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Recognising an abusive relationship

Sad woman who is a victim of an abusive relationship sits outside cryingWhat really are the signs of an abusive relationship? How can we recognise the red flags of an abusive relationship?

Furthermore, what action can we take to free ourselves from the (at times) vice-like grip of dependence, fear and battered self-esteem that often so (tactfully to the benefit of the abuser) come with the reality of an abusive relationship?

Many people can find it hard to recognise that they are, in fact, in an abusive relationship. Feelings of attachment to their partner (who would have at some point treated them nicely and made them feel loved) guilt, self-blame and denial can all stand very strongly in the way to accepting they are in an unhealthy, damaging situation and hence put off the essential steps to escape and recovery.

Dependency is also a heavy weighing factor. Often, abusers will purposefully place themselves in a bread-winning position, knowing that having financial power will keep their victim under their control. This is sadly extremely relevant and debilitating in young families where the mother has needed time home from work to care for their child.

Knowing early detection signs of an emotional/domestic abuser can impact a person’s decision to enter a committed relationship with someone new, but it is never too late to recognise these signs (however severe they may be) and one-by-one take the extremely difficult but very necessary steps to gaining back power and control over your life.

The warning signs and red flags of an abusive relationship

1. Early Commitment/Romanticism

Frankly, this isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when imagining a dangerous man. A very common tactic for abusive partners early in “the game” is to secure their relationship as quickly as possible. Often, the victim will at first receive flowers, gifts, compliments and barraging attention from their new lover. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how so many strong women find themselves within a domestic violence case! We all love to feel special/romanced and the elated connection we hence develop with our abuser can make it very hard to break the attached feeling down the track.

Important note: this does not mean that being romanced automatically makes your partner abusive. Being romanced is lovely! – It is merely just one common sign when coupled with other, much less savoury behaviours.

2. Jealousy/possession

This second sign often comes on slowly and gradually. It is rarely extremely sudden which can, at times, make it harder to see in a clear, concise moment in time. An abuser will in many cases disapprove of your relationships with other people. While this may (prominently at first) be towards friends of the opposite sex, it can then move on to any individual you spend time with/converse with (friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances).

Behaviours such as:

  • Excessive calling and texting to “see where you are/what you are doing”.
  • Silent treatment/accusations or otherwise negative reaction to time spent with other people.
  • Disapproval/put downs of people you love and rudeness/anti-social behaviour within their company.
  • Accusations of cheating/being unfaithful after spending time with others.

These are all very real, very red flags that you are in the company of an abusive partner. Spending time with others and having social connections is a healthy and essential part of living a happy life. There is never a good or justifiable reason for any partner to disapprove of or control the people who you keep within your social circle.

3. Isolation

Isolation is the more advanced sibling-sign to possession and control. The abuser may eventually push you to cut ties with friends, family and even acquaintances in an effort to have you all to themselves. This ensures the abusers full control over his victim and prevents outsiders from recognising the signs and/or having the influence to pull the victim away from the clutches of the abusive relationship. This can, at times, extend to leaving work/social groups and isolating you to the point of the four walls of your home where the abuser can “know where you are” at all times.

4. Put-Downs/criticisms

It is common in abusive relationships for the abuser to slowly begin putting down their victim. This can range from criticism of cooking, cleaning, general life skill competency to berating the victim’s looks, mannerisms, personality and every other possible aspect of the victim’s existence. Criticism/put downs can be mild and subtle or at times aggressive, even violent in nature. Generally this builds over time.

This kind of emotionally abusive tactic grinds down the victim, reducing self-esteem to complete depletion and ensuring any self-love is whittled to almost complete non-existence. Of course, this benefits the abuser since they now have complete power/control over the victim. A person with low self-worth is less likely to see the signs and take action to get away than a person who knows they deserve better!

5. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is the term used when referring to a deflection of blame when confronted or caught out displaying bad behaviour. For example, when a victim stands up for herself or calls out abuse tactics, the abuser will turn the blame around on the victim.

“It’s your fault you don’t have friends anymore”

“It’s your fault I get so angry because you’re so hopeless at (x)”

“I wouldn’t have to flirt with other women if you weren’t such a b**** all the time!”

Phrases like these are typical “gaslighting” tactics that turn around the blame from the guilty party to the confronter. This helps the abuser take the focus off their wrong-doing and instead makes the victim question themselves and further self-blame.

6. Intimidation/agression/violence

Violence is not present in every abusive relationship! It is extremely important to note that just because a partner may not have physically hurt you, this does not mean you are not in a toxic, abusive relationship.

Intimidation, aggression and violence generally come out later in an abusive relationship. It’s not like women go on a first date with a man who gets physically violent with them, then decide he’s the perfect catch! Usually by the time this horrific behaviour begins to surface, the victim is already well and truly groomed into submission through a slow progression of previously mentioned abuse tactics.

Sadly, by now, the victim is isolated and self-blaming with little to no self-esteem. They are often dependent in emotional and/or financial ways to their abuser and can find it hard to see or acknowledge a way to get out, particularly since they likely have lost their connection to friends and family that could help.

7. Sporadic remorse/niceness

This tactic is probably one of the most conniving, manipulative tactics of an abuser. To keep his victim believing that things may improve or remembering how “loved” they are, the abuser may occasionally show extreme “remorse” or “niceness” to their victim. Much like in the beginning, the victim will likely receive gifts/romanticism and compliments – turning their thoughts back to why they “fell in love” in the first place. False remorse is more than likely coupled with further gaslighting.

“I’m sorry I called you (x) you just make me so angry when you (x)”

“I’m so sorry I hurt you baby, I wish you hadn’t have spoken to (x) without asking me”

This is not a sign of changed behaviour or bettering circumstances. It is merely another tactic to keep the victim around and will most certainly dissipate back to abuse in only a matter of time.

How to escape an abusive relationship

1. Recognising and accepting your relationship is abusive

Possibly one of the hardest steps in escaping and recovering from an abusive relationship is recognising that you’re in one!

Be assured, this is no mistake of your abuser. Over the period you’ve been together, they have used many psychological manipulation and oppression tactics to grind you down into believing that:

  • You love them and they’re a wonderful partner.
  • You deserve this and you’re not very good at most things.
  • That it’s your fault and that you’re a frustrating person to deal with.
  • That they are good for you and are helping you survive despite your incompetency.
  • That you need them and are incapable of functioning without them.
  • That they’re your only “true” friend.

This is simply not true. If you have recognised the signs above as things you’ve been dealing throughout your relationship, you are more than likely being abused. Making the discovery that you’re in an abusive relationship is the first step you need to make to push yourself towards escape and recovery.

Please understand that this is never the victim’s fault. No one chooses to be in an abusive relationship and certainly no one deserves it!

2. Gaining support/reaching out

The second (and also very difficult) step in escape and recovery is reaching out and gaining support. If need be, do this subtly. Find an old friend and tell them what’s been happening, talk to your mother, a co-worker, an online support group or a counsellor. Gain as much support as you can, it’s going to be a tough road ahead!

Once you have a clear path of escape, Go! Don’t look back and do your best to find somewhere safe to stay clear of your abuser. Use your support network to help you to plan and achieve this.

SUPPORT: For advice on escaping an abusive relationship chat on our forum.

3. Grieve but do not fold

As bad as a relationship might be, it’s normal to grieve over the loss of “love”. Many people don’t understand a victim’s attachment to an abuser. But it’s important to note that at one point the abuser made the victim feel loved. They may have helped out in a tough time, they certainly would have shown attention and affection to the victim during sporadic moments (see the 7th sign of abuse) and likely have been the only person the victim’s been in contact with, possibly over a long period of time.

It may, at times, be hard not to go back, particularly if the abuser has a means of contact and is implementing the “sporadic remorse/niceness” abuse tactic. He may even, during a time of desperation for your return, do a complete backflip – accepting blame for his abuse and offering ideology of seeking help. This rarely will ever come true. Think about it, if he really were to acknowledge and intend to change his behaviour, it would have been long before now!

Use your support network or women’s helplines as much as you can, particularly when feeling vulnerable/thinking of return.

4. Seek professional counselling

Being in/escaping an abusive relationship is a traumatic, life-altering experience! Many ex-victims suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem for many years following the escape of an abusive relationship.

It is important to seek professional help and guidance immediately. This is not because you’re “crazy” – it is because you’ve been through something awful that any strong man, woman or child would be strongly affected and hurt by. Remember you deserve to heal and be happy again! If children have been involved in the ordeal, be sure to arrange counselling for them as well.

5. Rebuild what you deserve – A happy fulfilling life!

Once you feel ready, take small steps to rebuilding the things in your life that make you happy. Join a social group/support group or recreational activity. Talk to new people, form new friendships and seek to restore the old ones. Focus on positive things in life that can help you get through the negativity of your previous relationship.

Remember everyone (that’s you, too) deserve to be happy, safe and free!

Useful links for victims of domestic violence or abuse


Lifeline Crisis Support: 13 11 14 or

White Ribbon Hotline: 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or

Department for Child Protection and Family Support: 08 9223 1188 or Freecall 1800 007 339

Image credit: kmiragaya/123RF Stock Photo

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4 comments so far -

  1. Thank you for this article, my mother had to deal with this kind of relationship with my father, and I can see how your article simply and clearly shows not only what behaviour is abusive but why it can be considered abusive. I hope that other women who are in such a relationship will have a chance to read this article and begin to make changes in their lives to break free. Sometimes you know the behaviour is wrong but can’t explain why it is wrong, and it is so easy to make excuses for someone you love. I am very lucky to be married to a wonderful man but was single for a long time because I was afraid of repeating my mother’s experience. Please keep getting this information out there.

    • Hello Chris,

      Thank you for commenting. I’m sorry to hear your mother had to endure such a terrible time. I appreciate that you took the time to appreciate the article. I, too, am hoping that the information and advice provided can reach the eyes of those who may deserately need it.

      Love is such an intense factor when considering/evaluating the actions and behaviors of others – which definitely affects many individuals in their ability to acknowledge and accept abuse from a loved one.

      Thank you again, I’m very happy to read you’re in a good place now x

  2. This is an absolute blueprint for relationship with my former husband. Steps 1-7 happened exactly as you say. I feel a bit embarrassed that it’s so formulaic and I didn’t see the ‘flags’ until it got really unpleasant.

    • Hi FJ,

      I’m sorry to hear you’ve endured such an awful experience. from the way you’ve worded your comment, it seems as though you’ve made the strong decision to free yourself from your abuser, which is certainly not a small achievement.

      As The Bub Hub Crew have mentioned, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. These people are well versed in manipulation and conniving psychological tactics that can convince any strong, intelligent person into believing it is somehow their fault.

      The fact that this all comes on slowly is also an extremely relevant point- It’s my like you met your former husband and he treated you badly- he made certain you had a strong attachment to him before things got truly awful.

      Be proud! You’re a survivor who has gained back your Devine human right to be free of such things!

      Thank you for your reply x



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