The signs of an abusive relationship are easy to spot when you know what to look for.
But they’re not always obvious when you are in a relationship.
So this guide is here to help you troubleshoot your relationship. Keep this in mind: you don’t need all the signs.
One single sign might be enough to tell you all you need to know about your partner.
Note: I will use the pronoun “he” because most abusers are men.
- 1. Controlling Behavior
- 2. Possessiveness
- 3. Entitlement Mentality
- 4. You Cannot Criticize Him
- 5. He Does Not Accept Your Boundaries
- 6. Manipulations
- 7. He Disrespects You
- 8. He Feels Superior to You
- 9. He Strives for Good Public Image
- 10. Justifies Abuse With Your Allegedly Poor Behavior
- 11. Demands Public Perfection
- 12. Denies and Minimizes Abuse
- 13. Sees Everything As Personal Affronts
- 14. Escalating Intensity
- 15. Mutual Escalations
- Signs You’re In Danger
- Why Do Women Stay in Abusive Relationships?
1. Controlling Behavior
Abusive men believe it’s their right to control their partner. What they think, what they say, and how they act.
If they are having an argument, he expects his word to be the last word, and he gets particularly angry in the face of defiance.
Here are typical attitudes of a controlling, abusive man:
- If I insist on something and you disagree, you are wronging me
- I know what’s best for you and the relationship
- If you disobey my authority I have the right to take all the steps to re-establish it
Some abusive men can talk about “allowing” their partner this or that freedom. And they feel entitled to eventually remove the freedoms that they grant.
Example of Controlling Behavior
The most conservative and abusive men want to control when their partners are allowed to speak.
Example from Raging Bull:
Note: abusiveness is always this obvious of course. Sometimes it’s much more subtle. It might be a doctor asking you “where did you get that from” to make you feel you’re not qualified to answer. Or a professor saying that your statement is “unfounded”.
Fiefdoms of Control
Not all abusive men are controlling about the same things, and most pick a few fiefs to establish their control.
- Decision-making: they control all major decision-making in the family
- Personal freedom: what you wear, where you can go, and at what time you’re back
How Control is Exercised
Most imagine a controlling man as yelling and expecting deferential execution of their wishes.
Or maybe physically assaulting.
And that might indeed be the case.
But they can also use:
- Criticism: constantly criticizing and ridiculing your friends
- Incessant complaints
- Claiming it’s in your best interest
- Pretending your behavior is hurting them
Seeking Power & Defending Ego
Research on domestic violence often reaches the conclusion that husbands who batter their wives do so to establish power in the family.
Some authors say that batterers’ wives outclass their men in some sort of significant way for them, for example earning more or having a better education.
Batterers tend to seek power and believe in male superiority.
And when their ego and ideal position as “head of the family” comes under threat, they resort to violence to re-assert their position.
However, it’s wrong to think that these men are low in self-esteem. As social psychologist Baumeister explains, violence is mostly committed by egotistic men with high or relatively high self-esteem.
But while they are high in self-esteem, they also have a very fragile ego they need to defend.
Another big sign of an abusive relationship is abnormal possessiveness.
The abusive partner feels like he owns you, and that he can make decisions on your behalf.
Out of possessiveness, your partner might also try to isolate you from friends and family.
When you are isolated you are easier to control and you are more dependent on him.
Indeed, some abusive men see your friendships are a threat to them.
Breakup and Possessiveness
Possessiveness is one of the reasons why abusive men fail to see the seriousness of a breakup. Or they fail to accept it.
How can you break up with him, when he believes he owns you?
That’s the twisted mindset of an abusive man.
3. Entitlement Mentality
Entitlement is another huge sign of an abusive relationship.
Abusers don’t always and necessarily have a general entitlement mentality towards the world. But they do have one for their partners.
There are several layers to abusive entitlement:
Entitlement to Relationship
This is an early warning you must heed at all costs.
Some abusive men feel like they are entitled to have a woman. Even when she doesn’t want them.
Here is an example from the movie “Beautiful Girls”:
In a scene little after he will plow snow against her garage door to block her driveway as revenge for saying no. Another example of abusive behavior. And the movie even portrays them as somewhat likable characters.
This is mostly valid for the most traditional abusers.
They see you as an unpaid maid.
You might be supposed to clean the kitchen, do the laundry and take care of the kids.
But of course, the most important is that you take care of him.
Some abusers want you to pay attention and listen to them.
If he accomplished something great at work, you should be happy for him. Even if you have all the reasons in the world to be sad at that precise moment, it doesn’t matter: the world revolves around him.
If he wants emotional closeness, you should drop everything you’re doing to soothe him when he’s down. And he can get aggressive if you failed to understand needs that he hasn’t even expressed.
But no matter how much you give him, it will never make him better.
And it will never be enough for him.
Whenever he feels like it, you should be ready to go. If he does not feel like it, he won’t move a finger (figuratively as well as physically).
The craziest thing?
Some abusive men might resent it if you don’t reach an orgasm. Not that they care that much about you, often, but they might care about seeing themselves as great lovers.
Example of Entitlement
In this scene, Carlo feels entitled to ask Connie to make dinner and to leave when the dinner is ready without having to explain anything.
Expecting his wife to simply accept his behavior is an example of a huge, entrenched form of entitlement.
You know what will happen afterward, both in the movie and in many -albeit not all- abusive relationships?
Connie will interpret her own crazy behavior as an overreaction and will make excuses for Carlo. She will actually protect and defend him, saying it was her fault.
Connie might have overreacted indeed, but that does not make Carlo any less abusive.
4. You Cannot Criticize Him
Abusive men are above reproach.
Or at least, they don’t want to hear any.
If you complain about something, however valid, he usually sees it as nagging or provoking.
I don’t want this scene on my website, but you can click here for an example.
Again, most abusive relationships will reach that level and might not get violent at all. But the threat of violence or the fear of violence is often present.
Or verbal and emotional abuse can follow when you criticize him.
5. He Does Not Accept Your Boundaries
Many abusive men want total control.
And they feel they have a monopoly on anger.
When you do get angry, he will try to squash you as soon as he can. And he might use your anger to put you down as overly emotional, irrational, or “full of spite”.
Holding up on anger is unhealthy of course, which might lead you to develop different symptoms, such as:
- emotional numbing
- eating and sleeping problems
- passive aggression
The icing on the cake? Your abusive partner might use any of the above to belittle you further or make you feel crazy.
Anger Does Not Cause Abuse
By the way, anger doesn’t cause abuse. And he isn’t abusive because he is angry.
It’s the other way around: it’s his entitlement and unrealistic expectations that cause him to be angry.
Anger Explosions as Control Tool
Adelyn Birch is a woman who dedicated her life to teaching others about the dangers of a relationship with a psychopath.
And she says that abusive men will use explosive anger to control their partners through fear.
Very few men exclusively rely on verbal abuse, battering, and intimidation to control their partners.
After all, the abuser does need some good times to make you stick with him.
That’s why most abusers are well-schooled in the art of power moves and mental games.
And the more intelligent and well-learned he is, the more refined his manipulations.
Here are some typical manipulations:
- Mood swings, which keep you off balance
- Denying what he has done or said, making you feel crazy
- Making you believe it’s best for you to do what he wants
- Using guilt and making you feel sorry for him
- Shifting the blame to others, including you
- Turning you against your friends or family (divide and conquer)
- Spreading rumors about you among friends and neighbors
- Accusing you of his own sins
7. He Disrespects You
Disrespect is a major sign of abusive relationships. As a matter of fact, disrespect is at the core of an abusive relationship.
Disrespect takes many forms and any kind of abuse is a form of disrespect. You never abuse someone you respect and you don’t respect someone whom you abuse.
De-Humanization to Keep Abusing
Many abusers go on with their abuse and disrespect guilt-free because they dehumanize you and objectify you.
Dehumanization and depersonalization allow them to sleep well and lead guilt-free lives while they keep abusing you.
This is the process by which otherwise normal people can act evil (Zimbardo, 2007). And it’s one of the reasons why abusiveness doesn’t improve by itself.
I have noticed that online communities such as The Red Pill, theoretically there to help improve men, are actually incubators of misogyny and female dehumanization.
As we will see later abusive men often care a lot about keeping a spotless public appearance.
But some abusers are more careless and won’t refrain from public abuse either.
8. He Feels Superior to You
A sense of superiority is not a prerogative of abusers: many men see themselves as “above” their partners.
Yet, when it’s a sense of superiority in many different aspects of life, it’s another indicator of an abusive relationship.
The abusive man indeed often sees you as beneath him in intelligence, competence, and sometimes even sensitivity.
Sense of superiority often mixes with disrespect and takes the form of comparisons between what he does -valuable and hard- and what you do -nothing and easy-.
If he works and you stay at home, you chill all day thanks to his hard work. If you both work, his job is more demanding and yours is easy.
Note: the character in the movie is not abusive overall, and indeed she’s not afraid in the slightest. But this scene is abusive.
She starts the argument with the wrong approach too by assuming guilt. She is a bit contemptuous of him -which of course doesn’t justify abuse-,
9. He Strives for Good Public Image
Not all abusive men do this, but many seek a public affable image and want others to believe they are good and respectable men.
You Have Nobody to Turn To
Since people around think that your boyfriend is a good person, that makes it hard for you to even get support.
Who are you going to talk to?
Some might even think you’re a lucky woman.
The good public image becomes another tool that he uses to keep you locked in an abusive relationship.
What’s Wrong With Me?
The contrast between a nice public image and behavior and the treatment he reserves for you can be highly damaging for some women.
They wonder if they are at fault for triggering his buttons.
That further lowers their self-esteem, which in turn keeps them tied to the abusive relationship (read here the link between low self-esteem and abusive relationships).
10. Justifies Abuse With Your Allegedly Poor Behavior
The abusive man has always some good justification for his abusive behavior.
And they often include your (made-up) shortcoming and/or your machinations:
- She knows how to get under my skin
- She pushed me too far
- There’s only so much I can take
- She’s just terrible
Are Abusers Psychopaths?
Well, some of them can be, but the two pathologies are completely different and only seldom overlap (only around 5% of the time, says abuse researcher Lundy Bancroft).
Most abusers indeed do have a conscience, but use entitlement, dehumanization, or made-up excuses to work around it.
Indeed abusers do answer for their actions outside of the relationship. It’s just with their partners that they make an exception.
11. Demands Public Perfection
Some men want to parade their women to make them look good.
These men will demand you look great, dress perfectly, and behave impeccably.
Even if you manage to behave at their high level of expectations, they are not really in love with you but with the image you provide them.
And they will viciously attack you afterward if you’ve had any minor slip-up that “made them look bad”.
They might refer to you as “embarrassing them” even though you had no idea.
12. Denies and Minimizes Abuse
If after the abusive incident your partner minimizes or denies what happened, you are probably in an abusive relationship.
Only a few abusive men have a borderline personality disorder in which they insulate their consciousness (less than 10%).
Most other abusive men are consciously lying.
If the abusive partner really convinces her partner that the abuse didn’t take place, she can develop psychiatric symptoms.
Non Abusive Reaction:
There is a big difference between an abuser and a non-abuser after any incident which can resemble abuse.
A non-abusive person will feel bad about it and want to make up for it. Sometimes he can be as shocked and disturbed as you are.
With the denial and minimization of the abuser, you can instead expect that the abuse will keep going and very possibly increase.
13. Sees Everything As Personal Affronts
Abusers see abuse from their spouse where the was no abuse.
Imagine for example you are having dinner with a couple of friends of yours and they talk about a delicious restaurant they have been to but how incredibly expensive it was.
Your partner turns to you and says you should try. You reply something like “I don’t know dear, it sounds awfully expensive”.
For a normal man, there is nothing wrong there.
But an abuser might take it as an embarrassing, public assault on his manhood for “not being able to afford the place”.
Writes Baumeister in seminal work “Evil“:
The driving force was his own pride, his high self-esteem, his male ego.
He was so intent on being superior to her that he watched for any little episode or remark that could possibly be interpreted as reflecting badly on him, and whenever he found one he turned violent against her in response.
14. Escalating Intensity
Research shows that domestic violence usually increases over time.
Then finally they start hitting each other.
If you start seeing an escalation of aggression, don’t hope it will get better: actively work on it (or end the relationship).
15. Mutual Escalations
Finally, it would be a huge, albeit common mistake, to consider abuse as a male-only problem.
Research by Murray Straus shows that mutual aggression is the norm.
And when only one spouse was abusive, he/she most often reported to be reacting out of injustice from the other.
Most people want to see violence in morally black-and-white terms with innocent, victims and evil abusers.
But most abusers only become violent when they think they have been attacked.
Sure, in many cases as we have seen that is wholly in their mind.
But in many other cases, both partners contribute to mutual hurt, violence, and aggression.
Signs You’re In Danger
Safety expert Gavin de Becker lists the following signs as red flags of future violence or even potential murder:
- Intuitive feeling you’re at risk
- He accelerated the pace, prematurely placing on the agenda such things as commitment, living together, and marriage.
- He resolves conflicts with intimidation, bullying, and violence
- He is verbally abusive.
- He uses threats and intimidation as instruments of control or abuse. Including threats to harm physically, defame, embarrass, restrict freedom, disclose secrets, cut off support, abandon, and commit suicide
- He breaks or strikes things in anger. He uses symbolic violence (tearing a wedding photo, marring a face in a photo, etc.).
- He has been battered in prior relationships
- He uses alcohol or drugs with adverse effects (memory loss, hostility, cruelty)
- He cites alcohol or drugs as an excuse or explanation for hostile or violent conduct (“That was the booze talking, not me; I got so drunk I was crazy”)
- He has a history of police encounters for behavioral offenses (threats, stalking, assault, battery)
- There has been more than one incident of violent behavior (including vandalism, breaking things, throwing things)
- He uses the money to control your activities, purchases, and behavior
- He becomes jealous of anyone or anything that takes your time away from the relationship; he keeps you on a “tight leash,” requires her to account for her time
- He refuses to accept the rejection
- He expects the relationship to go on forever, perhaps using phrases like “together for life;” “always;” and “no matter what.”
- He projects extreme emotions onto others (hate, love, jealousy, commitment) even when there is no evidence that would lead a reasonable person to perceive them
- He minimizes incidents of abuse
- He spends a disproportionate amount of time talking about you and derives much of his identity from being your husband, lover, etc.
- He tries to enlist your friends or relatives in a campaign to keep or recover the relationship
- He has inappropriately surveilled or followed you
- He believes others are out to get him. He believes that those around you dislike him and encourages you to leave him
- He resists change and is described as inflexible, unwilling to compromise
- He identifies with or compares himself to violent people in films, news stories, fiction, or history. He characterizes the violence of others as justified
- He suffers mood swings or is sullen, angry, or depressed
- He consistently blames others for problems of his own making; he refuses to take responsibility for the results of his actions
- He refers to weapons as instruments of power, control, or revenge
- Weapons are a substantial part of his persona; he has a gun or he talks about, jokes about reads about, or collects weapons
- He uses “male privilege” as a justification for his conduct (treats her like a servant, makes all the big decisions, and acts like the “master of the house”)
- He experienced or witnessed violence as a child
- You fear he will injure or kill you. You discussed this with others, you made plans to be carried out in the event of your death, or you planning to or thinking about doing so
If you have several of these red flags, there is reason for concern.
Why Do Women Stay in Abusive Relationships?
This is a very deep question and would require its own in-depth article.
There is no one answer fits all, but :
1. Low Self Esteem
For women with low self-esteem abusive relationships become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They don’t believe they deserve a good man, and will unconsciously rule out better men and/or sabotage relationships with better men.
A man who mistreats them instead fulfills their own self-narrative of being unworthy.
Low self-esteem can sometimes be the consequence of parents who haven’t given enough love or only gave conditional love (read Will I Ever Be Good Enough?).
Read more here:
This is something that few have the courage to admit. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
Relationship Researcher John Gottman admits in The Relationship Cure that he was shocked to hear women tell him that the best sex they had ever had was right after a beating -albeit that might not actually be full masochism, read below-.
3. Perverse Attraction
Robin Baker, the author of Sperm Wars, says that women stay with men who successfully raped them because those men show strength and power over them.
Since rape can, sadly, be a valid strategy for procreation in specific and limited conditions, a man who is effective at raping can provide her with potentially good genes.
Indeed it seems like the incidence of pregnancies from rape is higher than from routine sex with a partner.
It’s f*cked up, I know, but don’t shoot the messenger.
And now that you know, this information can actually help you get over an abusive relationship.
4. Fear / Sunk Costs / Change Resistance
There is always some fear connected to change.
There are sunk costs, like the time you’ve spent together, and the things you have in common. Maybe children or marriage to void.
And the all too human tendency to stick with the devil we know.
The wonderful song Better Man is about an abusive relationship.
But there is otherwise nothing poetic about abusive relationships.
All I want to add here is that you can overcome and move on to a better life.
The signs of an abusive relationship are obvious to any external observer who knows what to look for.
But not everybody knows what to look for.
This article gives you some better tools to troubleshoot your relationship.
If you found out you’re in an abusive relationship, you should know that things rarely change. And you might better off ending the relationship.
If you don’t think you’re in an abusive relationship but are still unsure, check this article on overcoming relationship ambivalence.