Warning signs of domestic violence — and what to do

An estimated 10 million people in the U.S. face domestic abuse at the hands of their partner each year. Here’s how to spot the warning signs. (Photo: Silvia Turra / EyeEm)
An estimated 10 million people in the U.S. face domestic abuse at the hands of their partner each year. Here’s how to spot the warning signs. (Photo: Silvia Turra / EyeEm)

Do a scan of your office. Look across the coffee shop the next time you pick up your morning brew. Glance around your fitness class. Chances are good that you’ll spot a victim of domestic violence. This silent epidemic affects an estimated one in four women and one in nine men, all of whom endure emotional, physical or sexual violence from their partners.

In a year, this equals 10 million women and men in the United States alone. Though many hide their bruises or are so brainwashed that they justify the behavior, it is the role of the community to be aware of the warning signs — and, more important, to offer help. In stressful periods — like the holidays or a hectic work season — abuse becomes even more frequent, as aggressors take out their agitation on their partners.

As you go about your daily routine, here is how to be mindful of the ways that individuals around you may be suffering and what you can do to help them.

What is domestic violence?

This broad term is used as an umbrella for any sort of abuse that happens within a relationship, where the abuser attempts to control or gain power over another person, according to sex and relationship therapist Courtney Geter. Though many people often associate this type of crime with “battered wife” syndrome, Geter notes that it happens in all forms of partnerships, to men, to women and to gender nonbinary people of all ages. “A child can experience domestic violence by just watching a parent abuse another parent or family member, a teen can experience domestic violence while dating, or an adult can experience domestic violence in an intimate partner relationship or from a family member,” she continues.

There are also many forms of domestic violence, from being beaten or raped to being verbally demeaned or berated. Though physical and sexual altercations are often considered the most dangerous, the mental damage that emotional abuse inflicts on a person’s psyche and confidence can have a long-lasting and painful effect. Often, verbal abuse leads to physical altercations too.

Why is domestic violence difficult to measure?

While reported statistics are startling enough on their own, Geter says they are likely even higher. Because domestic violence can occur with people from all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels, it is difficult to reach everyone who might be a victim. Also, it takes a great deal of courage to confess what is happening behind closed doors. “Unfortunately, many victims never come forward or are not able to come forward in order to leave and receive help from domestic violence,” Geter explains. In domestic violence cases, Geter explains, many victims are not even aware that they are experiencing domestic violence because they don’t completely understand what domestic violence is or looks like.

Signs of domestic violence

If you are worried that a friend of yours, an office mate or someone else around you could be experiencing domestic violence, it’s essential to know what to look for. Some indicators are obvious — like bruises — while others show up in patterns over time. Here, experts outline a few to look out for.

They mention how much their partner yells

Author Brittani Louise Taylor is all too familiar with domestic violence, since she’s a survivor herself. She wrote about her experience and how she was able to leave the tumultuous relationship in her book, A Sucky Love Story: Overcoming Unhappily Ever After. She shares that one key indicator of abuse is something most overlook: constant yelling. “We all have bad days, right? We’re stuck in traffic, lose our jobs, sometimes we are just hangry. Fights in any relationship are inevitable, but there is a healthy and normal way to go about it,” she explains. “But, for me, my ex would scream at me for hours.”

She describes how he would hurl insults, blame her for his failures and shortcomings, slam doors, throw objects in her direction, and come at her until she crumbled. “Only when I was thoroughly beaten down would he be satisfied, and then the apologies would come. Cuddling, intimacy, and then a few days later it would start all over again,” she writes. “I used to count the days in-between his outbursts, and I remember being really excited when he hadn’t yelled at me in a week.”

They are becoming more isolated

In many cases of domestic violence, the aggressor gradually separates their partner from those who love them. In Taylor’s experience, it started from the very beginning, since her ex didn’t like any of her friends — not even one. He would refuse to hang out in group settings, and when they did, he’d spend the ride home tearing them apart. “He made me uncomfortable every time I went to see them alone, pouting or playing mind games when I was back in his presence,” she recalls.

Sex expert Coleen Singer explains that this tactic is often meant to ensure that a partner depends on their aggressor and has no other network to reach out to. It is much more difficult for the abused partner to leave, with the abuser exerting complete control over their routine and their emotions. Singer says that isolation can include the abuser keeping close tabs on where you go and whom you go with or embarrassing you in front of others. In short, it makes you want to avoid people.

They start asking for permission

As Singer wrote, domination is a goal of abusers. When their partner is so terrified of them and becomes submissive and anxious without them, they have the partner right where they want them. When Taylor first left her ex, she asked her family for permission to do anything and everything: take a shower, cook something, watch a television show. “I had become a ‘whatever you want’ kind of person. In the almost two years that we were together, I had lost my voice. I wasn’t allowed to have needs, wants, or opinions, in fear of retaliation,” she says. “I forgot what it was like to have goals, or dreams, because the only dreams I was allowed to have were his.”

Geter explains that in many domestic violence relationships, this can even extend to money or jobs. The abuser could have complete authority over finances, even giving their partner an allowance and demanding to see every receipt from every purchase. “This prevents you from having the resources to leave the relationship or have autonomy in the relationship. In regard to jobs, this may look like a partner controlling where you work, who you work with, or even if you have a job or not,” she continues. “This limits your access to financial freedom as well as isolating you from people.”

How you can help

An unhealthy relationship can escalate to dangerous, and unfortunately, helping a domestic violence victim can be tricky. Because aggressors will do anything to keep their hold over the person, it’s vital to tread carefully and think strategically. These methods can be effective, but always exercise caution:

Document everything

Taylor says that in terms of prosecution, evidence is everything. “Every time you talk to your friend or family member, and they mention their partner yelling, or something crazy that happens that might be considered abuse, document it,” she urges. Whether you take screenshots of the conversations or simply write down the details, every bit of information matters. “You never know if you will be needed to testify on their behalf when they finally get out and seek some sort of legal protection such as a restraining order,” she explains.

Be encouraging and patient

By the time her relationship was ending, Taylor says, her self-esteem was in shambles. What helped her to be bold and brave enough to leave was having her mom and her friends encourage her to focus on her ambitions. “Get the person that you think is being abused into fun, safe situations. Take them to a spa, or go for a walk every morning. Show the abused party that not every person is going to be mean or manipulative. Compliment, and lift up their spirits. Help to heal their self-worth enough that they are willing to finally cut ties,” she recommends. For Taylor, the more she reconnected with those in her corner and was placed in normal situations, the more she realized how toxic her life had become.

If you suspect abuse, Geter urges well-meaning friends to never discuss the issue in front of the abuser. This could cause the victim more harm, since their aggressor could punish them for talking about the relationship to others. Instead, exercise patience and understanding when you’re alone with them, since it will encourage them to be honest about what’s actually happening. “Sharing about your own healthy relationship may allow a person to talk more about their relationship and gain more information about how unhealthy their relationship is,” she explains.

Help them find a safe place

“If your friend is being physically abused and in fear, by all means find a way to pick her/him up in your car in a safe place. Although you might be tempted to just take your friend home with you, be very careful of this, as the abusing partner will likely stalk her or him, and the last thing you want is to put both your friend, you and your home at risk,” Geter says.

Instead, Singer says, you can enlist an outside friend you trust who can give them a secure and secret place to stay as they figure out their next move and contact authorities. She also notes that there are many shelters that provide a haven for domestic violence survivors and social workers to help them move forward with their lives.

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