Signs of an Abusive Relationship

It’s important to be able to look for the signs of an abusive relationship. They often happen when one person has more power and treats the other person badly. They can feel trapped, unsafe and are made to feel crap about themselves.

This article refers back to another one featuring the Relationship Graph. It’s a way of working out how well our relationships are going. Relationships can be full on and can take up a lot of our heart and head space. Sometimes we need to take a step back and see what’s really going on.

For more general advice on how to do relationships read the Brief Guide to Relationships 

But some relationships can be more than just ‘not great’, sometimes they can be do us harm, make us feel unsafe, make us feel bad about ourselves (self-esteem) and make us feel trapped. These are abusive relationships.

Some signs of an abusive relationship

if it was plotted on the Bish relationship graph, these are some of the signs of an abusive relationship

If someone was in an abusive relationship and they were able to plot it out on the relationships graph it might look a bit like this.

They may feel physically unsafe: their partner might physically hurt them, or threaten to hurt them (or themselves) or break stuff in a way that makes them feel intimidated or unsafe. They feel emotionally unsafe: they might be constantly put down, shouted at, slagged off in front of other people, never feeling good enough, made to feel bad about themselves. Sometimes they might be made to feel like they are in the wrong, or imagining it (known as Gaslighting).

Their limits might not be respected. They may be forced or pressurised to do things that they don’t want to do. This could be sexual limits (what kind of sex we are comfortable with), or being forced to have sex when they don’t want to (rape/sexual assault) or being pressured into having sex with someone else. It could be that they are forced into doing other non-sexual stuff that they previously didn’t want to do; like drugs or alcohol or being friends with people they don’t want to be with.

They might have no independence or very little control over their own lives.Their partner might not let them do anything by themselves: school work, hang with friends/family/parents, hobbies. They might not have their own time or their own money. Their partner might control their sexual and reproductive health (not being happy about using condoms or other contraceptive or safer sex methods). Their partner could say that they were making them jealous and jealousy is a sign of love (but it so isn't).

They might have no independence or very little control over their own lives.Their partner might not let them do anything by themselves: school work, hang with friends/family/parents, hobbies. Perhaps they don’t get their own time anymore. They might have their money taken from them or denied to them. Their partner might control their sexual and reproductive health (not being happy about using condoms or other contraceptive or safer sex methods). This is called reproductive coercion. Their partner could say that they were making them jealous and that jealousy is a sign of love (it really isn’t).

Also the relationship might not be fair. It might be ok for the abusive partner to do what he/she wants but not for the other person. They could see their mates or see other people sexually. It might be that they are having a better time in the relationship than the other person, hogging all the good stuff and leaving them with the bad stuff.

Two or three good things …

Yet all the other stuff (on the graph) might feel ok. If their partner tells them that they love them and they fancy them and they spend some good times together then it might feel like a nice loving, caring, trusting, supportive relationship. If someone feels unsafe and has no personal control then they can cling to the best in the relationship because that’s all they feel that they have. Being single is better than being in an abusive relationship.

It’s not ‘love’ it’s abuse

These two or three good things might mean that they forget all the bad stuff, or not realise what is happening. When friends or family tell them that they are worried about them they will focus on all the good things and not hear their concerns. An abusive partner may even be able to convince them that their friends and family don’t care or love them and will convince them that they only need one person. Occasional gifts or romantic gestures might convince them that their partner is lovely after all.

It’s just really important to remember that love isn’t something you say, it’s something you do. People use the ‘I love you’ line to make people feel like they have to stay with them. If they are saying it and treating you like shit, it’s abuse.

It’s more to do with control and power rather than love and respect. Abuse is wrong and it’s all the fault of the abuser, not the abused. Violence is a crime, and violence in relationships are still crimes if they are within relationships. But abuse doesn’t have to be violent to be a crime. It can be psychological, sexual, financial and emotional.

Abusers aren’t just men and abuse doesn’t just happen to women in opposite sex couples (and nor does it only happen with cisgender people).

Abuse also happens in teenage relationships more than we might think.

How to help someone

A lot of people can’t spot the signs of an abusive relationship if they are in one. That’s not their fault — this is how abuse works. So they may need your help to be able to see it. If, after reading this, you think a friend might be in an abusive relationship:

  • Talk to them calmly, tell them that you are worried, that you’ve noticed a change in them.
  • Ask open questions to find out how they are, ‘how are you feeling?’ ‘how is it going with __________ ?’
  • People in abusive relationships might not be able to see the wood for the trees, they might not be able to recognise it. Be specific about something their partner has done or said and disassociate it from them “a lot of people would say that [this] is the sign of an abusive relationship, what do you think?”
  • Try talking about other people to make it less threatening to them. Are there any story lines in soaps that you could bring up?
  • Don’t shout at them. Try to talk calmly and speak for yourself about what you are feeling for your friend. If they are getting upset then leave it and come back to it at another time. Be clear that you will be there to support them (or that you can help them find other support available).
  • Tell an adult that you trust. You need support to support a friend and you also need a wise head. Talk it through with someone. It might be that you need to take action to protect your friend without your friend giving you permission to do so (for instance, you may need to tell the police if you think they are in danger). It’s more important to protect your friend than your friendship.

How to support someone

If you think you’re in one

  • Listen to your friends and family, the people you trusted before the relationship. What are they saying? Are they worried?
  • Is there a friend, family member or a trusted adult that you can talk to?
  • If you’re living with someone or spending time at their place, can you start to pack a bag?
  • If you want to talk to someone else you can talk to a teacher, youth worker, Social Worker, key worker, learning mentor, sexual health clinic, health adviser, school nurse.
  • You could speak to one of these support groups including Childline 0800 1111
  • If you’re in danger, just get out. Go to a friend or family member or a refuge. Tell the Police. Call 999 in an immediate emergency or report a crime to your local Police station. It’s their job to take you seriously and to treat you sensitively.

Where you can get support

As well as talking to someone in real life who you can trust to support you, there are a list of useful services here at the NHS website and also here at No Star To Guide Me.

Please leave a (nice) comment below if you like or ask me a question here.

© Justin Hancock, 2024 Find out more about me and BISH here.

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I’ve been a sex and relationships educator since 1999 (with a background in youth and community work). In that time I’ve taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. I’ve worked with many charities, local governments, schools and youth organisations facilitating training and workshops. My two books, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and If You Want To) and Can We Talk About Consent? are widely available around the world. I’ve been on the telly and the radio and have written articles for newspapers and magazines. I’m also a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Read more about me and BISH here. Find out about my other work here Justin Hancock

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5 thoughts on “Signs of an Abusive Relationship

  1. Great article. One slight error: it’s Broken Rainbow, not Broken Window! (Autocorrect getting bossy?)

  2. Hi Emily and Jamie

    I can’t give you my email address but you can ask me a question via (please read the terms before you do so). I hope to be able to help a little bit but I really think that talking to a trained therapist might help you.

    Best wishes and big ups


  3. Justin, I waited til she came over, and she read everything, and she is now finally listening to everything i have to say. Thank you.

    Dear Justin, I have so much problems with this guy, I would love it if I could have your email and just send you the whole story. I need major advice. I love my best friend Emily, I hate dumping all this on her when she doesn’t know what to do. I’m sorry that I would dump all of it on you, I’m sure you ae nice guy, but I’m 17, in the US, and I do not want to go to an adult. I have too many prolems on my hands already that have me looking bad. I just want to learn how to get away from all this and set it in my past. Where is belongs. Thank you so much with everything so far.

  4. My friend has a habit of choosing guys like this as far as she has told me at least two have threatened her. she is finally starting to get out of that habit, but I think she is still talking to one or two of them, one is dangerous to her mentally and physically the other just mentally. I got her to realize she was more important, but do you have any advice what I could do as her friend to help her get over them because she really did love them it was just they used her.

    1. Hi

      It’s great that she’s got a friend like you.

      As you say people can feel very strong feelings for someone at the end of a relationship, even if the relationship was abusive or the other person nasty and controlling. This might be confusing and painful at the same time.

      However there are no magic wands. Heartbreak can take a while to work it’s way through. Friends can help with kind words, distractions, big ups, hugs, chocolate, nice things but it’s only the heartbroken who can deal with heartbreak and the difficult feelings that can come with them.

      She might want to practise mindfulness – acknowledging the difficult feelings and watching them enter her headspace. Feelings come and feelings go. We don’t have to do anything about them as they can’t harm us so when they do come we can just accept them, say hello to them and wait for them to go away again. When the easier feelings pop in we can embrace them and think and do stuff that reinforces feeling good about ourselves.

      She might find it beneficial to talk to a professional about her experiences. A counsellor or therapist can help her talk through her feelings of loss but can also help her to explore why she was getting into abusive relationships. If you’re in the UK (and under 25) you can access Brook services, who have trained counsellors. Lots of local areas have organisations who can offer someone to talk to. She might want to consider talking to her doctor or another health professional about finding someone locally.

      You’ve done a great job in getting her to think about her relationships, but remember you’re her friend, not her therapist. This means two things a) you won’t always be able to be there for her, she needs to be able to work some of this stuff out for herself. She needs a bit of distance to be able to look at some of the decisions she’s made about her relationships, who she is and what she wants. b) you have to look after yourself too and remember that yes friendships are about support and help but also about fun, sharing good times and learning together. You can model what a non-abusive relationship looks like by giving her space, treating her as an equal and acknowledging that relationships are about safety, trust, give and take and good times.

      Hope this is helpful

      Justin (Bish)

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