There are many signs that point to an abusive relationship. They are not always entirely easy to recognize, however, especially at the start of the relationship when the abuser might still try to conceal their intentions or when you have more agency for leaving. Heed the red flags and be careful: you might be dating an abuser, it might even be Narcissist abuse. If you certain that you are in an abusive relationship, you can check How to leave an emotionally abusive relationship. Let’s take a look at the signs of an abusive relationship.
11 signs you are in an abusive relationship
1. They try to isolate you
Little by little, an abuser will attempt to push others away from you. It can start with small or innocuous comments, like your partner wanting to go everywhere with you or jokingly saying they are upset when you do something with another person. They might start telling you that they don’t like your friends (or, perhaps, that your friends don’t like them) or that you are not spending enough time together. There may be joking or serious admissions of jealousy and pushes for you to cede and start limiting contact with people who they don’t like or who somehow make them uncomfortable, for example, asking you to stop seeing your male friends. In a healthy relationship, both partners have their space and own bonds outside the relationship. If your partner is trying to isolate or limit your social relationships, it’s a definite red flag.
2. You feel you have to be very careful with what you say and do
All relationships have their fights because we all have our vulnerabilities. However, in an abusive relationship, you might feel constantly insecure and like you are walking to eggshells. You are never sure on what will set your partner off or whether they will get angry and upset when you did not intend to hurt them. They might blow up at small details and these explosions of temper can be difficult to predict, so you start watching yourself very carefully and monitor yourself. It can also be expressed in an unwillingness to bring up legitimate problems or situations because you anticipate an unpleasant and disproportionate reaction. The reactions might be unpredictable or inconsistent – the same thing can one day set off a fight and pass unnoticed another day.
3. They often put you down
An abusive partner will work on undermining your confidence in different ways. They will rarely start with outright insults and put-downs, but often might begin with jokes that make you feel bad. They might criticize your weight or compare you unfavorably to others, however, if you get upset, they might tell you you are oversensitive or lack a sense of humor. You might receive a lot of comments about your choices, looks, or capabilities, however, there is no turnabout – your partner might get upset if you try to make similar jokes. An abusive partner is often critical of you and might express highly negative opinions about the things that matter to you or that you like.
4. You are always the one at fault
Everyone makes mistakes, so it seems unlikely that you are always the one to blame. An abusive partner can refuse to take responsibility and, even when they made a mistake or did something, they might try to show how it was actually your fault. They try to make you take responsibility for anything that goes wrong in the relationship and eventually those situations you had no control over, for example, that you made them late for work or that you ruined their day. The amount of blame pinned on you might increase, while they do not take any upon themselves.
5. Spying and monitoring
An abusive partner is likely to try and monitor you in different ways. They might want to know where you are and what you are doing at all times, sometimes acting like you were a child and they a parent. They might inquire who you are with and interrogate you about small details. Possibly, they can try to track other aspects of your life – monitor your expenses and accounts, check your phone and private mail, and look through private papers or documents or files. They might ask for your passwords or sensitive information as well or you might catch them snooping through your phone or computer. The person might say they worry about you or give another excuse, but their monitoring becomes notorious and invasive.
6. Outbursts and anger
An abusive partner might not jump to yelling and especially not to physical violence right away, but they are likely to have occasional outbursts of anger that might frighten you. The outbursts might be caused by something disproportionately small, like a minor inconvenience, rather than a significant problem or truly bad situations. During these outbursts, the person might yell or humiliate you (or another person), throw things or hit something. Later, they are likely to apologize and say that they were upset. Often, the outburst might make them so angry that they walk out, leaving you in the situation, for example, to settle a bill or without finishing the discussion you were having. Everyone gets angry sometimes, of course, but these outbursts might be extreme, frightening, and put you in a bad position.
7. Getting violent
Physical and emotional violence are definite red flags. While they might not always appear (or be directed at you right away), it is something to look out for. Yelling and insulting, especially insults that are considered “bad” within your culture might be signs of emotional abuse. When the person uses yelling when they are angry with you on a regular basis, it’s not a good thing. Anyone might raise their voice on occasion, but yelling is a more aggressive tactic during a conflict. Physical violence, directed against things or especially yourself, is a huge sign of danger. When the person pushes or shoves you or assaults you physically, even if it’s just a pinch, they will likely be willing to escalate further. Throwing things, punching things, and breaking stuff, mostly if it’s your stuff, are not to be taken lightly either.
8. They are cruel to others
At the start of a relationship, an abuser wants to put on their best show, because they want you to stay. But they might not control themselves as much around others, especially those who are vulnerable – children, service staff, animals, and so on. If you see a person who consistently belittles or mocks others or who is cruel to those around them, they will probably not make an exception for you later on. Cruelty, mockery, belittling, humiliation, and other behaviors towards others are red flags, even if your partner is perfectly sweet towards you.
9. They lie and deny
We all tell white lies from time to time, but an abuser is more likely to lie without remorse. They can make up things to look better, to you or other people, and try to convince you that you are misremembering things or wrong if you challenge them on a situation. They might deny things even when it’s obvious that they are wrong and do it with conviction. You might also hear them telling lies about people you’re close to or about you to others, so that more people are left with the impression that you are to blame for any issues in the relationship.
10. You have to do more and give up things that matter
An abusive relationship eventually becomes unilateral. You are expected to give, sacrifice, and put an effort, but the standards are different for your partner. While they might criticize your friends or ask you to stay at home, you are not allowed to do that and might receive a lot of anger if you try. At the same time, you are the one responsible for the problems in the relationship and expected to fix them, while your partner is not.
11. You feel worse as the relationship progresses
No relationship is free of conflict or negative emotions, however, an abusive relationship tends to get worse with time. Eventually, you feel mostly negative emotions in the context of this relationship – anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, guilt, and shame, sadness, and more, but start feeling fewer positive emotions. The relationship might take you an emotional roller coaster where things get bad and the great and then neutral and then bad again, but with time, you feel more and more negative emotions while the positive ones fade away.
There are many signs to pay attention to in order to see that your relationship is abusive or on its way to becoming abusive. Pay attention to behaviors that concern you and do not brush them off, as anger or violence or control at the early stages is likely to escalate and become much more serious later on. The more time you spend in an abusive relationship, the more difficult it will be to leave.