Five Subtle Signs You’re Being Abused In Your Relationship

Five Subtle Signs You’re Being Abused In Your Relationship

When we hear the words “domestic violence”, we typically think of angry men with raised fists and women with bruised faces. The reality is that domestic violence manifests itself more often than not as verbal and psychological abuse, which means you could be abusing your partner or the victim of abuse without realising it. Here are some of the more subtle warning signs you should be aware of.

Husband yelling photo by Shutterstock

Note: We’re keeping it simple and using the masculine pronoun to describe the abuser and the feminine pronoun to describe the victim. In some cases, they are direct quotes. This does not mean women don’t abuse men, but current evidence shows the overwhelming majority of victims in situations of domestic violence are women. If you’re a man who identifies with the victim, or you’re in a same-sex relationship, swap the pronouns to fit your situation.

The Australian Medical Association defines domestic violence as an abuse of power: “It is the domination, coercion, intimidation and victimisation of one person by another by physical, sexual or emotional means within intimate relationships.”

You can be abused by your partner without being in a situation of domestic violence, but domestic violence always includes one partner being abused by the other. Psychologists Carmel O’Brien and Heather Gridley, who offered their expertise for this story, explain the distinction:

Where there is any pattern of behaviour where one person tries to control, frighten, intimidate, hurt, threaten or coerce their partner, then that is abuse. If your partner does something that scares you, once, and you can call them on this and they can apologise and they want to make sure it does not happen again, that is an incident where someone has been abusive, but it is not domestic violence if it stops there.

Let’s look at some of the more subtle warning signs of abuse in relationships. If you see a pattern of behaviour either in yourself or your partner, you should be concerned about being in a situation of domestic violence.

1. You have no mutual goals or future plans

Whenever you try to raise the issue of future goals and dreams, you get shut down. According to Patricia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond, the abuser can’t accept the partner as an equal, because the partner’s equality is the abuser’s inferiority. “Verbal abusers block discussions because they are not willing to talk with their mates on an equal basis,” writes Evans.

The abuser may be committed to the relationship by way of being by your side for many years, providing for you and raising children with you, but sitting down and planning for the future together in a mutually supportive way seems to be out of the question. “Not seeing your partner as equal in the relationship is a fundamental feature in domestic violence,” say O’Brien and Gridley.

2. Your opinions are never validated and always inferior

Abusers will consistently dismiss or downplay your perceptions with hurtful words, such as “Nobody asked for your opinion!” Evans explains:

Because of his need for dominance and his unwillingness to accept his partner as an equal, the verbal abuser is compelled to negate the perceptions, experiences, values, accomplishments and plans of his partner… She may take his negation as a lack of common interest or as a misunderstanding.

When you repeat what the abuser has said to make sure you understood correctly, the abuser will usually counter your repeat of the statement. When you want to agree to disagree, the abuser will negate your beliefs and tell you that you’re wrong. According to Evans, this form of abuse is “one of the most destructive to a relationship because it prevents all possibility of discussion”.

In the same vein, the abuser may give you inappropriate gifts that show no thought to your interests, such as a sex toy or a kitchen gadget. According to O’Brien and Gridley, the abuser is putting the partner “on a pedestal of the ideal woman” rather than acknowledging her as an individual with views of her own.

3. You are the target of sarcastic comments and mean “jokes”

Verbal abuse is often disguised as sexist jokes, but they’re never funny. It’s a cheap win that gives the abuser a feeling of power over you. If the abuser makes a disparaging comment that hurts your feelings, and you express your unhappiness over that comment, the abuser will insist that it was a joke and say “You’re too sensitive” or “You’re making a big deal out of nothing”. The abuser will not apologise. This could then cause you to doubt your perceptions and wonder if there’s something wrong with you for taking offence to his “joke”. This is an example of invalidating your opinion and therefore abusive.

4. Your achievements are trivialised

Consider the following two scenarios: a) You get a promotion at work, but your partner doesn’t seem to share in your excitement. In fact, you feel guilty because your promotion doesn’t seem to make your partner happy. b) You finally get around to cleaning the pantry and say to your partner “Look! This is much better, right? Now we can find what we need when we need it!” Your partner gets angry and accuses you of thinking you do all the work around the house. You try to explain that’s not what you meant, but your partner doesn’t seem to understand that you just wanted to contribute.

The abusive partner won’t delight in your achievements because of a competitive approach to the relationship. Evans explains:

Anything achieved by the partner is seen as a threat by the abuser. The abuser’s worth is derived from a sense of one-upmanship and winning over. If the partner accomplishes something, the abuser views her accomplishment competitively.

Ironically, the abuser who trivialises the partner’s wins often brags about them to friends the same way one might brag about a new car or gadget. The longer your relationship, the more the abuser comes to think of you as a prized object. Lundy Bancroft, author of Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, says “possessiveness is at the core of the abuser’s mindset… on some level he feels that he owns you and therefore has the right to treat you as he sees fit.”

5. You think there’s something wrong with you

Victims of abuse often think that they are to blame for the problems in their relationship, even though they’re the ones who feel scared, trapped and humiliated. Abusers often use surprisingly covert means of manipulation that are hard to spot, and you may feel like you’re going crazy. For example, your friends may tell you how lucky you are to have such a charming, charismatic and friendly partner. This makes you doubt any abuse that occurs privately in the home, and you may even dismiss it as something that exists in every relationship.

However, the abuser is meticulous about covering his tracks and ensuring there are no other witnesses, and shame prevents the victim from speaking out about the abuse. Publicly, the abuser is a super-nice person, so even if the victim does speak out, friends may have a hard time believing it.

Victims also tend to think there’s something wrong with themselves when there are long periods of time between episodes of abuse. You may tell yourself that it was a one-off freak event, or that you shouldn’t have asked the question, or there must have been a good reason to yell at you. But you don’t make someone else abusive or violent, and you shouldn’t feel scared or uncomfortable in your own home.

There are many, many more signs of abuse to be aware of, but these five are particularly insidious because they are easily dismissed as being in the realm of “normal”. If you see a pattern of abusive behaviour, help is available. You can call 1800 RESPECT, or check out the Live Free app on the iTunes App Store for answers to frequently asked questions.

Carmel O’Brien (FAPS) is the Director of Clinical Services at Doncare. Heather Gridley is a psychologist and Honorary Fellow at the College Arts, Victoria University. We thank them for their expertise and help in writing this story.

This story has been updated since its original publication.


  • “We’re keeping it simple and using the masculine pronoun to describe the abuser and the feminine pronoun to describe the victim”…..keeping it simple or keeping it lazy? The article is riddled with more than just pronouns suggesting men are the abusers (eg “sex toy or a kitchen gadget”).

      • Having read the article I do question whether the gendered pronouns were ever needed. The majority of the writing refers to a gender neutral abuser, and partner, and ‘you’. There are a total o f 2 mentions of a her, 3 of him and maybe 10 ‘he’s (though I feel that is a conflated number due to syntax… ‘he think that he’ and a number of them are quotes.)
        Let me make it clear: yes Men usually are the abusers. I am not arguing that. But i do feel that an article that on the surface seemed to make every effort to be neutral (partner, you, the abuser) fell apart with the examples that reinforced gendered stereotypes. and when I read the disclaimer I assumed that the whole article was written for the female audience and the diclaimer reminder that while this was the most common form, that other people may identify as well, however the article turned out to be a far more neutral affair that was let down by some lazy stereotypical, movie script examples.

        Gender neutral pronouns would be easily employed here, and are… I just wonder why they weren’t used in all cases. It’s a minor criticism for what is a good piece, but I think that the minor things are the loopholes that some use to excuse their behaviours, or to skew the point. Women can abuse, men can abuse…. Homo homini lupus.

        • I, as a survivor of domestic abuse which was mostly verbal, emotional, financial, mental and spiritual with some physical thrown in, even after separation, agree wholeheartedly with you. They also could’ve very easily used “they, them, their” instead of the “he, his, him, she, her, hers”.

          Also, as a woman that was abuse, I always try to bring attention to the fact that men are abused too, sometimes quite violently, usually in those cases by men, but also BY WOMEN!!!!

          One of the reasons why men most of the time don’t report being domestic abuse, especially when the abuser is a woman, is because straight away his friends, his family and society, in general, would perceive them as “wusses” or are afraid as being perceived like that and further abused, ridiculed, belittle and mocked by the people around them that should be helping them instead.

          Society has a very long-ingrained “culture” of the man being “the man” and strong and “dominating” and the woman is meek and compliant and the victim. It is sad and it certainly needs to change, but it is true.

      • In cases of physical abuse? Sure, men are bigger and more physically intimidating generally, so when it comes to being the physical abuser that’s generally how it goes down.

        In cases of emotional abuse like your above article? Maybe if usually is a 55/45 or 60/40 split. Emotional abuse can VERY easily go either way in the sexes, as it’s all about personalities, nothing else.

          • Statistically? Nope, women are more likely to be physically abused and therefore to seek help or be encouraged by friends and family to seek help. I know a lot of people who work in DV crisis and they don’t see very many men come through, a lot of which is because of the stereotyping like this article making men feel like they can’t seek help, they’re weak to be in this situation, and they can’t be suffering from DV.

            Throughout my own life however I’ve probably seen more emotionally abusive female to male situations than male to female, or at most pretty even. I might even be joining the stereotyping myself to presume that even though I’ve seen more evidence the other way men are most likely still a higher percentage out in the wild than women.

      • Standard practice or not, to try and continually embed this typecasting into the mentality of everyone is just plain wrong and sexist. As a male I am highly offended, and if the shoe were on the other foot, you can bet your bottom dollar that the feminists would getting their pitchforks ready. Poor form Elly.

      • Condemn the behaviour not the gender

        and btw it’s not ‘standard practice among counsellors and psychologists who write about domestic violence and abuse in relationships.’ reread that, it’s a very silly assumption to make.

      • Interesting objection on your part. The current figures show that up to 40% of reported domestic abuse victims are not female. The figure of 60% being female is terrible and NEEDS to be addressed, but it is not ‘Overwhelming’ in relation to to point you are making. It is disgusting, just as the fact that 4 out of 10 victims are male. It’s all disgusting, but made worse when the reality of being a victim is downplayed or treated as an abnormal situation. For those victims made to feel more isolated and abnormal these grandiose statements are a continuation of the abuse from another source.

        Ann Silvers’ (MA) book “Abuse OF men BY Women” (title given as shown on the book) is not only the source of reference I have made but an excellent peer book by someone within the “counsellors and psychologists” field addressing not only misconceptions but also the continuation of factually incorrect claims by those in the fields stated. I highly recommend this reference to you, Elly, as it also crossreferences a large volume of additional sources allowing for a balanced review of a terrible subject.

    • If you think “kitchen gadget” or “sex toy” definitively indicate gender, that says rather more about you than about the language, I think.

      • @Angus, great moderating. Please read the paragraph in question for context before you judge a comment. This article, while otherwise well written and informative, is clearly aimed at women as the victim – pronouns or otherwise. And that’s fine. Really, it is. Just don’t pretend it’s not.

        • How is this a problem when the victims of domestic abuse are overwhelmingly female? If the behaviour fits your situation, then it is valid. However, the majority of people on the receiving end of this are heterosexual women, so the piece is written for the intended audience.

          • It’s an issue because it minimises the real pain and suffering of men who are the victims of abuse from female partners by painting them as an unimportant minority to be glossed over while perpetuating a stereotype that women are victims – further devaluing the experiences of thousands of men who often suffer in silence because they are then perceived to be exaggerating. There is no need for gender specific terms in this article unless you are recounting an actual event. It is unnecessary and (as has been pointed out) if the roles were reversed I can guarantee that it would draw equal (if not greater) criticism.. and rightly so.

      • Kitchen gadget and sex toy are gender neutral, but the rest of that paragraph is definitely not. Did you read it?

        “… such as a sex toy or a kitchen gadget. According to O’Brien and Gridley, the abuser is putting the partner “on a pedestal of the ideal woman” rather than acknowledging her as an individual with views of her own.”

  • I have seen several cases of severe depression (some with suicide attempts) due to this tendency to “keep it simple” by blaming the men. This is one of few areas where I believe it is worthwhile, and maybe even necessary, to remove all gender specific pronouns.

    I usually hate the PC brigade, but here there’s a case for it. Abuse is not cool, and neither is the assumption that it is all one way, whether that is for simplicity’s sake or not.

    • A totally gender-neutral post would be very awkward to write and read, and the note at the top clearly says that it doesn’t mean women don’t abuse men and to swap the pronouns to fit your situation. The pronouns used in the article reflect the overwhelming majority of relationships in which power is being abused.

      • There are only a few changes that are needed.

        “…the abuser can’t accept the partner as an equal because they see equality as indicating their own inferiority.”

        “…counter your repeat of their statement.”

        “According to O’Brien and Gridley, they is putting you “on a pedestal of the ideal” rather than acknowledging you as an individual with views of your own.”

        “wonder if there’s something wrong with you for taking offence to their “joke”.”

        “In fact, you feel guilty because your promotion doesn’t seem to make them happy. b) You finally get around to cleaning the pantry and say to your partner “Look! This is much better, right? Now we can find what we need when we need it!” They get angry and accuse you of thinking you do all the work around the house. You try to explain that’s not what you meant, but they don’t seem to understand that you just wanted to contribute.”

        “The abuser won’t delight in your achievements because of their competitive approach to the relationship.”
        “the abuser who trivialises their partner’s wins often brags about them to their friends the same way they would brag about a new i-device or followers on [social network].”

        (Apple and social networks are gender neutral in the way that cars just aren’t.)

        “the abuser is meticulous about covering their tracks and ensuring there are no other witnesses, and shame prevents the victim from speaking out about the abuse. Publicly, the abuser presents themselves as a nice person, so even if the victim does speak out, friends may have a hard time believing it.”

        “that you shouldn’t have provoked them, or they must have had a good reason to yell at you, or they were stressed out about work.”

        Very easy, and I don’t think there is any loss in readability, in fact it is similar to the style taken in the rest of the piece. The only omissions are quotes which use gendered pronouns, I don’t feel quotes are as necessary to change, especially since they’re quotes from books specifically directed at women, but square brackets couldn’t hurt.

        Please don’t view this as a snarky attack. I just think the changes here were so superficial that any gendered pronoun just betrayed the authors bias and lost all credibility of this truly being gender neutral. If an author wants to write for a gender, that’s fine with me, but don’t say it’s neutral when it’s not, and so easily could be.

      • Just because the statistics create a minority group, does not mean it’s okay to alienate them.
        Your suggestion to swap pronouns is weak and irresponsible.

        If the topic is too hard for you to write to, then don’t.

      • Yes, it’s a good article and I hope I didn’t offend. It’s just a sore-spot of mine I guess. Gender neutrality is often awkward, but sometimes the lack of it can be harmful, especially to those who are already insecure by being abused, and feeling like society doesn’t care or acknowledge their problem because the gender roles are not what is expected.

      • I think potentially the issue people are having here is that whilst it is all well and good to say that you have left the pronouns as is for the sake of readability you are also repeatedly stating that most abuse takes place by men and the readers here don’t like that.

        Whilst I think it’s fair to say that men are more likely to abuse physically I would suggest that emotional abuse is not so clear cut or at the very least the readership here does not seem to like the implication that it is.

        basically it seems like you are stereotyping men as abusers and that ain’t cool

      • How about “the abuser” and “the victim”? Which is exactly how this is usually written in gender neutral texts, and even in some of the sentences above within your article which don’t seem awkward.

  • So much of it comes down to a lack of respect.
    Having never been in the situation I find it hard to understand how you could keep dating somebody who doesn’t respect you, let alone move in or marry them. I suppose in some cases it would only become clear afterwards, but what sort of effort would the abuser need to put into being fake in order to have that happen.
    Just boggles the mind

    • Women in particular have issues with abandonment, and in a lot of situations they have absolutely no other choice, other than poverty and starting from scratch with nothing..!

      • See I can kinda understand why somebody might stay in a situation where there is an abusive partner. Certainly more so once kids are involved.
        The bit I struggle to understand is how they got in that situation to begin with. I guess dknigs is probably right on that and they are thinking they are lucky to have them. They are so handsome/beautiful it means so much that they could ever be interested in somebody like me

        • Yeah, I think it goes a bit deeper than looks though… Try to put yourself in the situation, where you have no control over the finances, no control over what you are allowed to do, and no control over your future..? You would start to feel trapped and hopeless after awhile, and the only choice is, put up with it, or abject poverty, relying on the goodness of strangers..! This is an extreme example, Not all situations are the same obviously..!

        • Also think about any relationship you’ve had and the honeymoon period. Everything is great for that first bit isn’t it? Some people settle out to be more boring, some people settle out to just be incompatible, some people settle out and show their true colours as an abuser.

  • OK article, but justifying the angle by providing just one link to a single, Gold Coast based anti-DV advocacy group that doesn’t actually provide any statistics to back that decision? Your call, I guess, but it took me a couple of minutes to find this ABS data set 4102.0 on Emotional abuse:[email protected]/Lookup/4102.0main+features602014

    Also, it’d be great if there were some links to community groups and resources, like:

  • People! People! Let’s focus on the issue at hand, which is victims of abuse and identifying them. I understand gender is an important issue but let’s not turn this into a sexism debate, less everyone adopts a siege mentality and nothing is learnt.

    A quick edit by the author of the article with a statement that says abuse victims of both gendered are been considered. Or the article does not imply a bias for males or females should suffice.

  • Thank you Elly for having the courage to post this article. Any article that contributes to changing current attitudes towards interpartner violence is most welcome.

    I agree with another commenter’s suggestion that it is worth adding an amendment with links to resources where people can find further information and support.

    Victorian links:

  • As per usual, people (geeky guys with nothing else to do) jump on the fine details of fucking pronouns and what not. GIVE ME A BREAK….I read it a was able to easily flip the roles and apply the information to a situation involving either gender. Quit fucking distracting everyone off topic to address your annoying little grievances with grammar. Losers. Nice piece. I wish Life Hacker would do more stuff like this.

  • Further more they would have posted a neutral article and then you geeky retards would be bitching about that somehow.

    Flubbly makes a fair point about providing those links though. A good suggestion.

  • Thanks for the article. It helps me understand. Emotional abuse is subtle and starts small. Like a spiders web, strand by strand you become entangled and dont even know you are caught. Then one day, you read an article…..
    There are very few articles about emotional abuse. There are fewe articles about women abusing men. Look at teenagers, look at facebook – women seem to be so much better equipped to carry on emotional warfare. Men are unsubtle – physical.

  • Just appreciate the information. Abuse is not OK for anyone. Where are all the feminists? All I see are a bunch of men complaining about gender roles?

  • I have experienced mean jokes in many occasions, however, unfortunately writing to the police of Malta has not resulted in any meaningful action unfortunately. Lawyers and trade union officials I have talked to were not very receptive of such problems either, and, I ended up having a very confused sort of sense of not knowing where to ask for help, because even the state bodies meant to acknowledge complaints were and still are reneging responsibility for investigating them.

  • whew… this article was helpful for me. I am currently examining and aware that I have been in an abusive relationship. I am educated about DV and yet my situation was so subtle that I found myself confused and depressed for years instead of recognizing the abuse and patterns. I tried everything I could to make my marriage work and try and have a healthy relationship.
    reading this article has helped me to sort what I know logically but am still sorting out emotionally. I took on all responsibility for the most part in any problems in our relationship. while he did not. in my case there was no physical abuse. However, there were years of “jokes” at my expense. Laughter and jokes were a common theme and used frequently.Even when i tried to explain how hurtful… it was always my problem and nothing changed. My ideas were never implemented and considered. No communication at all about finances and no working towards common goals for our future or our daughters future. He controlled the finances. I became isolated form friends and family. We had no friends that we did things with. He was not interested in my experiences. He never asked me questions about what I thought or felt. I was so lonely and became depressed. From the outside people thought we were a great couple. He can be charming when he wants too. Every single point on here 1-5 fits what I experienced. It beats you down…. I am divorcing finally after 18 years. I want to say thank you for this article. I am learning to sort it out and call it by name. I am NOT interested in staying in the pain of the past. rather I am interested in understanding that we both came from shitty role models and that I can MOVE FORWARD AND INTO MY OWN SELF EMPOWERMENT.

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