A person may not have a bruise on their arm, a fractured rib or a black eye, but that doesn’t mean that they are not the victim of abuse. There are ways in which people can be abused within a relationship without the involvement of physical violence. In such cases, the person’s emotional well-being takes the beating.

Understanding domestic violence

Domestic abuse takes place when a spouse, partner or family member makes use of aggressive or violent behaviour to attempt to take control of the partner or relative.

Physical abuse is one component of domestic abuse or violence and it can include acts such as hitting, slapping, kicking, punching, cutting, pushing, forcing unwanted sexual acts and destroying property.

Emotional abuse, on the other hand, can be more challenging to pinpoint, but it will almost always involve some form of power imbalance and controlling behaviour. The more powerful or dominant partner will make use of various tactics (threatening, manipulating, etc.) that can lead the other partner to feel overpowered, undermined and intimidated, with their sense of self significantly damaged.

It is important to note that both men and women can be subjected to both physical and emotional abuse, although there are more reported cases of domestic violence directed by male partners toward female victims.

Identifying the signs

People may not be initially aware that they are in an abusive relationship, but there are a number of signs that could indicate this to be true.

Observing the following behaviours may indicate that a partner is abusive:

  • Making threats, or humiliating or degrading the other partner (in public or private)
  • Calling names, saying insults and put-downs
  • Displaying jealous behaviours
  • Damaging possessions or property
  • Keeping track of the other partner’s whereabouts, secretly monitoring conversations (calls, texts, emails) with other people
  • Limiting the other partner’s contact with family, friends, and other sources of support
  • Getting angry when the other partner interact with people of the opposite sex
  • Making threats to the other partner’s safety and well-being (or to his or her own) if they were to attempt to leave

Likewise, a victim of emotional abuse may also be demonstrating certain behaviours that could indicate that the relationship is becoming (or already is) abusive, although he or she never fully realised it before:

  • Emotional exhaustion, anxiety or depression
  • Increasing isolation from family and friends, for no apparent reason
  • Needing to calm down or placate the abusive partner during social situations
  • Getting into volatile arguments or rages in front of people they know
  • Feeling nervous about changing plans, or worrying about how the abusive partner will react if they don’t come home by a certain time
  • Becoming hypervigilant about being seen with people of the opposite sex, or people that the abusive partner does not know
  • Living in fear of how the abusive partner will react to their words, actions or decisions

An endless loop

Physical and emotional abuse in relationships can develop over the course of several years. Throughout this prolonged period, the victim’s self-esteem, and sense of right and wrong, can become worn down.

It takes place in a cycle: the abuse or aggression takes place; the abuser denies that they committed the abuse (and perhaps blames others, rationalises their actions, denies responsibility or makes excuses for the behaviour); the abuser minimises or discounts the impact of the aggression (acting like it’s no big deal, even if the victim is very upset), and the abuse does its damage on the victim (as the abuser brushes off or forgets about what happened, and the victim is painted as being overly sensitive or overreacting, or the cause of the whole problem).

Breaking free

There are ways to get out of an abusive relationship, although it will involve a process. The key turning point is to recognise that there is indeed a problem — the victim has to stop denying, minimising or making excuses for the abuse.

The other important thing to do is to seek help. The victim must have an external support system, like their family, friends, or professional counsellors, who can help them gain an objective perspective and take steps toward regaining their dignity, balance, self-worth and self-respect.

If you’re dealing with an abusive relationship or domestic violence, it’s important you seek professional support and advice. Search our relationship and marriage counsellors that specialise in family violence.