domestic Violence Victims

So once you know the signs…now what? This is the part that can be the hardest for friends and family — because the truth is, no matter how much you want to help your loved one, you can’t force him or her to leave an abusive relationship. The truth is, often people have very good reasons for not leaving. They may be afraid of further violence, or they may be financially or emotionally dependent on the abusive partner. Maybe they’ve even had children and started to raise a family together, and are afraid of losing a custody battle.

It may be difficult, especially if your loved one has a very possessive partner, but the first thing you need to do is talk to them alone. Approach them in a way that makes it clear you’re not blaming them for the situation, that you aren’t judging them for it, and that you love them no matter what. Let them know that you’re concerned about their safety — but recognize that they may very well brush off your concerns or try to minimize them. Respect their answer in the moment, but don’t be afraid to try again a few days or weeks later when they might be more receptive to the conversation.

Since you may not completely understand why your loved one is staying in the relationship, the most important thing you can do is be a good listener. Try to find out what kind of help and support they actually need right now — it may not be what you think. At least at first, just giving them a supportive friend to talk to may be the most important first step you can take.

Don’t say bad things about the victim’s partner or say you wish they’d never gotten involved emotionally. This can push the victim away by making them feel like it’s their fault and they “deserve” the abuse.  Don’t tell them how you would leave in their shoes or how you think they should act. You may mean well, but this is likely to shut down the conversation completely.

Look up and share local resources with your friend. Find out if there are any local domestic violence hotlines, women’s shelters, or support groups that might be able to help. Then, let your loved one know these resources are available. If you know they aren’t going to be proactive, call yourself and see if you can get advice on how to best handle the situation.

Finally, be patient. The sad fact is, most domestic violence victims make several attempts to leave before they actually succeed. Let your loved one move at his or her own pace. Leaving is a difficult decision and it make take some time for them to plan and work up the nerve to follow through. Even if they want to leave right away, there are likely to be barriers preventing them from immediately making the change.


Photo credit: Thinkstock


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James Wilcox
James Wilcox3 years ago

The majority of domestic violence cases against children are perpetrated by women.

Kate S.
Kate S3 years ago


Kerrie G.
Kerrie G3 years ago

Shared, thanks.

James Wilcox
James Wilcox3 years ago

"October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so today we wanted to do our part to spread a little information about a topic that, despite being incredibly common, too often ends up getting swept under the rug."

As I've stated, the inclusion of maternal child abuse as a domestic violence issue, "despite being incredibly common, too often ends up getting swept under the rug."

Now's when I expect women to "man-up" and do something about it.

Mary B.
Mary B3 years ago

James W..... you bring forward your experiences in every article about abuse .....We know your story but you get sarcastic with those who may not.... THIS article IS about abusive relationships and unfortunately most equate it to women.....Why don't you post your own article and see what may be surprised at the responses and find some with your story too

James Wilcox
James Wilcox3 years ago

@ Karen H: "James W, the article isn’t about child abuse."

No, I guess you are right. It's about "domestic violence" which as I mentioned, doesn't include children as victims and mothers as perpetrators.

And back to Lisa L. here's the gov. stats.

40.5% of all child abuse is committed solely by biological mothers
17.7% of all child abuse is committed solely by biological fathers
19.3% of child abuse is committed by both the mother and the father
6.4% of child abuse is committed by the mother and some other individual
1.0% of child abuse is committed by the father and some other individual
11.9% is committed by someone other than the parents
3.1% is committed by an unknown or missing perpetrator.
Source: US Department of Health and Human Services Child Maltreatment Report 2001

You didn't cite your sources. Perhaps they were from the same VAWA stats concluding 1 in 71 men are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. The actual numbers are I in 6.

Like you care.