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7 Signs of an Abusive Relationship

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistJune 12, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

Abusive relationships aren’t defined only by physical violence. Abuse comes in many forms – emotional, psychological, sexual. And, though you might think it would be clear when someone is being abusive, abusive patterns can sometimes be hard to spot – especially for the victim.

If you question whether you (or someone you know) is in an abusive relationship, it can help to know the signs:

Psychological and emotional abuse: Abusers often undermine their partner’s self-worth with verbal attacks, name-calling, and belittling. They might humiliate their partner in public, unjustly accuse their partner of having an affair, or interrogate them about their every behavior. In addition, they often keep their partner confused or off balance by saying they were just kidding or blaming their partner for “making” them act in these ways. They might also feign caring in public, but then turn against them in private. As a result, the victims frequently feel confused, incompetent, unworthy, hopeless, and chronically self-doubting.

Physical abuse: The abuser might physically harm their partner in a range of ways, such as grabbing, hitting, punching, or shoving them. They might throw objects at them or harm them with a weapon.

Sexual abuse: Even in a committed relationship, it is not permissible for partners to force sexual acts on their partner. Any act of forced sexual activity (not just intercourse) is abusive. Treating a partner as a sex object is also abusive.

Threats and intimidation: One way abusers keep their partners in line is by instilling fear. They might be verbally threatening, or give threatening looks or gestures. Abusers often make it known that they are tracking their partner’s every move. They might destroy their partner’s possessions, threaten to harm them, or threaten to harm their family members. Not surprisingly, victims of this abuse often feel anxiety, fear, and panic.

Isolation: Abusers often limit their partner’s activities, forbidding them to talk or interact with friends or family. They might limit access to a car or even turn off their phone. All of this might be done by physically holding them against their will, but is often accomplished through psychological abuse and intimidation. The more isolated a person feels, the fewer resources they have to help gain perspective on their situation and to escape from it.

Economic abuse: Abusers often make their partners beholden to them for money by controlling access to funds of any kind. They might prevent their partner from getting a job or withhold access to money they earn from a job. This creates financial dependency that makes leaving the relationship very difficult.

Using children: An abuser might disparage their partner’s parenting skills, tell their children lies about their partner, threaten to take custody of their children, or threaten to harm their children. These tactics instill fear and often elicit compliance.

As you consider this information, whether you know your relationship is abusive or think that it might be, try reaching out for help by talking with a family member or friend that you trust. You might also contact the National Domestic Violence hotline at 800-799-7233 or look up their website, www.thehotline.org. They will be able to give you information about how to best help yourself, including offering resources for how you might do this.

Ultimately, it is important to know that you do not need to remain in any relationship that makes you uncomfortable, confused, or scared – whether or not you think it is “abusive.” Help is available to you if you reach out for it.

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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