Seven signs that you’re in an abusive relationship

Get to know the signs

Words by Jessica Davis

In England and Wales, two women are killed by their current or former partner every week. To put that in context: during the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan from 2001-2014, 453 members of the British Armed Forces lost their lives. In that same period, more than 1,000 women were killed as a result of domestic violence.

When we think of the signs of an abusive relationship, bruised skin and broken bones often come to mind, but that isn’t always the case as Sandra Horley, CEO of Refuge explains in her new book Power and Control: why charming men can make dangerous lovers. Horley identifies the ‘Charm Man Syndrome’, where a partner’s pattern of abusive behaviour can be so subtle that many women do not even realise they are being abused. Yet, as she states: ‘the vast majority who come to Refuge are subjected to relentless controlling and demeaning behaviour, whether physical or not.’

Here’s what you need to look out for:

Abusive relationships often begin with a pattern of control

‘An abusive man tries to dominate every aspect of his partner’s life. This could mean constantly checking up on his partner through texts, cutting her off in the middle of a telephone conversation, or having clear rules about what can take up space where in the house. Often the incidents will seem trivial, but they can build up into an oppressive, suffocating atmosphere. Last year, a man who forced his girlfriend to eat only tuna and beetroot, and endure hours of exercise to look like a Brazilian model was jailed for abuse. If the saying ‘walking on eggshells’ rings any bells, it’s likely that the abuser is the one in control.

Jealousy is a tell-tale sign of an abusive relationship

Whether he is jealous of your job, friends or social life it really isn’t normal. A partner is meant to say how proud they say they are of your achievements, not make you feel guilty for them.  You may think his jealousy is cute at first. He may call or text you several times a day, and may accuse you of cheating if you don’t respond as quickly as he wants. He might start tracking your every move.  If you are worried that you, or a friend, is becoming increasingly isolated because of their relationship, it’s time for them to get out.

An abuser will make you feel the abuse is your fault

One woman told Sandra ‘looking back I can see it was a sort of suffocation,’ another said ‘I was cut off from the outside world and from all of my friends, the only logic seemed to be to believe that it was all my fault.’ Another’s partner told her that she would be a ‘failure’ if she left. One woman whose husband had abused her for 15 years, who frequently held knives to her throat and threatened her with his gun, told Horley, a whole ten years after she had escaped ‘actually, I think I was partly to blame.’

abusive relationship

In an abusive relationship a partner often uses ‘playful’ force during sex

He enjoys throwing you around or holding you down against your will; the idea of rape is a turn on for him. He intimidates, manipulates or forces you to engage in unwanted sex acts with no care for your consent. Horley met many women put up with sexual abuse because they were afraid of getting hit, their husbands would tell them that they had a ‘right’ to sex. Some were unable to sleep for fear of being attacked in their bed. One woman even said that she was scared to go back to hospital because she was ashamed that her husband had raped her and caused her birthing stitches to burst.

Unrealistic expectations emerge quickly in an abusive relationship

An abusive partner expects perfection and for you to meet their every need.  The littlest thing that you do ‘wrong’ will result in endless physical and verbal abuse, making you feel worthless. He will likely have strict rules about gender roles. Horley found this was very common with the domestic abuse survivors that she interviewed, one woman described how whenever she was too busy with the children to cook, she would put a pot to boil on the stove when her husband came home, to give the illusion that dinner was on the way and avoid a row.

An abusive partner will make threats if you leave

Horley met women whose partners had killed their pets, ripped up their clothes or played with knives in front of them, to ensure that the women always knew who was in control. He could be trapping you into staying in the abusive relationship by telling you that no one else will want you, or threaten to kill himself if you leave. He may threaten to kill you or your children (incidentally, an abused woman is most vulnerable when pregnant).

Abusers often have a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality

To the outside world he will appear the perfect partner. He will buy you flowers or your favourite perfume. Maybe he is the most romantic man you have ever known.  Obviously, just being romantic is not necessarily a sign of abuse, but an abuser will often use romance to distract from unacceptable behaviours, or even use gifts as a blackmailing tool, particularly following outbursts of abuse or violence. He will make you believe that if you just did something differently, he would be the loving man you first fell for all the time. It may feel as though you are with two different people – you will stay because of your hope for the man you fell in love with, but you will spend most of your time being controlled by the man who hurts you. Eventually, you won’t be able to tell the difference.

For more information visit www.refuge.org.uk or call the 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

Power And Control: Why charming men make dangerous lovers – Sandra Horley CBE, (Vermilion) is out now

Reading now

Popular Life stories