How do I know I’m in an abusive relationship?

12 signs it's more about control than love

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I was young when I was completely swept off my feet by a manipulative, narcissistic man. I was also naïve.

The relationship was intoxicating at first. The sexual chemistry pulled me to him with such force it was exciting. I’d never felt that intensity before. But then things started to change.

I wasn’t even aware there was such a thing as emotional abuse. Like many women I questioned: ‘Am I in an abusive relationship?’ After all, so many other women’s stories were worse than mine. ‘He hasn’t hit me’ I thought. Besides, I wasn’t ‘that type of girl’ to fall for an abusive guy!

I’d had no history of domestic abuse in my family or previous relationships. My childhood was a happy one; I grew up in a comfy middle class home. I went to an elite girls’ school and spent holidays abroad. My grades had been good and I was popular with most of the kids in my year. My life to date was pretty cushy.

I learnt the hard way that domestic abuse is not always violent. But emotional abuse can be a precursor to it. I wish I’d known the warning signs. So, how do you even know you’re in an abusive relationship, in the absence of violence?

I’d never heard of the term ‘coercive control’. But in the United Kingdom it’s now deemed a crime, since the Serious Crimes Act 2015. That is, ‘controlling coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship’. In other words, emotional abuse is now seen to be up there with physical violence. Punishable by a prison sentence, in the severest of cases. But what is emotional abuse and how do you know it’s happening to you?

Here are 12 signs you are in an emotionally abusive relationship. That your partner is establishing coercive control:

  1. The relationship is intense from the start

You’re swept off your feet. They’re larger than life, charming, funny and usually, the life of the party. They’ll shower you with flowers or gifts early on. They’ll focus their undivided attention on you. Then things move fast.

You’ve not known them for long. But, before you know it, they’re talking love, marriage, babies. You’re moving in together.

The sexual chemistry is off the scale. You are the only one for them, the one they’ve needed all along. They put you on a Madonna-like pedestal.

For me, this made me feel wonderful, special. Although, to the outside world, I appeared confident and outgoing. On the inside I never felt like I was good enough. But here was this man who needed more than anyone had ever done before. It filled the emptiness that gnawed at me inside.

These early days feel so good, you’ll do anything for them. If they have no car, you’ll drive them around. No money, you’ll pay for everything. Nothing matters except seeing them again, feeling the intoxication of it.

  1. They question your behaviour

Before long, they start to question your behaviour and your past. How many people you’ve slept with before. They may imply you’re not the ‘Madonna’ they expected you to be. Having put you on that high pedestal, they’re now judging whether you live up to it. But their bar is high.

They insuate you may be ‘like the others girls (or guys)’ they’ve dated before. You’ve not even known them for long, but already you have to defend yourself as a ‘good girl (or boy)’.

  1. They isolate you

They criticise your friends, implying they’re a bad influence on you. If you go out with your friends alone, you face the Spanish inquisition when you get home. ‘Who were you with?’ ‘Did you talk to anyone else?’. It becomes easier to avoid the implications and stay at home.

They do the same with your family, criticising what they do or say. Even for who they are. They embarrass you by not turning up to family events, or behaving badly if they do. Again, it’s not worth it. So you start to making excuses and limiting contact with them.

Your partner justifies it all by telling you you only need each other. No-one else.

  1. They are jealous of others

When you are out with them, they monitor who you talk to. What you say. They insinuate that you are flirting if you even speak to another guy (or girl).

If you take a bit longer than usual to return home from work, they’ll imply you’re having an affair. They may justify it by saying they trust you, but not other guys (or girls).

It’s a double standard, as they have no problem flirting with others. But you daren’t question them about it.

  1. They micro-manage you

They make it clear what clothes they approve of and, if you are female, the ones which make you a ‘slut’. They hate you wearing makeup.

They decide what you watch on TV, who you speak to, they monitor your texts. They listen to your conversations and question who you’re talking to and why you said what you said.

They use their moods to control you. You try to second guess them and attempt to manage them. You change your behaviour, what you say and do, to appease them. To try to please them. To do everything you can to make them happy. So as not to inflame the anger they’re now starting to reveal. The anger that frightens you.

  1. They move the goal posts

They expect you to live up to their rules, sometimes rules that to you, may seem a little random and crazy. But as you try to understand what they are, they shift the goalposts. They need to keep you on the back foot at all times. None of it makes any sense to you.

  1. They justify their anger

They justify their bad behaviour – ‘I was tired’; ‘I was upset’; ‘You did x or y’. But they never take responsibility for it. It’s all about ‘Me, me, me’ – everything revolves around their needs, their wants. Not yours.

  1. Your self-esteem erodes

Your sense of self starts to erode, your confidence to whittle away. You can’t do anything right and you are always to blame. But you still have hope. They give you enough glimpses of the charismatic person you first met. Enough to stay and give you hope that man (or woman) will come back. If only you can behave in the right way, to make them happy. But nothing ever seems to work.

  1. They use intimacy as a weapon against you

They want you to prove you love them, so you show your vulnerability. But any intimacy you trusted them with gets later used as a weapon to hurt you. Your body issues get hurled back in your face. Any sexual desire only proves that you are a ‘whore’. Their words hurt as much as if they’d hit you. Sometimes you even wish they’d hit you instead.

  1. The first signs of violence appear

They destroy things that are meaningful to you, like a gift they or someone else gave you. They tear your clothes, sometimes when you are wearing them. Then one day in a fit of anger, they’ll give you a push or a shove. They’ll be full of remorse as soon as they’ve done it, though. There may even be tears.

They apologise over and over. But again, it’s your fault that they’ve hurt you. Or they blame an ‘unhappy past’. Anything but take responsibility for it.

  1. You keep their secret

You keep what is happening to you a secret. You lie to others about their behaviour. You feel ashamed about what is happening to you. But you start to believe what they are saying about you.

  1. The lows get lower

The fights become more frequent. The lows get lower and the highs further between. The verbal and/or physical abuse has escalated. You are walking on eggshells by now.

By now, there is little of you left. You feel trapped, with no way out. They’ve got you where they want you. They have complete control.

It takes courage to walk away from an abusive relationship. It took every once of strength that I had to do so. But the first step is to recognise you are in one.

Even if there has been no violence in your relationship to date, you should heed these warning signs. If they are familiar to you, I would urge you to get out. There might not be physical violence now, but emotional abuse can be the precursor to it. (And the shocking statistic remains: their partners or ex-partners kill 1-2 women every week).

But please bear in mind: of all the domestic violence homicides, 75% of victims are killed as they try to leave. You need to take care. Don’t do it without support, advice and help, particularly from the Family/Domestic Abuse resources that are available to you. It will be the hardest step that you take, but no love is worth dying for.

Originally published at

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