Signs and Symptoms of Domestic Violence

The subject of domestic violence (DV) is mostly left in silence, yet abuse thrives behind closed doors. Our continued silence is what allows abuse to develop and continue and it leads to many victims not knowing they are the subject of DV. The intention behind this article is to deepen our knowledge of DV and empower those inside or near an abusive relationship to leave.

For ease of this article we will refer to all forms of domestic violence, abuse and control as DV, though it is important to understand that DV is not about violence, it is about control. Physical violence is not always present, and once it does occur it has passed through many gates to get there. These gates tend to be around subtle forms of escalating control, such as deciding what the victim can or can’t wear, when they should come home, taking control of the finances and/or slowly isolating the victim from friends, family and even familiar places.

Also for ease we will refer to the victim as “she” and the perpetrator as “he” when necessary. Though DV can be found inside a same sex relationship or can take place from woman to man, the overwhelming majority of DV cases is from man to woman inside a long term committed relationship.

Many victims do not fully understand that they are being abused. This happens because DV is insidious (meaning that it creeps up slowly and unobtrusively) and because physical violence (the most obvious form of abuse) does not occur at the beginning and sometimes is not present at all.

More frequently DV is characterised by the perpetrator limiting the victims behaviour to suit his beliefs and expectations, which are often impossibly high of her. When she doesn’t or can’t meet those expectations he creates consequences. Thus she begins to feel like she is the one falling short or causing the tension.

He often acts poorly around the victims friends and family in a way that leads to conflict or embarrassment. Eventually alienation and distance result from his behaviour. He will usually insist that this is the family/friend’s fault, that they don’t understand or “get him”. In this way he will make himself the victim and she will feel like she needs to defend him. She will usually feel like she is put in the middle and is forced to defend her partner. Over a time a wedge is placed between the romantic relationship and the family until she feels she must choose him over everyone else she loves.

It is important to note that no human should ever be put in a position to choose between those she loves. Anyone who asks her to do so should raise a huge red flag as an DV perpetrator.

Signs that YOU are living inside a DV

The most glaring red flag is if you feel any kind of fear (at any time) in regards to your partner.

This may mean that you are scared to say what you think, to bring up certain topics, or to say no to sex because doing so may have negative consequences. No matter the reason, fear has no place in a healthy relationship.

Other signs of domestic control and abuse include 

Consistant criticism
Blames you for the criticism or abuse
Tells you what to wear and how you should look
Tells you that you can’t live without him, would be nothing without him
Throws things or punches walls when angry
Yells at you and makes you feel small
Keeps cash and credit cards from you
Limits or controls your employment
Keeps close tabs on where you go and whom you go with
Makes you ask to see friends and family
Keeps tabs on your messages, emails and call history
Embarrasses you in front of others, makes you want to avoid people
Alienates you from friends and family
Tells you that your loved ones don’t understand him/her
Blames your friends and family for the aliention
Makes you feel you must choose between him/her and your friends/family
Makes you feel like you owe them sex
Gets angry when you say no to sex
Forces you to have sex
Keeps you from eating, sleeping, or getting medical care
Threatens to kill you or people you love
Abandons you in a place you don’t know
Attacks you with weapons
Locks you in or out of your house
Punches, pushes, kicks, bites, pulls hair

The Three Phases of Abuse 

Although DV is often in the dark, its progression has been well studied by experts and is thus is predictable. DV doesn’t being with the obvious big event. Instead it escalates through 3 phases, which are cyclical.

Tension building
Acute Explosion
The honeymoon (including remorse)

Tension Building: During this phase the abuser may become increasingly moody or begin to withdraw affection. They may engage in higher control, put-downs and criticisms. The victim may feel like they are “walking on eggshells” around the abuser. This phase can last for a few hours, months, or anything in between. The longer the phase drags on the more inevitable the blow-up will feel, even if the victim can’t be sure exactly when or how it will blow up.

Acute Explosion: The tension finally breaks with an abusive incident. This can take place in a variety of ways. If the DV relationship includes physical violence this is usually when the abuser lashes out at the victim through punching, hitting, throwing or even raping the victim. In a DV relationship where the abuse is primarily psychological the abuser may scream, yell, threaten violence or call the victim humiliating names (usually around the victim being worthless, nothing without them etc).

Honeymoon:  This phase usually begins with remorse. The abuser is sorry, promising not to do this again. They may be extra affectionate, including buying gifts or engaging in helpful behaviours around the house to “make up” for the abuse. Many will promise to change, promise to stop abusing, or promise that it will never happen again. This phase can feel so lovely to the victim that they will often accept the abuser’s reasoning that it was their fault. They may try to adjust their own behaviour as the next tension building phase begins, believing themselves responsible for the prevention of the next “explosion”.

Not all abusive relationships have a honeymoon phase. Those that do usually see it slowly diminish over time as the cycle continues to go around and around. Generally, each explosive phase is worse than the one before it.

So, Why Doesn’t she just leave? 

Lesley Morgan Steiner is a survivor of domestic violence and author of “Crazy Love” In an excellent TED talk about why domestic abuse victims don’t leave, she helps us to understand the complex answer to the frequently asked question, why doesn’t she leave?

She says,  “Why did I stay? The answer is easy. I didn’t know he was abusing me. Even though he held loaded guns to my head, pushed me down stairs, threatened to kill our dog, pulled the key out of the car ignition as I drove down the highway, poured coffee grinds on my head as I dressed for a job interview, I never once thought of myself as a battered wife. Instead, I was a very strong woman in love with a deeply troubled man, and I was the only person on earth who could help Connor face his demons.”

In this TED talk, Lesley is letting us know that DV is a complex situation that involves great care and love for the abuser. It is not simple to leave. In addition, there may be children that need to be taken care of and the concern of negatively affecting their life. The victim has been alienated from friends and family (and may believe in the alienation being the family/friend’s fault) so seeking support is difficult.

In addition, leaving the perpetrator may be extremely dangerous. As Lesley says later in the talk, “Over 70 percent of domestic violence murders happen after the victim has ended the relationship, after she’s gotten out, because then the abuser has nothing left to lose”. Even with the threat of danger, most victims who leave go on to live fulfilling lives and have healthy relationships.

There are some basic things you can do to prepare for leaving, even if you are not ready yet:

Tell someone you love about what is happening to you.
Hide a set of car keys.
Make a copy of financial information: bank accounts, password etc
Pack and then hide a bag with keys, extra clothes, important papers, money, and medicines. You could keep it at a trusted friend or family members house.
Have a plan for calling the police in an emergency. Know where you’ll go and how you’ll get there.
To ensure safety after you have left, it is a good idea to be in contact with your local support organisation, and to change any regular appointment times, sporting events or activities. You can also change your usual travel routes (to work, school etc), and have a friend or family member that you can frequently check in with.

How can you help someone you love?

Are you worried about someone you love? Here are signs that indicate a potential DV relationship:

They have gradually become quiet/withdrawn
They are reserved and distant
Have dropped out of activities they would usually enjoy
Cancel appointments or meetings with you at the last minute
Often late to work or other appointments
Exhibits excessive privacy concerning their personal life or the person with whom they’re in a relationship
Isolating themselves by cutting off contacts with friends and family members
Feel like they must choose between you and your partner
Checks in unnecessarily with the partner
Seems unnecessarily anxious to please partner
Have children who seem timid, frightened, or extremely well-behaved when the partner is around
If you find the above signs are true for your friend or family member, it might be time to ask them about it. Let them know you have no judgements about their situation and love and support them unconditionally. The absolute best thing to do is to keep a strong tie with the victim, even when the perpetrator is working toward isolation and alienation. This may mean not taking your friends withdrawn behaviour personally and not letting yourself be angry at the abuser (which can be difficult). Support your friend in whatever way they need and let them know you are there for them, and will always be there for them, even if you do not agree with the relationship. Make sure they know you will always stand by them, no matter what. Offer to be the person they come to should they ever need it.



Almost every town has a local support group for DV that will take in the victim and children of a DV relationship. For more information check out the White Ribbon Campaign where you can find your local support group.

Lesley Steiner’s incredible talk on why she doesn’t leave:

Amazing article by Huff Post that explains the cycle of brainwashing as studied by Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton but as it specifically pertains to domestic abuse:

Published by

Jenny Podorozhnaya

I am a Clinical Supervisor and Psychotherapist, Hypnotherapist, Coach and Trainer living on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. I have four children and two cats and am married to Dimitry. All of this keeps me reasonably busy.

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