7 Signs Your Relationship Is Abusive (Even If There's No Physical Violence)
Maybe your partner doesn't hit you. Maybe their physical violence doesn't leave visible scars.
I have a recording where my ex laughs, "If you were standing there battered and bruised, then maybe you'd have a leg to stand on."
That's the cleverness of an abuser who knows where to draw the line. At that moment, I realized my ex had actually been in control—it wasn't a senseless rage—and was doing this for fun. To call it "minor violence" or "common assault" trivializes the ongoing suffering during abuse, but that's how society and the criminal justice system frames it, so we just go along with it.
Because it's so covert, you doubt your sanity. No doubt, the person is gaslighting you—telling you you're too sensitive, and it's all your fault. These are some of the things (besides physical violence) that suggest your significant other might be abusive.
1. Your partner tries to isolate you.
During our last six months, my partner would repeatedly say, "Your hair and jacket smell like someone else" to stop me from going out, interrogated me when my "shoes had moved" and even when I took the trash out. He even tried to convince me my parent had been abusive.
That was when he was getting desperate. Before that, he'd make a fuss about things I just didn't understand. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense.
Once, after a yoga class, he insisted that I had told him we were going to a crab restaurant, and that I must've been "messing with [his] head," because Burger and Lobster was emblazoned all over the restaurant. Every time I went to yoga, he'd remind me of that. Eventually, it just became easier not to go.
If you're financially dependent, or in the pit of abuse, you may feel extremely isolated.
You're never completely trapped. To reclaim your connection with your friends and family, simply say, "This may sound strange, and it's hard for me to say. I've been abused by [name], and it became impossible for me to talk to anyone. Still, I'd really like for us to get connected again."
You'd be surprised at how much your loved ones will help you.
2. Your partner mingles intimidation tactics with pleas for sympathy.
"I have every right to take your wallet away. Your visa is in it, and I'm your immigration sponsor." He used his sponsorship of my visa as an excuse for controlling behavior. He demanded passwords to my devices, and I eventually caved in. "You know I hate phones," he would say. "That’s how I found out my ex was cheating on me."
I had nothing to hide. But he'd read my emails and messages, interrogating me.
He'd insist on knowing my whereabouts: "What if something happens to you? What would your parents and the police say?" He might show up somewhere, and even if I was sitting by the window waving to him, he'd insist that I wasn't there.
Some abusers threaten to hurt children or pets. The mere thought is frightening enough. You walk on eggshells, knowing your personal space might be intruded upon anytime, no idea what might trigger an outburst.
Today, I still receive threatening communications from him, garbled with sob stories, attempts to play both hero and victim. I've never needed to be saved by anyone, much less him. Neither do you.
3. Your partner tries to control your actions.
I like beautiful clothes. So when my ex told me I needed to change, because I was "too dressed up for work," I was confused. I looked decent and professional. "I know best. I'm older and more experienced," he'd insist.
If I did what he suggested, it was evidence that I was "up to no good." If I didn't, he'd use it against me for months. It was a classic case of damned if I do, damned if I don't.
Maybe your abuser doesn't try to control what you wear. But he may control the way you fold the clothes, clean the house, speak, or do any number of other activities.
The more trivial and banal, the more degraded you feel and the less personal space you have. It's a powerful tool for emotional manipulation.
4. Your partner coerces you to do things you're uncomfortable with through emotional subterfuge.
I remember the night when he said, with those wounded eyes, "I bought this [drug] for us. You don't want to be close to me." It wasn't the first time I told him I wasn't interested in illegal substances. When I refused, he blew up, and immediately decided that must mean I was cheating on him.
His pressure oscillated between "I'm just trying offer you pleasure" and "you're such a snob, my friends don't like you." My decisions were never respected, and somehow, they were always about him.
Then there were the nights he forced me to spend on his drug dealer's couch because going home on my own meant I was "cheating on him." The one night I made a boundary and went home without him, he said, "Now everybody knows there's something wrong. My friends hate you. And I'm still standing up for you."
But you see, the abuser believes they are entitled. He'd tell me how tolerant and kind he was, flip the script and call me demanding or sensitive—sensitive, because I wouldn't let him inspect the contents of the toilet before I flushed.
5. Your partner tries to manage your reality without your knowledge or consent.
Names would disappear from my phonebook—which my partner had obviously deleted—and he would go so far as to point that out, saying I was playing mind games. Emails were deleted without my ever having seen them. This is another example of gaslighting—a technique in which abusers try to skew your reality, making you doubt your sanity and judgment.
After he did something physically abusive—like throwing an iPad at me or pointing a knife at me—he'd insist he was too intoxicated to remember but would plead remorse. As time passed, he'd rewrite the story, saying he remembered everything and I was lying. If this happens to you, hold on to your gut instinct—your abuser is lying.
6. Your partner casts you as the villain.
After dealing with one of his episodes, I'd often try to recover by going for a massage or a walk. But he'd then accuse me of being abusive: "Do you expect me to think that you're not punishing me by going out?"
If I walked away after his repeated taunts, he'd say I was being "abusive" for triggering his fears of abandonment. Never mind that anyone has the right to use the bathroom without being told she's being unfaithful in the first place.
But I checked myself. I was the one fleeing from my own house over and over again. I was the one shaking in fear. And I was the one who sometimes wanted to end my life.
7. Your partner uses your empathy and love to make you feel guilty.
He'd corner me at home when sober and say things like, "Don't think that just because you're doing well, you're not sick." If I got upset, he'd coldly say, "Look at me. I'm so calm. And you're falling apart. What does that say?"
Since I'm a therapist myself, he'd taunt me with rhetorical questions like, "Aren't you supposed to help me? You should know better."
It didn't matter how many times I said, "I'm not your doctor or therapist. I'm your girlfriend." He continued to insult my credentials and credibility.
"How do you even help your clients if you can't even be patient with me?"
Other abused women have told me how their empathy is used against them. "You're a healer/coach—how can you not help me?" But you can't help a person who adamantly refuses to change anything and only wants to feed off your energy. Women who are especially empathetic are actually often bait for psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists—exactly because of that sensitivity to the feelings of others.
Research shows that abusers eventually become violent. And I know what it's like to become so desensitized that you accept things you never would have tolerated before as normal. When a policewoman told me, "You're at medium risk of suffering significant harm or homicide perpetrated by your partner," I was stunned. That's how much my reality had been skewed.
For a long time, I felt guilty for even entertaining the thought of creating an exit strategy. When a friend told me, "Honey, you need to see your doctor. Get it on record," I felt trapped by the guilt of betraying him by telling a professional.
I still wanted to believe he was a good person. That he could change. That he loved me. That he could love me.
You owe it to yourself to keep yourself safe. If you don't honor and protect yourself, who will? You are so much more precious than your abuser would have you believe.
For me, the steps to an exit happened slowly, over time. My local friends, a domestic violence charity, and my doctor knew. After that, I started to mentally organize my belongings, so I could execute easily when the time came. Eventually, I started to discard and donate things in small batches; I corralled my important documents and scanned key ones. I locked down my devices, hard drives, and Kindle accounts, changing every password I had.
I was absorbing information about the Dark Triad (psychopaths, narcissists, and Machiavellians) wherever and whenever I could, and didn't want him to know. And every night, I'd pin everything I wanted in my new home on a secret Pinterest board. It'd be a place of beauty and light—no tobacco ash in my bed—and it would smell divine. It gave me something to look forward to. I even arranged to rent a friend's spare room if I needed an emergency out.
I was still holding on to some invisible hope, though. I thought, maybe he'll check into rehab. Maybe he'll change.
But he didn't. And everything I'd done up to that point meant that when he shoved me, twice, doubling me over in pain, I didn't have to think about whether or not I could get out. I just had to go.
I packed everything up in eight hours, and I've never regretted that choice for a second.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.