Understanding Domestic Violence: Six Warning Signs Of An Abusive Relationship

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated September 29, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

While domestic violence (DV) is widespread and potentially life-threatening, it can be challenging to understand. Those in a relationship with domestic violence may experience gaslighting that reduces their ability to understand what they're going through. For those outside of the relationship, it can seem that the relationship is healthy on the surface. As domestic violence often occurs at home, understanding warning signs can help those in a relationship and those who love them understand the risks. 

In DV, an abusive partner engages in a pattern of behaviors that give them control or power over the other partner. These behaviors can include physical and sexual assault, control over finances, verbal threats, coercion, manipulation of children or custody, and emotional abuse.

Abuse can happen to anyone. People of any race, age, gender, sexuality, education level, or economic status can experience and perpetrate patterns of abuse.  According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, in the US, an average of 24 people per minute experience some form of abuse, including rape, physical assault, or stalking by an intimate partner.  

Recognizing abuse is one of the first steps to receiving help. With recognition often comes prevention. Anyone may benefit from understanding these risks, as everyone is susceptible to knowing someone who has experienced abuse or experiencing it themselves. 

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Why Do People Abuse Others? 

Note: While DV is often used interchangeably with intimate partner violence (IPV), the latter refers to violence or abuse between two people in an intimate relationship. The article primarily uses DV to describe violence between any two individuals, but you can use either term depending on the dynamic in your life. 

People who act abusively may have come from families or living situations that involve abuse and violence. Because abuse is a learned behavior, a child who regularly witnesses other people harming their partners and loved ones is likelier to model these behaviors as adults.

While people cannot change the home or family they're born into, they can choose to break the cycle. When someone abuses their partner, they may attempt to wield power or control. The abusive partner may feel that their feelings and needs take top priority in the relationship or enjoy the power of harming someone they love in the moment. Regardless of the motivation, abuse is not okay. All people deserve a healthy, respectful, and loving relationship wherein all partners have control and autonomy over their lives. 

Why Do People Stay In Abusive Relationships?

When someone observes an unhealthy relationship as an outsider, they may wonder why the survivor doesn't leave their abuser. However, the dynamics of an abusive relationship are often complex and dangerous, and an outsider might not see the manipulation, harm, or gaslighting the survivor receives. 

Because abusive partners are focused on maintaining power and control over the other partner, leaving the relationship can be challenging and sometimes dangerous. 

Some common reasons that prevent people from leaving an abusive relationship or another form of DV include: 

  • Lack of resources: The survivor may depend on the abusive partner for housing, money, food, or other basic needs.
  • Fear: A person may fear the potential dangers of leaving the relationship, including stalking, workplace harassment, and physical violence.
  • Shame:  DV occurs behind closed doors in many cases. Outsiders may not know about the abuse until a survivor leaves the relationship, and this may bring up feelings of shame and self-blame for the survivor.
  • Children: In some cases, people have children with an abusive partner and do not want to disrupt their family or break their children's attachment to the abusive parent.
  • Disability: In some abusive relationships, one partner may live with a disability and depend on the other person for support.

People may also be balancing concerns about immigration status, mental health conditions, and other challenges that complicate their experience of DV. Without outside support and a clear safety plan, people may stay in long-term abusive relationships. 

Recognizing domestic violence is imperative. By spotting several warning signs, it may be possible to end the cycle of DV and sustain healthy, mutually rewarding relationships. 


Warning Signs Of Abuse

Below are some of the most common warning signs you or someone you love might be experiencing abuse. 

Extreme Jealousy

In a healthy relationship, occasional jealousy or passing jokes about jealousy may occur. However, if someone constantly calls, texts, or visits another person unexpectedly, it could cause concern. Other signs of jealousy include:

  • Demanding to know the other partner's location
  • Excessive phone calls or text messages
  • Insisting that the other partner "checks in" at a particular frequency
  • Preventing another from going to work, meet-up events, parties, or time with friends out of fear of cheating 

Jealousy can take many forms. People who act abusively can showcase possessive behavior and check in frequently with their partners when physically apart. They may also communicate jealousy about their partner's family, friends, and pets. 

Isolation From Loved Ones 

An abusive partner may prevent the other partner from spending time with friends, family, coworkers, or other peers. Over time, this behavior can result in isolation, which increases the abusive partner's control and power over their partner.

In a digital era, these individuals may further attempt to isolate their partner through social media. They may monitor or limit their partner's use of social media and email and even use GPS locators or spyware to track the partner's whereabouts and limit their interaction with other people.

Controlling Finances

By managing all finances without discussion, an abusive partner can increase their partner's dependence and discourage them from leaving the relationship. Financial abuse takes various forms. For example, the individual might prevent their partner from working, threaten to destroy valuable property or assets, take money from them, or refuse to provide money for necessary expenses. 

Threats Of Violence And Intimidation

DV is characterized by threats, actual acts of violence, and intimidation tactics. An abuser may use threatening looks or actions, such as holding a gun, knife, bat, mace, or another weapon. These threats may be accompanied by physical and verbal abuse, such as critiques of the partner's appearance, personality, or other hurtful remarks.

Rigid Relationship Roles

An abusive person may hold antiquated beliefs about how people of specific genders are "supposed to behave" in relationships. They may expect the other partner to serve, obey them, and remain at home, hiding these tactics under the guise of "religion" or " duty. " While these beliefs are often present in heterosexual relationships, domestic violence can occur in all relationships, regardless of the partners'' gender identities or sexual orientations.

Cruelty To Animals Or Children 

Someone who abuses another individual may have a history of severely punishing, harming, or killing animals. They may also expect children to do chores and tasks that are beyond their developmental abilities, tease children, or otherwise mistreat them.

Every relationship is unique, and it may be difficult to recognize some warning signs of abuse as an outsider to a relationship. While some signs of abuse develop over time, others may be more noticeable. For instance, the individual might publicly embarrass their partner in front of other people or harass them at work.  

Ultimately, DV is a pattern of unhealthy behaviors. If you repeatedly encounter any of these signs over an extended period, consider contacting the National Domestic Hotline for further support. 

What To Do If You Suspect Domestic Violence

If you suspect that a friend, coworker, family member, or acquaintance is experiencing domestic violence, there are steps you can take to support that person safely and proactively. Note that safety is a top priority for you and this person. If you feel unsafe providing support, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for further direction.

Let Them Know You're There

Before checking in with someone, ensure it's safe for them to talk. Some abusive individuals may use digital means to monitor their partner's actions and interactions, and it may not be safe to ask if they're experiencing abuse directly. Find a safe space where the person's partner is unavailable and suggest. Be specific, clear, and careful with your language when you meet. You can say, "I'm wondering if someone might be hurting you, " and see how the conversation progresses. 

Unless the person uses the word "abuse" to describe their situation, avoid labeling their experience until you have more information about their condition, concerns, and the language they use to describe their circumstances. Note that some people may try to cover up the abuse out of fear. If they are showcasing signs of fear when talking to you, let them know you can support them in finding resources when they're ready. 

Offer Resources

You might not be a licensed professional or equipped with professional knowledge to combat DV. However, there are local and regional resources that you can suggest to someone experiencing abuse. In addition to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, look for resources at their school, workplace, city, or communal space. 

Suggest A Safety Plan

A safety plan is a set of actions that can lower a person's risk of being hurt by their partner. The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers an interactive tool for making your own plan. If you're concerned about someone, you can give them this resource and create your own "code words" or sub plans for safety. 

If the situation escalates, tell the person they can call or text you with a code word or phrase. For example, "I'm making soup for dinner" may clue you in without notifying the abusive partner. You can create a code word to respond to ask if the person wants you to call the police or help them in another way. Come up with a plan that works for you. 

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Seek Professional Support 

Witnessing and experiencing domestic violence and supporting someone in this situation may take a toll on your mental health. A professional, external eye to assess a situation may offer insight and promote safety and mental well-being.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an unhealthy relationship, you might benefit from using an online therapy platform. Using a digital platform like BetterHelp, individuals can match with a licensed, experienced therapist from a safe space. Clients can schedule sessions to align with their personal lives, parenting obligations, or other concerns that might make traditional therapy less accessible.

Research shows that online therapy can be as effective as in-person counseling for many people. For instance, a 2022 study found that online therapy could be as effective as in-person therapy for those who have experienced abuse or domestic violence. The study confirmed that online therapy could reduce logistical barriers and provide protection for people with disabilities or health conditions. 


Everyone deserves a healthy, mutually rewarding, and loving relationship. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, recognition can be a key to prevention. Consider the above warning signs, look out for your loved ones, and act proactively and safely. For support and guidance from experienced professionals, both the National Domestic Violence Hotline and credentialed therapists are a resource.

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