The warning signs of an abusive relationship

Annie Hayes
·7-min read
Photo credit: Boy_Anupong
Photo credit: Boy_Anupong

From Netdoctor

It isn’t always obvious whether you’re in an abusive relationship. We all know the common signs of domestic abuse – physical violence, name-calling – but it can be easy to miss the subtle and insidious signs of an abusive relationship that tend to build up over time.

It’s called psychological abuse, and it refers to a person’s repeated attempts to intimidate, control or isolate you, or otherwise manipulate your sense of reality.

Any relationship can turn abusive. It could be your romantic partner, parent, caretaker or even someone you work with.

If you suspect you’re in an abusive relationship, you need to trust your instincts and walk away. The first step towards that involves recognising the abuse for what it is.

If you fear immediate physical violence, call the emergency services on 999. If you aren’t in immediate danger, call the National Domestic Violence Helpline for free on 0808 2000 247. It’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

To help you identify these behaviours, we’ve summarised key signs of abuse to look for:

66 signs of an abusive relationship

An abusive relationship – whether emotionally, physically, financially or sexually abusive – is centred on the control and manipulation of the other person.

When someone is being abused, it’s common for them to believe it’s their fault and that they somehow ‘deserve’ the abuse. You are never to blame for how an abusive person treats you – this is about them, not you.

Every domestic abuse situation is unique, but there are common factors that link the experience of an abusive relationship. For example, you feel afraid of your partner most of the time and avoid certain topics out of fear of angering them.

We’ve used ‘partner’ as an example below, but if any of the following signs apply to any person – regardless of their connection to you – it’s very likely to be an abusive relationship:


An abusive person will often undermine your self-esteem at every available opportunity.

  • Your partner yells, screams or swears at you

  • Your partner belittles you e.g. ‘no one else will want you’

  • Your partner criticises you or calls you names

  • Your partner attacks your intelligence, looks, mental health or capabilities

  • Your partner compares you to others

  • Your partner treats you so badly, you’re embarrassed for others to see

  • Your partner ignores or belittles your accomplishments

  • Your partner takes responsibility for your success

  • Your partner patronises you or makes you feel as though you’re beneath them

  • Your partner constantly puts you down e.g ‘you’re always messing up’

  • Your partner dismisses things that are important to you

  • Your partner is constantly sarcastic and when object, they say it’s a ‘joke’

  • Your partner ridicules your interests

  • Your partner constantly pushes your buttons on purpose


They will also manipulate and take control of your life, in ways large and small.

  • Your partner hurts you, or threatens to hurt or kill you

  • Your partner threatens to take your children away

  • Your partner is violent towards you, your children, family, friends or pets

  • Your partner has prevented you from leaving the house

  • Your partner threatens to commit suicide if you leave

  • Your partner forces you to have sex

  • Your partner deliberately damages or destroys your belongings

  • Your partner acts excessively jealous or possessive

  • Your partner limits your access to money

  • Your partner limits your access to your phone or car

  • Your partner monitors your internet history, emails, texts and calls

  • Your partner makes decisions for you, such as cancelling a doctor’s appointment

  • Your partner constantly checks up on you or follows you

  • Your partner forces you to do anything you do not want to do

  • Your partner gives you direct orders e.g. ‘go home and make dinner’

  • Your partner prevents you seeking medical help

  • Your partner has an unpredictable temper

  • Your partner uses ‘others’ to reinforce criticism e.g. ‘everyone thinks you’re crazy’


An abuser will also feel the need to create a hierarchy where they are morally superior.

  • Your partner accuses you of flirting or being unfaithful

  • Your partner blames you for their abusive behaviour

  • Your partner blames alcohol or drugs for their behaviour

  • Your partner blames a mental health condition or family history for their behaviour

  • Your partner blames you for their problems

  • Your partner denies something you know to be true – called gaslighting

  • Your partner uses guilt to manipulate you, e.g. ‘look what I do for you’

  • Your partner denies their abuse and blames you for getting upset

  • Your partner accuses you of abuse and makes out they’re the victim

  • Your partner trivialises your feelings and tells you you’re overreacting

  • Your partner makes personal jokes and blames you for ‘having no sense of humour’


They will interfere with close supportive relationships to make you dependent on them.

  • Your partner refuses to communicate with you and often walks out

  • Your partner barely acknowledges you e.g. looks away when you’re talking

  • Your partner demands respect and punishes you for perceived slights

  • Your partner prevents you from socialising or having hobbies

  • Your partner controls where you go or what you do

  • Your partner tries to keep you from seeing friends or family

  • Your partner withholds affection to manipulate you into doing something

  • Your partner turns others against you by telling people you’re unstable

  • Your partner disputes your feelings and tells you how you ‘really’ feel

  • Your partner says you’re needy and downplays your problems

  • Your partner acts indifferently to you e.g. they see you crying and do nothing

Character changes

You may react to the abuser’s behaviour because you’ve forgotten how to be any other way.

  • You neglect your own needs for theirs

  • You excuse your partner’s poor behaviour – to yourself and others

  • You modify your behaviour because you worry what your partner will say or do

  • You repress your feelings to keep the peace

  • You change your behaviour in response to them guilt-tripping you

  • You feel guilty when you stand up for yourself

  • You constantly make sacrifices to please your partner

  • You critique yourself through your partner’s eyes

  • You downplay the severity of your partner’s behaviour e.g. ‘it was a one-off’

  • You think the way they act is the result of your actions

  • You’re scared of what might happen if you leave them

  • You feel emotionally numb or helpless

You don’t have to tick off every statement on this list to determine that you’re being mentally or physically abused. If you fear immediate physical violence, call the emergency services on 999. If you aren’t in immediate danger, call the National Domestic Violence Helpline for free on 0808 2000 247. It’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

How to leave an abusive relationship

You do not have to wait for an emergency situation to find help. It’s important to tell someone you trust what is happening. Remember that you are not alone, and your feelings are valid. For support and guidance on next steps, contact:

Leaving an abusive relationship can be slightly more complicated if you’re married, share children or assets, or have a business arrangement. But that’s no reason to stay, and there are many resources that can help you, including the National Domestic Violence Helpline’s rights and options page.

Note, the advice to self-isolate due to the coronavirus pandemic does not apply if you need to escape from domestic abuse. You can find help and support for domestic abuse during the coronavirus outbreak on the government’s website.

Last updated: 29-10-20

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