7 subtle signs of an abusive relationship

By Sarah Young,
updated on Apr 25, 2021

7 subtle signs of an abusive relationship

Our homes are the places we should feel safest, and yet, for so many people, this is where the real danger lies. Here, we explore the less recognised signs of domestic abuse

Content warning: contains details of abuse

Domestic abuse is a crime predominantly happening behind closed doors, with abusers being any age and from all walks of life. They appear to others as just another regular person – a friend, family member, or colleague – which can make them hard to spot. And this is why it’s so important to be aware of the signs, to ensure people get support to safely break free from abusive relationships as soon as possible.

According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales data for the year ending March 2018, police received more than 100 calls relating to domestic abuse every hour, and yet only 18% of women who had experienced partner abuse in the previous 12 months reported it to the police – highlighting just how big of an issue this truly is. One in four women, and one in six men, will be a victim of domestic abuse in their lifetime, and it’s reported that two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone.

Victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse come from all backgrounds, and can be any gender, sexuality, race, or class. However, it’s pertinent to acknowledge that domestic abuse prevalence estimates do not take into account whether acts of violence are repetitive and ongoing, who experienced coercive control, and other important factors. While we should never undermine the experiences of male domestic abuse victims, charities such as Women’s Housing Action Group (WHAG) report that: “The abuse suffered by women is more physically severe, and is more likely to result in injuries and hospitalisation.”


While the media typically focuses on physical violence within an abusive relationship, this is just one type of intimate partner abuse. Domestic abuse is a term that covers physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional and psychological abuse, financial abuse, as well as harassment and stalking. These forms of abuse are less recognised, which means that those experiencing them can sometimes not even realise that they are in an abusive relationship. Often victims – and sometimes even those around them – can feel that the abuse isn’t “that bad” because there is no physical violence, but seven out of 10 psychologically abused women display symptoms of post-tramatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or depression, with psychological abuse being a stronger predictor of PTSD than physical abuse for women.

If any of this is ringing alarm bells for you, whether it’s a concern about a relationship you are in personally, or you’re worried a friend or family member, here are some abusive behaviours to look out for that aren’t based on physical violence.

Moving the relationship quickly

Abusive relationships are often very intense. An abuser will most likely be very loving at the start, and shower their victim with compliments, attention, and affection. This quickly establishes a strong bond, and a sense of ‘you two against the world’. They typically want to spend a lot of time together, and express their love early. They may suggest moving in together quite quickly, or talk about marriage and children, and may even propose.

This intensity enables them to begin to control different parts of their victim’s life. An abuser may suddenly ‘flip’ to being aggressive and malicious in certain situations, becoming a totally different person to the one the victim thinks they know, leaving them in disbelief, shock, and confusion. Psychological abuse is often interspersed with kindness to confuse the victim, and they often will – especially at first – apologise and express regret at their own behaviour. This sends the victim into a cycle of false hope that they know they have done wrong, will change, and that these ‘slips’ in behaviour are not the ‘real’ partner that they know and love.


This is a term to describe when an abuser confuses their victim, making out that they are overly sensitive, or overreacting. They might deny your version of events until you start to believe their narrative, or claim an event never even happened. They may present insults as jokes, and make you feel ridiculous for getting upset. Gaslighting can be subtle, and not that noticeable at first, but it steadily erodes the victim’s self-esteem, and leaves you emotionally reliant on the abuser. Abusers will also frequently shift the blame of issues within the relationship and outside of it, to the victim, and refuse to accept responsibility for their own behaviour.


Abusers may humiliate, undermine, or embarrass their victim in public or in private. They may call their partner names such ‘worthless’, ‘fat’, ‘stupid’, or ‘disgusting’, and use the vulnerabilities of their victim against them. This could be anything that the victim feels shame or guilt over – from secrets or private information the victim has shared, to even mental illnesses they may have – and are used to degrade the victim. They focus on breaking down the victim’s self-worth, until the victim feels like no one else could ever love them.


Jealousy and isolation

As the relationship progresses, the abuser may become more jealous and possessive, voicing disapproval over who the victim talks to, or spends time with, discouraging them from seeing friends and family, and accusing the victim of cheating.

They will often focus their jealousy on certain people, and may fly into a fit of rage, or frequently accuse their partner of cheating, until the victim believes sustaining their relationships, or interacting with this particular person, is more trouble than it is worth. They may manipulate a breakdown in the victim’s relationships by insulting those close to them, turning the victim against their loved ones, or otherwise causing a rift in their relationships – which can also extend to work colleagues and health services. Isolating their victim means that they are able to gain complete control over them, and ensure that their victim is dependent on them.


Beyond your other relationships and interactions, an abusive partner may try to control what you wear, eat, or any other aspect of your life, checking your phone and social media, and may even go as far as to demand your passwords.

Private information, sexuality, precarious immigration status, mental illness, and children, can all be used to control the victim, by using threats of revealing their private information, outing a victim, reporting them to authorities, getting them sectioned, or of taking the children away from them. The perpetrator may also use threats of suicide to keep the victim from leaving them, or threats of harm to the victim, the people they love, or even their pets.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse can include lots of things, such as, insisting that you act out fantasies or engage in sexual acts that you have not given explicit or enthusiastic consent to, denial of your sexuality, not allowing you to use contraceptives, controlling when you get pregnant, or deliberately infecting you with a sexually transmitted disease.

Less recognised forms of physical abuse

When we hear the phrase ‘physical abuse’, often we interpret that as physical acts of violence, from hitting to kicking, or other forms of physical force. But this abuse can go further, and a lot of people aren’t aware of the signs of this. An abuser may put physical restrictions on you, such as refusing to let you leave the house, or preventing you from sleeping, eating, drinking, or washing.

This is not an exhaustive list of the forms abuse can take, but if any of the above seems familiar, please reach out and talk to someone. You can find professional support options here:

Online: has a page on finding local support, a chat feature, and an email contact, as well as many other resources.

By phone:
• National Domestic Abuse Helpline run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247 (
• The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors, run by Respect: 0808 801 0327
• The Mix, free information and support for under 25s in the UK: 0808 808 4994
• National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Galop: 0800 999 5428
• Samaritans 24/7 service: 116 123

In an emergency where you are afraid for your safety, please dial 999.

You may not feel comfortable speaking to loved ones about what is going on, or maybe you have, yet they aren't sure of how to help you further. Counselling offers you a safe space to talk, without fear and without judgement. To connect with a counsellor, visit

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