20 individuals per minute experience physical and/or sexual abuse by an intimate partner.
If this statistic isn’t enough, try to swallow this one: 1 out of 4 women will experience abuse of some kind in their lifetime at the hands of an intimate partner.
I’m one of that brave 25%.
I will claim this title freely today; it’s given me boundless power and voice.
Yet I was not able to say the term “abuse” when I was actually in my abusive relationship. I did not know that what I was experiencing qualified as abuse–and alarming, destructive abuse at that. I did not know that I had a right to security, and love, and liberation.
I did not know I had a right (and the capacity) to leave, until I did.
Most women (and men) do not.
I’m writing this, dear friend, to give you the words I wish I had heard when I was in that relationship, ones I patched together from the advice of friends and worried family members at the time.
These words are tender (they were initially feeble). But that does not make them easy to read.
Many who read pieces like this are doing so, after all, in a gesture of having someone else vocalize what they most fear. You are courageous, if this is the case, and you are seeking the same answers I sought.
I don’t promise a diagnosis; I don’t promise answers. But I do promise that I’m on your side.
Note: This list and these signs are not meant to be comprehensive. The spectrum of abuse is vast, multi-colored, and hazy. Please read this book if you need more.
1. Your partner has physically restrained, manipulated, and/or coerced you without your consent.
Physical abuse is defined as any physical actions intended to harm, endanger, or otherwise manipulate another person. The realm of abuse is broad here, and does not only encompass directly violent acts such as punching, cutting, or maiming.
My partner, for example, would physically restrain me from leaving a room in an argument. I longed to leave such situations to clear my head, to breathe in non-toxic air (an arguably healthy way to steam-valve tough conversations), yet he would do everything in his power to bar my freedom of movement.
If I resisted, he would pin me down, throw me to the floor, or sit on top of me.
Sometimes, he screamed directly into my ears.
When I showed him the bruises later, he laughed.
Even allegedly “minor” acts of physical abuse or coercion are still abuse. Escaping from an abusive encounter without bruises, cuts, and other maiming is not evidence that you have not been the victim of violence.
2. Gaslighting is a standard.
“Gaslighting” is a psychological tactic designed to manipulate your perspective of a certain situation. Gaslighters coax you to doubt a former opinion, believe you are to blame for something, or even question your own rational, beautiful, instinctive mind.
Abusers successfully gaslight their partners in order to deflect blame; many will use this technique to shift the relationship’s focus away from the abuse itself.
My partner, for example, convinced me that because I had formerly been a victim of sexual assault, “my perspective of reality was fundamentally altered.”
It therefore made sense, he claimed, that I would register loving acts as abusive. The notion of abuse became, under his guise, an illusion crafted by a “damaged” being.
If I ever accused my partner of an abusive, manipulative, or otherwise hurtful action (or comment), these arguments became swerves, and I was to blame.
Gaslighting in itself is a form of emotional abuse, which some argue is more destructive than physical violence itself.
3.Your partner isolates you from loved ones.
Many abusers will steadily isolate lovers from friends, family members, and colleagues in an effort to widen the field of control. Jealous partners may caution you against spending time with other men (or women).
They may belittle relatives and encourage you to deepen conflicts or familial stand-offs. These are not instances of support—they are manipulative gestures designed to place you in a desert. Narcissists are often the culprits of isolative tactics here.
This may sound like a rather obvious sign of an abusive tactic. Yet isolation can easily slip under the radar.
Look around you. Do you feel that you are fully free to nurture and cherish the relationships you have? What does your “circle” look like? How do you feel about certain family members?
Abusers will also often belittle or denigrate individuals who have recognized your abusive relationship. My ex-partner raged against my father, my best friend, and others who expressed concern at key moments in our relationship.
(He also convinced me that he was right.)
4. You’ve been forced to have sex.
If your partner has forced or coerced you into sexual activity of any kind, without your direct consent, this is definitively sexual violence.
No questions asked.
5. Fear breeds.
Abusers thrive on fear. They wear it like capes. They know that their power lies in their capacity to breed fear in you, in your steady beating heart.
The more fearful you are, they presume, the easier it will be to control you and receive what they want.
My dear friend, no true relationship can breathe on a bed of fear, no matter how passionate it is, no matter how distinct. If you “walk on eggshells,” if you fear saying the “wrong” thing, if you’ve experienced terror at the hands of your beloved—you are caught in the forest of abuse.
I’m not saying that you should go out and start looking at security systems or planning an escape route—but if you’ve thought of it (as I did), in any capacity, this constitutes a bright red flag.
(And I would say, plan that escape route now.)
6. You feel as if you are wading through a murky pond.
Some abusers play the elusive wolves—they create a verbal web that is, ultimately, hard to parse. Abusers relish modern day digital communication, with all its freedoms to not respond, its text ambiguity, its delays.
They also relish in-person communications that meander and miss their marks. Abusers are the kings and queens of muddying pond waters, of leaving you out in the middle of a lake wondering how you got there.
Abusers evade. They dodge words and questions and accusations easily, and they may do so through physical violence, gaslighting, or mere avoidance.
If your partner has cheated on you or committed some other form of relationship treachery, they are even more likely to create the sensation of murky waters.
7. You suspect you’ve been the victim of narcissist abuse.
There are many telltale signs that you are dating a narcissist. I’ve mentioned some of them here (gaslighting, evasion). Read my other piece to learn more.
8. Taunting, shaming, and threats characterize conversations.
Some of the most restrictive and damning forms of abuse are emotional. The vehicle of emotional abuse, in most instances, is words.
Your partner may threaten you. He or she may taunt, shame, or belittle you. You may feel inadequate, ugly, or insufficient in some capacity.
Let me remind you: you are none of these things. Yet an abuser will do anything to keep your shining wings clipped.
(You can unclip them. More on that later.)
If such vagaries become the currency of most of your conversations—that is, if you feel your own grip on your powerful being slipping by the day—you are likely the victim of emotional abuse.
9. You’re reading this piece.
My dear friend, I sent so many emails, I read so many articles (furtively, at work), I called so many hotlines. I was hungry to have someone—anyone—tell me definitively that I was in an abusive relationship. I was hungry to have someone tell me to leave.
I wrote this piece to save you that time.
But I also am not the one to shout the word “abuse.” I’ve shouted it in some ways. Now it’s your turn. The moment you claim your truth, the moment it becomes real.
That was how it was for me.