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.”

[referenced url=”” thumb=”×231.jpg” title=”Why I Stayed In An Abusive Relationship” excerpt=””You’re a bitch! Why do you make me do this?! This is all your fault.”

He pinned me to the bed as he screamed in my face. My boyfriend of nearly three years was drunk again. That was what started his rampage in the first place; that I dared to be upset by his alcoholism. He let go of me and ordered me to stay in the bedroom while he cleaned up the trail of destruction in the kitchen; broken glasses and the oven door that he had torn off in his rage. I still loved him, but I feared for my life.”]

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.

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