Expert Advice on Signs of Abuse

November 29, 2021

CEO Amber Lee featured in Shape Magazine

Subtle Signs That a Partner Could Become Physically Abusive, According to Experts

While no one, single thing could predict someone’s chances of becoming physically abusive, sometimes it’s the subtlest of red flags that are most telling — and often overlooked.

No one ever thinks they could find themselves in an abusive relationship. For anyone lucky enough not to get involved in these dangerous situations, it can seem inconceivable that someone, anyone, could find themselves in such a position. Yet, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced physical abuse from a romantic partner.

Of those who have experienced partner violence, 1 in 7 women and 1 in 25 men have been injured during physical altercations. In other words, physical abuse in relationships is far from uncommon.

When it comes to physical abuse, it’s important to realize that sometimes there are no warning signs. Whether you’re in a relationship or an outsider looking in on (maybe even judging) one, not every partner who might become physically abusive has the exact same behavior patterns or modus operandi. But one thing is for sure when it comes to physical abuse: It’s about the abuser having power and control over their partner, eventually driving them into submission — they just have to reel their partner in first.

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“Abusive relationships often start off feeling like a love you’ve never experienced before, so when the switch gets flipped it leaves the victim feeling confused,” says Amber Lee, a relationship and dating expert. “Most abusers start off by love bombing. They tell you things like, ‘I’ve never felt this way about anyone before’ and ‘The moment I saw you I knew I wanted to marry you.’

The whole relationship moves quickly. They shower you with gifts and compliments. They may even propose or ask to move in together in the first few months. You’re left feeling like you have been ‘swept off your feet.'”

But, as Lee explains, once you’re won over, dynamics within the relationship and the behavior of the partner “in control” starts to shift. Granted, this isn’t to say that all people who “love bomb” and sweep people off their feet are headed in the direction of becoming abusers, but it is still worth noting. (See also: How to Know If You Might Be In a Narcissistic Relationship)

CEO Amber Lee

Here, other red flags to keep in mind that could hint that a partner has the potential to become physically abusive — plus, what to do if any ring a bell.

Signs to look for that someone could become physically abusive
Matchmaking expert advice

Potential Warning Signs That a Partner Could Become Physically Abusive

They often use guilt to exert control.

When it comes to having control over a situation or a person, making them feel guilty can be a tactic that’s used — especially amongst those who might become physically abusive. No one wants to be the reason behind someone’s sadness or bad day, so holding guilt over someone’s head can have quite the persuasive effect.

Whether that guilt is accusing their partner of cheating or saying they must not love them enough if they want to spend time with their friends, an abuser knows exactly what buttons to push so the victim is forced to feel bad — even when there’s no reason to.

“Abusers will often try to make their partner feel responsible for their emotions,” says Leah Aguirre, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist and counselor. “This could be blaming them for the abuser’s foul mood, making them feel bad for spending time with other people or having relationships outside of their [romantic] relationship.”

As Aguirre explains, when the victim is made to feel like everything is their fault, they tend to become apologetic, thereby allowing the abuser to gain control over the situation. The guilt that comes with thinking you’ve played a hand in upsetting your partner can weigh heavily on your mind and can cause a sort of mental cowering that the abuser can use to their advantage. (Related: Why You Might Feel ‘Stuck’ In a Relationship — and How to Know When to End It)

They isolate their partner.

As a means to limit the amount of time their partner can interact with other people, an abuser will often turn to isolation. There are two common ways an abuser will try to isolate their partner, according to Aguirre: by not allowing their partner to do anything without them or by causing trouble between their partner and the other people in their life.

Abusers see everyone outside the relationship as a threat to the control they have over their partner, explains Aguirre. Which, when you think about it, makes sense from the perspective of the abuser, as friends and family are more likely to spot red flags and speak up because they’re not blinded by emotion. This, of course, can threaten the abuser’s hold on the relationship. (Related: The Potential Red Flags In a Relationship You Need to Know About)

“[Someone who could become abusive] will tell you why they hate your friends and why you shouldn’t hang out with them,” says Lee. “They will demand to know where you are at all times and they may even call you [multiple] times when you’re out running errands. In the beginning, [it will look] like the abuser’s behavior is a sign of love or protection.” However, it’s anything but that. Rather, it’s a charm that’s devolved into power, because stripping the victim of their social and family network makes them easier to control. When they’re alone, they become completely dependent on their abuser, explains Aguirre.

They insult their partner.

Physical abuse and emotional abuse can’t stand separate from each other. The abuser needs to prey on their partner’s insecurities to keep them in place. But someone who could possibly become abusive does so with finesse, so their partner doesn’t always realize that they’re actually being manipulated with these negative comments.

“[Abusers] use put-downs, but often make it seem like it’s constructive feedback versus an insult,” says Aguirre. “They might criticize their partner for doing something the ‘wrong way’ or justify the put-down by saying that they care about their partner and just want to make them a better person.” (Related: 6 Tips for Healthier (and Less Hurtful) Relationship Arguments)

They’ll do this by choosing their words wisely, especially early on in the relationship. “They will use language that isn’t too obscene or offensive at first,” says Aguirre. “Such as ‘lazy’ or ‘selfish’.” In time, however, the language will escalate into verbal beatings that can sometimes turn physical. As Aguirre explains, it’s the escalation from what was once subtle to more extreme methods of control as the abuser needs to increasingly assert their psychological and physical power.

While relationships should include some constructive criticism as part of a healthy dialogue, an abuser’s take on what they’d call constructive criticism is full of damaging, albeit sometimes petty, insults. A supportive partner wouldn’t use such degrading commentary and deem it productive; they’d choose words that aren’t meant to hurt you, but legitimately help you.

They exhibit Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome.

Just as the once sweet, caring partner has morphed into a manipulative gaslighter, the existence of these two personalities can be on display back-to-back. Those with the potential to become physically abusive can oftentimes change on a dime. Sometimes it’s because they’ve been triggered by, say, having a bad day or by something innocent the victim says, while other times it can come out of nowhere, or more accurately, from the subconscious part of them that needs to have control and the upper hand. (Related: ‘The Bachelorette’ Is Schooling the Masses In Gaslighting 101)

“I have also seen the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome where there are such sudden mood changes it feels as if they have two different personalities,” says Holly Schiff, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at Jewish Family Services of Greenwich. “This can go from being nice to exploding in a minute or being happy and then sad a minute later.”

Sure, many people can be prone to mood swings, especially if they’re stressed out or dealing with tough emotional or mental situations. But if these shifts come from a place of hate and are followed by vitriol, that’s likely a sign that there’s something darker there. “Abusers are typically hypersensitive as well, as they are easily insulted,” says Schiff.

“[They] see everything as a personal attack, tend to blow things out of proportion, and are usually looking for a fight.” It’s that need to fight that can cause a heated argument over something trivial to a physical altercation. Hypersensitive people tend to struggle with keeping their emotions in check, so lashing out either verbally and/or physically is one way in which they deal with situations where they see themselves as the victim, explains Schiff.

They insist on monitoring their partner’s technology.

At its core, abuse is about control. So, in a world where everyone has a phone and most people are on some form of social media, this need for control can lead the potentially abusive partner to insist on keeping tabs on your online interactions and your technological devices.

“What is most common these days that I have seen with my clients that are in abusive relationships is the use of technology as a means of control,” says Aguirre. “Abusers will often try to restrict their partner’s use of social media, guilt them for being friends with certain people [online] or for the content of their posts. They will ask to check their partner’s phone, read their texts, and check their call logs.

What’s most difficult about this type of abuse is that the abuser will typically justify this type of control by saying it’s part of building trust and being honest with one another.” It doesn’t matter how open and honest a relationship, partners are entitled to something that is all their own — and their phone is just one example of that. (Related: 7 Signs That You Might Be In a Toxic Relationship)

What should you do if notice these or other red flags in your partner?

What’s extremely important to realize is that anyone can end up falling for the wrong person and find themselves in a relationship that becomes physically abusive — and there’s no shame in that. No one ever really knows someone until they’re deep in a relationship with them, so it’s impossible to predict, especially in the beginning, where the partnership will go. That said, it’s essential to remember that there’s always a way out of an abusive relationship.

When you notice that “fear overwhelms thoughts, feelings, actions, and behavior is informed by another person and not yourself, then it is time to run — and not walk — to get help to escape the abusive relationship,” says Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., a licensed psychotherapist. “When feeling threatened and worrying about physical safety and wellbeing come into question, [this] is also an undeniable sign that it is time to get out and seek help.

Feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, and sense of imprisonment overwhelm; listen to your instincts and leave.” A good place to begin the process of leaving the abusive partner is by contacting The National Coalition Against Domestic ViolenceSafe HorizonThe National Domestic Violence Hotline, or other resources that specialize in abuse-specific mental services.

Notice these signs in another person’s relationship? “It can be a tricky situation to help someone who you might believe is a victim of domestic violence,” says Emily Mendez, M.S., Ed.S. “The partner may be dangerous and it may be quite dangerous for the victim to leave without the support of a domestic violence professional.” It’s also essential to keep in mind that “the partner may try to further isolate the person if they feel that a friend or family member is trying to help,” adds Mendez. “It’s important not to judge or criticize the victim. This can just further isolate them.”

Instead, try to talk to your friend privately and express your concern. And if you’re the one in the relationship that looks like it’s headed toward becoming abusive or already is then, as much as it might feel daunting to do so, confide in someone you can trust or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. There are plenty of programs and people out there to help.