10 Warning Signs of Abusive Relationships


…and what to say or do in response.

Friends and family members are often among the first to notice the warning signs of abusive relationships. Because the signs of abuse aren’t always obvious right away, learning what to look for can help you start a conversation with a loved one and be an advocate for healthy relationships – long before an agency like REACH or law enforcement can intervene.

It’s important to remember that all couples face difficulty and argue at times (especially in stressful times!) so an argument does not necessarily equal a cause for concern. The definition of abuse that REACH uses is when one person uses a pattern of behaviors to gain and maintain power and control over the other. So we look for that pattern of behavior, and one person consistently being in control. Here are some specific things to watch for.

  1. Verbal Abuse: Is one partner consistently putting the other down? Calling them names? Demeaning them? Even if it seems like they are joking, pay attention to how it may make the other person feel.
  2. Control: Is one person consistently in control of the other’s whereabouts, finances, and decision-making? Does your loved one often ask for permission from their partner before making decisions/plans?
  3. Isolation: Does your loved one seem withdrawn? Have they been giving up activities that they used to enjoy? Have they been spending less time with friends and family?
  4. Unexplained changes: Has their appearance or weight changed drastically? Is there a marked difference in their personality?
  5. Forced or coerced sex: Do they tell you directly or indirectly about having been forced or pressured into having sex when they didn’t want to? Do they seem uncomfortable with the amount of physical attention being displayed?
  6. Stalking: Does one partner need to know where the other one is? Do they seem to be monitoring the other’s use of technology? Do you notice your loved one constantly checking their phone? Do they seem stressed if they can’t respond to their partner right away or if the partner doesn’t respond to them?
  7. Intimidation and threats: Does one partner threaten violence, homicide, or suicide as a way to get the other person to do what they want?
  8. Fear: Does your loved one seem to constantly worry about making their partner angry?
  9. Jealousy and possessiveness: Is one partner constantly jealous and possessive of the other?
  10. Physical violence: Witnessing or hearing about an incident of physical violence is one of the biggest red flags and can seem scary and overwhelmng. Where there’s one, there’s probably more.

So what can you do if you see one or more of these warning signs? To support someone experiencing abuse, you can gently point out some of the specific things you’ve seen and explain why you are worried. They may deny it or minimize, and it’s important not to make them feel pressured or judged. Just let them know that you are there for them (even if they seem to be withdrawing from you), that you care about them, and you’re willing to listen and believe them. Validate what they are feeling. Let them know there are ways to stay safe, even within the context of a relationship, that you’re not expecting them to abruptly end things. Try to avoid personal attacks on their partner, since that may make them feel compelled to defend them. If they are open to hearing about resources, you can share REACH’s hotline number (1-800-899-4000) with them and tell them they can call whenever they’re ready.

If you want to address the person who is displaying abusive tendencies, that can be tricky. If you’re worried about violent behavior, make sure you are physically safe, maybe some place public. Be specific about your concerns. Hold the personal accountable for the words as well as actions.  Domestic violence thrives in silence, and when we do not name the abusive behaviors as unacceptable or inappropriate, we run the risk of offering implicit support for the abuse.  When thinking about how to have the conversation, think about your relationship to the person whose behavior you are concerned about.  If you’re acquaintances, the conversation will likely look different than if you it is a close friend or family member.  Our hotline is always available to provide support if you’re concerned about how to have the conversation safely.