Lesson 12: How To Tell If You Are In An Abusive Relationship

Most of us believe we know what abuse is, and we like to think we would recognize it instantly. Most of us hear the stories of women in abusive relationships and think to ourselves: ” She must have been stupid. There’s no way I’d ever put up with that.”

Unfortunately, far, far too many of us do end up in abusive relationships. And the worst part is, often we don’t even realize it, until it’s too late. We tell ourselves “I’ll never be that bruised shell of a person on TV saying  ‘But he loooves me'” We pity the woman who got to the point where she just couldn’t take it anymore and ended up taking her own life just to get away. We feel for those who end up dead at the hands of their spouse. But deep down we think There must have been something wrong with her, to put up with that, to stay in a relationship like that. We would never let ourselves get into that situation.

Until we are.

The thing is, it sneaks up on you. Nobody goes into a relationship thinking “I bet he’s going to beat the crap out of me and call me a fat whore every night. I think I’ll marry him.”

(Side note: Most of us. I am aware that there are those that enjoy being dominated. See lesson 667: Turn-On’s,  Fetishes and Submission, Oh My.)

This lesson starts with the big obvious red flags, but also deals with the more subtle forms of abuse, the warning signs, if you will, that things are not, in fact, five by five. (Forgive me the random Buffy reference. Yes. I’m a fangirl.)

So, please, even if you think you are immune, please take a moment and ask yourself these questions. Answer them honestly, your life may depend on it.

(Please note: I use “he” simply because of personal experience and because women are typically more often abused than men, and by men, but know that this applies to any gender, and any type of relationship, gay, straight, even a friendship or parent-child relationship.)

1: Has your partner ever intentionally physically hurt you?

Now, I’m not talking about that time you were play-wrestling and fell off the couch or when you twisted your ankle trying out the new sex swing.
I’m talking about someone doing something to you with the sole intention of causing you physical pain. Even if they only try to hurt you, but you escape. Say, for example, he threw a ten-pound barbell at your head, but missed. Or threw a punch but hit the wall behind you instead because of your ninja-esque ducking skills. Trying to hurt you counts, even if they fail.
Actually hurting you counts too.

If the answer to this question is yes, then you need to leave. Yes, I know you love him. Yes, I know he really didn’t mean it. Yes, I know you think maybe you might have provoked it.Yes, I know you have kids and bills and ohmygodhowcanimanagewithouthim?
Still, leave. Yes, I know it’s just not that easy. Trust me. I KNOW.
Leave anyway.

2: Have they ever hurt your children?
Again, I’m not talking about a swat on the bottom after a child runs into the road.

I’m talking about when they hold your two year old daughter over the balcony at the top of the stairs and scream at you to come get your fucking kid right now! I’m talking slapping your child in the face for throwing a tantrum. Intentionally causing physical harm.
Get the fuck out.


This is abuse and even if they aren’t hitting you-yet-these are your children and it is your job to protect them. Yes. Even from their parents. Fortunately,this is usually the straw that finally pushes you to leave a bad situation for many people, but unfortunately, your child has now been abused, and will likely remember this forever.  Far too many people will put up with bring hurt themselves, but most will run the second they realize their children are in danger. Here’s the thing: If he’s hurting you, chances are damn good that he will eventually hurt the kids too. Don’t risk it. Leave, before it gets this far.

About now, you’re probably thinking “Duh. Everyone knows the hitting is bad.”

Yes. But as I said, generally that’s not how it starts. Abuse is not always in-your-face, blatant black eyes and “I walked into a door” excuses. It is insidious. It sneaks up on you when you aren’t paying attention. There are some less obvious warning signs that you can often catch before it gets to the point of violence and restraining orders and shelters and fear and stalking.

3: Do you still have close friends and family?
On of the first tricks of an abuser is to isolate you. Half of the time, it’s not even done consciously on the abusers part. He just wants you to want him. Wants your focus to be on him. And no one else. It starts with something stupid, like him complaining about your friends. When you go out without them, you get a guilt-trip when you get home. Perhaps when you take him out with you, he’s rude to your friends and family. When you talk about what your friends are up to, he gets annoyed. On the phone with your mom or girlfriend for too long? Dirty looks and snide remarks abound.

Eventually it becomes easier to just stay home, and after time the friends stop calling. Family doesn’t drop by as much because he doesn’t like it.

This is a rather large warning flag. If you used to be a social butterfly, and now you can’t remember the last time you talked to a friend, something is wrong. (Note: some exceptions for those with new children and no sitter/sleep here.)
The abuser will generally isolate you or only allow you around select pre-approved friends. (In my case, this meant I was “allowed” to hang out with women he was sleeping with or trying to sleep with)

4: Are you allowed time to yourself?
A trip to the grocery store. A day at work where he doesn’t stop by or call/text you every hour to see “Whatcha doing?” Being able to sit and read a book in peace. Going online and live-tweeting Grays Anatomy.  All things we take for granted.

If you can’t remember the last time you were able to do these things, you should be concerned. And I’m not referring to that new-relationship-can’t-bear-to-be-apart phase. That’s normal, to an extent. But if it extends past that, to the point where you exist only to amuse your partner, be careful.

Generally, abusers want control. They want to know where you are and what you are doing and who you are with at all times. Which brings us to…

5: How does your partner react when you are around members of the opposite sex?

(Or same sex, if you are gay. Really, anyone that could conceivably be considered a romantic interest.)

Is the answer, ” With total, inappropriate, unjustified jealous rage?” If so, be on your guard. This doesn’t always mean it’s going to get bad, but many a person has ended up getting hurt due to unfounded jealousy. If he flips out because you have a male friend, forbids you to see/speak to them anymore- first ask yourself: ” Does he have a valid reason to be jealous?” If the answer us an honest “No” then proceed with caution.

Also, if he reads your email, monitors your phone calls and tracks every website you visit online, run away.

6: How do you argue?
Arguing in a relationship is normal, and can actually be healthy-to some degree.

Being called a “Worthless Slut” or a “Fat Whore” on a regular basis is not.

The mentality of an abuser is such that they tend to feel the need to tear you down constantly. And yes-There are exceptions to this. When things get heated, some of us tend to say things we don’t mean, especially when we are hurt. (It’s possible I may havecalled my husband a “Fucking Fuck” at one point in our relationship.)

Stupid nonsensical swearing is one thing, but a true abuser learns your weak spots and uses them to hurt you. On a regular basis. To the point where you truly start to believe you really are a worthless fat whatever.

This is emotional abuse- which alone is reason enough to flee, but is also often an indicator of worse abuse to come.
Honestly, even if it never goes past this, you deserve better. Someone who truly loves you should not constantly throw your faults and insecurities in your face. They should not use your pain and past mistakes against you.

This is not love.

This person needs to tear you down in order to feel better about themselves. And too many of us, women and men alike, put up with it. (Surprisingly-to some- women are often guilty of doing this.)

Or worse, we actually believe that this is how a relationship is supposed to be. It isn’t.

Sometimes, as I said, awful things are said in anger, but a good person will apologize after a bad fight. It’s not a constant everyday “You burned my dinner again you useless fat fucking whore can’t you do anything right.”

Fuck that shit. Seriously. Kick his ass to the curb and move on.

7: Do you live in constant fear of making a mistake?
To a point, we all try to please our significant others. This is normal, and should be a mutual thing. You both do things to make the other happy. If, however, you went to the store and realized after the fact that you forgot to buy his favorite cereal and you’ve spent the last four hours freaking out about having to tell him this when he gets home, um, there be problems.

As with everything, there is a line here. If you just spent $800 on a new pair of Manolos, and now you don’t have money for groceries, well, chances are you’re gonna get chewed out, and rightfully so.  (And then you’re gonna return some shoes and go buy your kids some food, right?)

But you wont get the crap kicked out of you.

If you live your life walking on eggshells around your partner, terrified of making even the smallest of mistakes, something is wrong. This is wrong.


I know that I haven’t covered everything here. Please, add anything you think of that I’ve missed in the comment section.

Seriously, if you find yourself answering yes to any of these, please, I beg you, take a step back and really LOOK at your relationship. If you truly can’t be objective, ask a friend or family member for their honest opinion.

Chances are, they’ve noticed, because being in abusive relationship changes you. It strips down your self-esteem and destroys your spirit, and in the long run, your life. I don’t care HOW many mistakes you’ve made, you deserve better.

If it turns out you are in an abusive relationship, please, get help and get out before it’s too late. I know leaving in many cases is terrifying. Not just from fear of retribution, but fear of how you will live, especially if you have kids, or if, like me, you had been so isolated by that point that you no longer have any friends or family to turn to.

If you are a victim of abuse, and you need help, please email me or comment. Even if you just need to talk, to vent. Anything. I will never reveal your email address or “out” you, and I will do everything in my power to help. Because I’ve been there. Because abuse sucks. Because leaving also sucks, but you don’t have to face it alone. You are not alone.

Also, if you’d be willing and able to help a victim of abuse who is in need, please comment or leave me an email at ebcummingsblogATgmailDOTcom.

  1. Shannon said:

    OMG. Your article has really hit home. I have been trying so long to figure out why I had gone crazy and now I feel I know that I am being abused by my partner. I just needed some justification that it wasn’t my imagination. I am trying so hard to be strong and stick up for myself now. I dont have the support I need and my partner is trying so hard to keep her control over me. My situation sucks. Please email me.

  2. Tammy said:

    I’ve been in several abusive relationships, both emotional and physical. You are right, it totally steals who you are AND you deserve WAY more than that. I have since married a wonderful man who NEVER puts me down in any way – in fact, he builds me up so high I feel like I’m in the clouds – and calls me a princess. He would die before he ever hurt me physically. We can break the cycle of one abusive relationship after another. There are good men out there. But you can’t find him if you are staying with the abuser. EVERYONE deserves a relationship where you feel safe and better about yourself than you have your entire life. If I can do it, anyone can.

    • Hear, hear! Good for you! I love stories like this. It can get better. It WILL.

  3. Phyllis said:

    Well written and insightful. At age 48 I married a man I thought was wonderful. My friends all called it “a fairy-tale relationship.” Certainly looked great. Problem was, he turns out to be a psychopath, and they are experts at deceiving others, supremely convincing liars. Quickly after marriage, the reality that conflicted with his lies began to appear.

    You are absolutely correct that it sneaks up on you. Sections 2 through 7 of what you wrote, ironically, are nearly a chronological account of the order in which things began to appear. Although he never physically hurt my children, he heaped emotional abuse on them. It was simply his first way of hurting me. Then the controlling behavior began. I’d go to the grocery store, use the debit card, take my purchases to the car, start the engine, and my phone would ring. He checked the bank account so often from his desk at work that he knew I’d spent a few dollars as soon as I’d swiped the card and would call to ask, “WHAT did you buy?” And so it went.

    Finally after two years of this, he left to spend Christmas and New Years with the floozy of the moment and used that time to pack up and leave the state. He came home expecting to find me a puddle on the floor and instead walked into an empty house – his wife and his stuff were gone.

    • Wow. Good for you! And hugs. I’m sorry you had to go through this but I’m glad you’re free and safe now!

      Controlling the money is a BIG flag for me. He always made sure I never, ever had access to any of “his money” and itemized every dime I spent. Not that we ever HAD any money, (because he couldn’t be bothered to keep a job) but when we did he was careful to make sure I couldn’t ever save enough to escape him.

      • Phyllis said:

        Well, when he took off to see the floozy for the holidays, he left me 56 cents in the checking account and the savings account had long been empty. What he didn’t think about is, I’m more resourceful than he imagined. Within a half hour of his driving away to go to the airport, members of the church were helping me pack and checking on truck rental rates and writing a check to finance my escape.

        Good Christians will not stand by and look away when they see someone being mistreated. When a Christian church, always interested in saving marriages, goes to the length mine did to get me out of one, that speaks for itself about how bad things were. I’ve only scratched the surface, but so it was.

  4. This is very well done and I can identify with all of it. Thank you for putting it into words to help others. I think it’s very difficult when you’re in the midst of a relationship like this to understand just how wrong it all is. It starts to seem normal. I still struggle with what is normal in a relationship and sincerely hope I won’t make the same mistake again now that I have finally put one toe into the dating world again after my divorce. Forewarned is forearmed.

    • It’s definitely important to know what to look out for. I’m sorry you had to learn this through experience, though.

  5. I was in an abusive relationship quite a while back. I was pregnant with my oldest son and his father was verbally and emotionally abusive. I kept living with it, hoping it would stop, begging for the reason as to why he did that, but it never ceased. He was relentless. Finally one day I woke up and realized I needed to get out. I needed to protect my unborn child and start a life of our own. I packed my things that day and moved back home. I never looked back. It was hard, but it was the most courageous and empowering things I have ever done.

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