Abusive relationships are way more common than we would like to admit. Chances are, you probably know someone who’s suffering or has suffered from one before. It’s tragic but true. These relationships can affect a person’s self-esteem, mental health, and overall well-being.
The tricky part is the signs aren’t always apparent from the outside looking in. Abusers are often masters of manipulation and control. They can keep their partners quiet and fearful and walk on eggshells.
But there are some telltale signs that a trained eye can spot. That’s what this guide aims to uncover – to empower victims and their loved ones to recognize the red flags early on.
We’ll be taking a deep dive into:
- The significant types of abuse – physical, sexual, and emotional
- The common warning signs to look out for
- The vicious cycles of abuse that happen behind closed doors
- Where victims can get help and escape these dangerous relationships
- How to recover and prevent abuse from happening again
By the end, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge to identify potentially abusive behaviours and relationships.
Types of Abuse
Domestic abuse manifests in different insidious ways. Let’s go through the main categories one by one:
This one is sadly self-explanatory. Physical abuse is when the victim’s body is violated through physical violence and aggression. This includes:
- Hitting, slapping, punching
- Strangling, choking, burning
- Restraint through grabbing, pinning down, etc.
- Withholding medical treatment and obstructing access to medical services
- Cutting off oxygen supply (smothering with pillows, hands, etc.)
- Forcibly confining the victim (locking them in rooms, tying them up, etc.)
- Throwing the victim around and shoving
- Using weapons and objects to inflict harm
Physical abuse also extends beyond direct acts of violence. Abusers may destroy property, punch walls, slam doors, and recklessly drive as intimidation tactics.
Some key signs of physical abuse include:
- Unexplained injuries – bruises, cuts, scars
- Defensive wounds like bruises on forearms (from blocking hits)
- Complaints of pain in certain body parts
- Wearing long sleeves or sunglasses to hide bruises
- Frequent accidents and injuries with vague explanations
- Restricted or limited movements due to pain
Make no mistake – physical abuse is hazardous and can lead to severe bodily harm, permanent injury, and even death in extreme cases.
If you notice any suspicious physical signs or behaviours, don’t ignore them. Reach out and make sure your loved one is safe.
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Sexual abuse is any non-consensual sexual act forced onto the victim. This may include:
- Inappropriate touching and groping
- Forcing the victim to strip, expose themselves, or perform sexual acts
- Engaging in sexual activities when the victim cannot consent (like when asleep or intoxicated)
- Minimizing or completely disregarding the victim’s desires and consent
A form of sexual abuse prevalent among women is reproductive coercion – tampering with contraceptives or pressuring victims to become pregnant against their wishes.
Possible signs of sexual abuse include:
- Genital pain, bruising, bleeding, or vaginal/anal tearing
- Frequent yeast infections or urinary issues
- Contracting STIs at a higher-than-normal rate
- Displaying an aversion to intimacy or sex
- Feeling the need to cover up arms and legs (to hide bruises)
- Plunging self-esteem and severe body image issues
It warrants a closer look if you notice sudden changes related to intimacy regarding your friend or family member. Reach out to them privately and create a safe space for them to confide in you.
Last but not least, emotional abuse is prevalent in abusive relationships. It often serves as the foundation that allows physical and sexual abuse to occur.
Emotional abuse refers to non-physical behaviours that harm the victim psychologically and mentally. This includes:
- Verbal abuse – insults, put-downs, threats, shouting
- Intimidation – making the victim fearful through looks, actions, and gestures
- Isolation – cutting the victim off from family and friends
- Humiliation – shaming, mocking, embarrassing in public
- Gaslighting – manipulating the victim into questioning their sanity and memory
- Financial abuse – restricting access to financial resources
- Stalking and harassment – in-person or cyberstalking, harassing communications
- Digital Abuse
The signs of emotional abuse tend to be more behavioural and psychological:
- Depression, anxiety disorders, fear, helplessness
- Hesitation to speak or make decisions in front of the abuser
- Believing the abuse is normal behaviour
- Making constant apologies and excuses for the abuser
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Drastic personality shifts when with the abuser
- Effects on Children: If abuse occurs in a family setting, it can have long-lasting effects on children as they enter adolescence
Emotional abuse undermines victims’ self-esteem, independence, and perception of reality. It makes it very hard for them to leave or seek help.
Common Signs of Abuse
Now that we’ve gone through the main types of domestic abuse let’s dive deeper into the specific signs and red flags to look out for.
Remember, the more signs that pile up, the higher the likelihood of an abusive relationship. Don’t ignore these red flags – reach out to your loved one if you suspect they may be in danger.
Signs of Physical Abuse
Physical abuse often escalates over time. It may start smaller with more “minor” forms of violence like slapping and work up to severe beatings over time.
Here are some common signs of physical abuse:
- Visible injuries like bruises, cuts, scars, and broken bones – mainly clustered on specific body parts
- Injuries in strange places like the abdomen, back, shoulders, and head
- Defensive wounds like bruises on forearms and hands from blocking hits
- Excuses given for injuries that don’t quite add up
- Wearing ill-fitting or heavy clothing, even in warm weather, to hide bruises
- Restricted movement due to pain from injuries
- General body tension, constant alertness, and flinching when touched
Let’s go through some examples:
- Your friend has had multiple sprained wrists and vague falling excuses – a potential sign of grabbing/restraint
- Your sister has consistent bruising on her upper arms – a potential sign of hits/grabs
- Your mom has unexplained cuts inside her mouth – a potential sign of slaps to the face
- Your colleague comes to work with sunglasses to hide a black eye – a potential sign of a punch/hit to the face
Make a mental note if you notice suspicious physical signs recurring over time. Don’t confront the person publicly, but reach out privately to check-in. Use a gentle, caring approach and reaffirm you’re always available to talk.
Signs of Sexual Abuse
Due to the sensitive nature of sexual activities, signs of sexual abuse tend to be more private. But there are some indicators that friends and family may notice:
- Difficulty walking or sitting
- Frequent yeast infections or urinary issues
- Soreness and bruises around genital regions
- Torn clothing or stains on clothes indicating assault
- Contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) at a higher-than-normal rate
- Avoiding intimacy or seeming repulsed by the idea of sex
- Using sex to “prove” their worth to the abuser
- Severe impacts to self-esteem and body image
Signs of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse can be one of the trickiest forms of domestic abuse to spot from the outside. Abusers are masters of manipulation and control in private.
But there are some telltale behavioural signs:
- Constant apologizing, making excuses for their partner’s behaviour
- Becoming withdrawn and isolated from friends and family
- Major personality shifts when a partner is present
- Fear, anxiety, depression, helplessness, low self-worth
- Hesitation to make decisions without their partner’s approval
- Flinching or hiding when their partner moves suddenly
- Believing the abusive behaviour is normal and feeling “deserving” of it
- Hiding bruises or marks with clothing and makeup
- Constantly being on edge, as if waiting for something wrong to happen
Let’s look at some examples:
- Your confident friend has become timid and depressed – a potential sign of emotional abuse
- Your brother apologizes for “making” his girlfriend angry – a possible sign of manipulation
- Your coworker is jumpy whenever her boyfriend picks her up from work – a possible sign of living in fear
Behavioural Signs in the Abuser
It also helps to watch for troubling signs in the suspected abusers themselves. Some common patterns include:
- Possessive, controlling behaviours – not allowing partner to see friends, demanding to know their location
- Explosive temper, picking fights over minor issues
- Cruelty to animals or others
- Verbal abuse – insults, humiliation, degradation
- Manipulative behaviours – guilt-tripping, gaslighting
- Obsession and jealousy – irrational accusations of cheating
- Unpredictable mood swings – quickly shifting from loving to furious
- Intimidating or threatening mannerisms – making threats, destroying property
- Your friend’s boyfriend insists on tracking her phone – a potential sign of control
- Your mom’s boyfriend isolates her from family – a possible sign of isolation
Abusers can be very cunning and hide their behaviours in public. But if you spot any red flags consistently, it’s worth looking into further to ensure your loved one is safe.
Cycles of Abuse
Domestic abuse rarely occurs as a one-off incident. More often, it happens in predictable cycles of abuse that reinforce the dysfunctional relationship.
Understanding these cycles is vital to recognizing abuse early and breaking free. Let’s break down the phases:
First is the “honeymoon phase”. The abuser shows the victim extreme affection, attention, gifts, and apologies. They promise to change and convince the victim they genuinely care.
This phase results in hope – the victim believes their partner can and will improve. The abuser may say precisely what the victim needs to hear to stick around.
Tension Building Phase
But then enters the “tension-building phase.” The abuser starts picking fights, criticizing, throwing tantrums, and intimidating the victim.
The victim feels like they’re constantly walking on eggshells to avoid conflict. They may change their behaviours to please the abuser, but it’s never enough.
Over time, this escalates to the “explosion phase.” Pent-up tensions lead to severe violent outbursts from the abuser – this is when severe physical and sexual abuse occurs.
The victim is attacked, traumatized, and made to feel guilty. The abuser finds ways to justify their actions.
Finally, the “calm phase” arrives. The abuser apologizes profusely, makes excuses, and promises it will never happen again. They are on their best behaviour.
This gives the victim hope again, making them reluctant to leave. And so the cycle begins anew…
This circular pattern bonds the victim to their abuser, destroying self-worth and making escape seem impossible.
But recognizing these cycles is the first step to finding the courage to leave. Understand that the “honeymoon phase” is a manipulative lie – not a sign of real change.
Effects of Abuse
Living in constant fear and trauma takes an enormous physical and mental toll. Let’s explore some of the common effects abuse has on victims:
- Injuries – bruises, broken bones, scars
- Somatic disorders – gastrointestinal issues, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, headaches
- Disrupted sleep
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Changes in eating habits – drastic weight loss or gain
- Neglecting self-care – poor hygiene, appearance, health
Mental Health Effects
- PTSD – flashbacks, panic attacks, hypervigilance
- Anxiety and constant fear
- Depression – sadness, hopelessness, lack of motivation
- Low self-esteem
- Inability to trust others
- Suicidal thoughts
Additionally, abuse can impact victims’ professional lives through:
- Declining work performance
- Taking frequent sick leave
- Being distracted at work
- Fear of leaving work to go home
The physical and emotional impacts of abuse tend to compound over time if victims remain trapped. Recognizing these effects is the first step to identifying abuse and seeking help.
No one deserves to live like this. Understand that abuse is unacceptable, not normal, and not your fault. Contact loved ones, counsellors, crisis hotlines, and law enforcement – there are resources to help you regain health, safety, and inner peace.
You are strong. You are worthy of real love.
Why People Stay
You may be wondering – why does anyone stay with an abusive partner? Why not just leave at the first sign of trouble?
It’s complex. Abusers are masters at manipulating victims and destroying their self-esteem to gain control. There are many reasons why people stay, including:
- Fear – the abuser may threaten further harm if they try to leave
- Lack of money/resources – financial abuse is common; victims may rely on the abuser for housing/bills
- Isolation – abusers isolate victims from friends/family who could help them leave
- Guilt – victims are made to feel the abuse is their fault and they “deserve” it
- False hope – abusers promise to change and manipulate victims’ emotions during the “honeymoon phase.”
- Love – victims may still love their partner and falsely believe they can help them change
- Normalization – long-term abuse warps perceptions of what’s “normal” in relationships
- Self-blame – victims feel shame in admitting abuse and exposing it
- Children – victims may stay to try to protect their children from also being abused
Additionally, those with trauma bonds may develop an “addiction” to their abuser. The manipulation is so severe that leaving induces withdrawal-like symptoms.
Understand that abuse victims stay because they are scared, not stupid or weak. Many barriers make it difficult to leave, but escape is possible with the right help and support system.
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, immediate help is available. You’re not alone, and speaking to someone who can guide you through this challenging time is crucial.
Hotlines in Canada
Crisis Services Canada
- Phone: 1-833-456-4566
- Website: Crisis Services Canada
Ending Violence Association of Canada
- Phone: 1-844-413-6649
- Website: Ending Violence Canada
Kids Help Phone (For youth up to 20 years)
- Phone: 1-800-668-6868
- Website: Kids Help Phone
Assaulted Women’s Helpline
- Phone: 1-866-863-0511
- Website: Assaulted Women’s Helpline
Counselling Services in BC and ON
Our clinic offers specialized counselling services if you’re in British Columbia or Ontario and are looking for longer-term support. Our counsellors and psychotherapists are trained to help you navigate abuse’s emotional and psychological impacts. We provide a safe, confidential space where you can begin your healing journey.
- Phone: 604-305-0104
- Online Counselling: https://wellbeingscounselling.ca/online-counselling/
- Locations: British Columbia and Ontario
Living with untreated IED can overshadow all areas of life:
- Relationships – IED causes conflict with family, friends, and partners. Loved ones often feel hurt, resentful, afraid, or detached. Social isolation is standard.
- Work or school – Frequent anger issues result in disciplinary action, job loss, and dropout. Colleagues and classmates tend to keep their distance.
- Legal problems – Aggressive behaviour commonly leads to lawsuits, arrests for domestic violence, destruction of property, and traffic violations.
- Financial hardship – Impulsive behaviour, unstable employment, and damages from rage incidents take a monetary toll.
- Physical health – Chronic stress and anger negatively impact heart health, weaken the immune system, and increase inflammation.
- Mental health – IED is linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance abuse—the risk of self-harm and suicide increases.
However, effective treatment allows people with IED to heal relationships, succeed at work, avoid legal troubles, protect their health, and lead happier lives.
Prevention and Awareness
The more we educate people, the better we can prevent domestic abuse from happening in the first place. Here are some important ways to promote awareness and keep others safe:
- Learn the signs of abuse to recognize them early and intervene if necessary. Use resources like this article to educate yourself.
- Have open conversations about healthy relationships, respect, and consent with teens and young adults. Give them the knowledge to avoid abuse.
- Speak up against jokes about abuse or assault. Challenge inappropriate comments among peers.
- Believe victims when they confide in you. Don’t question their experiences or defend the abuser. Empower them to get help.
- Keep the national domestic abuse hotline number in your contacts and share it with others. Display it visibly in your office, store, or community center.
- Support local women’s shelters through donations, volunteering, and raising awareness about their services.
- Vote for leaders who prioritize domestic violence policies. Support bills that fund programs to help victims and hold abusers accountable.
- Encourage media portrayals of healthy, equitable relationships. Call out toxic messaging that promotes jealousy, control, and aggression.
- Role model healthy communication and conflict resolution. Demonstrate how couples can argue respectfully and resolve issues in your own relationships.
We all have a part to play in cultivating a society of non-violence. Even small acts like these make a huge difference. Together, we can end the epidemic of domestic abuse for good.
Being in an abusive relationship takes an immense physical and emotional toll. The trauma can last a lifetime if victims don’t find the courage to leave.
We hope this guide empowers victims and loved ones to recognize the red flags early. Seek help from trusted friends, counsellors, crisis lines, and law enforcement. Understand that you deserve genuine love and respect.
Escape is possible. Healing is possible. You are stronger than you know – believe in yourself. The resources exist when you’re ready. You can regain your freedom, rediscover your strength, and open a new chapter focused on true happiness.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Some early red flags to look out for include:
- Possessiveness or getting angry when you want alone time
- Jealousy over normal interactions with friends/coworkers
- Controlling behaviour like dictating what you wear or who you see
- Verbal abuse disguised as "jokes"
- Explosive temper or punching walls when angry
- Blaming you for their angry outbursts
- Isolation from friends and family
Trust your gut - even one of these signs may indicate an abusive person.
First, reaffirm privately that you're always available to listen and talk. Don't judge; express concern for changes you've noticed in their typical demeanour. Ask gentle questions, provide validation, and suggest contacting a professional counsellor or domestic abuse hotline to help create a safe exit plan.
Contact a domestic violence hotline to discuss options. Set aside funds, pack necessities, secure important documents, and, if possible, ship valuables to someone trusted. Have your support system ready to help. Be ready to file for a restraining order immediately.
Therapy provides judgement-free support, helps build your self-worth, processes trauma, and teaches healthier relationship behaviours going forward. Group counselling also helps by connecting you with other abuse survivors. Don't struggle alone - get professional help.
D. Dutton, M. Haring, “Perpetrator Personality Effects on Post-Separation Victim Reactions in Abusive Relationships,” Journal of Family Violence, 1999. Read more
T. Logan, Jennifer Cole, “Exploring the Intersection of Partner Stalking and Sexual Abuse,” Violence Against Women, 2011. Read more
S. Craft, J. Serovich, “Family-of-Origin Factors and Partner Violence in the Intimate Relationships of Gay Men Who Are HIV Positive,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2005. Read more
J. Wuest, M. Merritt-Gray, “A Theoretical Understanding of Abusive Intimate Partner Relationships that Become Non-violent: Shifting the Pattern of Abusive Control,” Journal of Family Violence, 2008. Read more
Maie Stein, et al., “Beyond Mistreatment at the Relationship Level: Abusive Supervision and Illegitimate Tasks,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2020. Read more