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Emotional abuse

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18 early signs of potential abuse | 15 warning signs
Cycle of violence | Power and control | Equality wheel | Healthy relationship wheel

Emotional abuse often begins subtly and increases in severity over time. Batterers use emotional abuse gain power and control over their victims. Recognizing the warning signs of a battering personality can help you understand the dynamics of domestic violence and make relationship choices that are best for you.

18 Early Signs During Dating of a Potential Abuser or Batterer

  1. Being overly needy - always needing help or some type of emotional support from you. Potential abusers often start out with a poor sad puppy or bleeding heart type of behavior. They express feeling downtrodden, saying they always come up short or mistreated by others. Always wants your help to fix or overcome this "problem".

  2. Makes decisions for you without asking - about social plans, dinner menus, etc. You are often not asked what you want or if commitments fit your schedule before they commit you and your time or make other choices for you.

  3. Bragging or excessive boasting - potential abusers often try to impress by bragging on accomplishments. Cocky, relaxed or arrogant in their own social circle, but may be uncomfortable in yours.

  4. Insecure around others/General paranoia - May seem "normal" in conversations with you, but uncomfortable around others you introduce him to such as your friends, family, co-workers, etc. Potential abusers are often paranoid in general - of other's motives or actions (including yours) in an unrealistic way, looking for hidden meanings, unfounded suspicions.

  5. Invades your privacy - shows up unexpectedly at your house, in social settings when you are out with friends. Is generally "nosey" about what you are doing, who your friends are, picks up and reads your mail when visiting you. Questions you about activities in ways that seem unreasonable or intrusive.

  6. Ignores or disregards your boundaries - pressures you in spite of your having said no (to any thing/activity), appears to deliberately do things or treat you in ways you have expressly said you dislike. Acts as though "they forgot" when crossing a boundary you have expressed previously.

  7. Lies or manipulates you - Finding out you have not been told the truth about something, often even simple things that seem silly to hide or lie about. Situations that make you feel misled and you feel you were deceived for no reason, that the truth would have been easily acceptable. Resorts to being angry or evasive when confronted with the truth.

  8. Over-reacts, uptight or twitchy - A potential abuser is over-sensitive to simple situations, small comments, often seems "on edge" or uneasy for no reason. You may ask "what's wrong" when they are obviously acting uptight, yet they won't share anything, preferring to answer "nothing" or try to pretend things are fine.

  9. Pushy with others and/or you - Can't let others have their own opinions, must have the last word. May cause arguments or take issue with others, often over things that seem simple or not worth arguing over.

  10. Pressuring you for sexual acts - these are often for sexual favors or acts that you are uncomfortable with and/or dislike. Tries to point out others "do it", swears they "can't help themselves". Ignores your wishes to not engage in such activities. This type of behavior is about not being able to control themselves sexually with partners.

  11. Feelings of discomfort around their family/friends - Something about their close friends, family members, etc. doesn't feel right. You often feel like a misfit in their company, or perhaps that you don't really like these individuals. Family members may seem harsh to each other, unforgiving or unreasonable in their expectations, they may argue openly in front of you.

  12. Overbearing parents or other family - Family members expect to tell them what job to do, what to do for socials, what instruments and such the children/teenagers should play, in general deciding what they should do and not do. Often times eventual victims are pushed into marriage by the potential abuser's family, as if it's ok to make the decision for you or assume marriage on your behalf, make plans and arrangements for wedding ceremonies and parties without consulting with you.

  13. Road rage - Viewing other people's bad driving as a personal assault, like they were doing something on purpose. Aggressive toward other drivers who are minding their own business, won't allow others to pass, plays games with innocent drivers just to annoy/aggravate them. Other drivers are considered "idiots".

  14. Possessive - dislikes letting you out of their sight, takes offense when others offer you compliments, feels others are trying to take you away from them.

  15. Ignoring your own gut instincts - when you have feelings of discomfort, misgivings, yet you ignore them or brush them aside, constantly making excuses for the dating partner's behaviors that seem inappropriate, or defending them against others.

  16. Uses spiritual beliefs or religion to pressure you into commitment - telling you God has plans for you together, how you are meant to be together because it was God's plan. Often this later leads to pressuring that you would be disobeying God if you left the relationship.

  17. Disgruntled relationships with previous partners - Abusers often have lingering discontent with former girlfriends/boyfriends or spouses. Often they blame past partners for relationship failures, deny past abuse charges or arrests (may admit the legal action occurred but deny they were at fault), or have constant arguments with former partners over the children (custody, parenting issues) from these relationships.

  18. Stories of previous anger, violence or abuse - Others close to them, often friends or family, tell stories or relate incidents of outbursts or violence. Often times to a future victim these stories seem unbelievable or out of character for the new partner, the victim cannot believe the new partner could act in such a way.

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15 Warning Signs of An Abusive or Battering Personality

The following list has been compiled to help identify characteristics of an abuser for those already involved in relationships. The behaviors are more severe than the list above. Overtime, abuse will escalate, therefore leading to more severe behavior and warning signs. If your partner displays a combination of these behaviors, he/she may be a batterer and abuser:

  1. Quick Involvement: Many victims of battering date or know their abuser for less than six months before they are engaged or living together. The battering type comes on strong, claiming, "you're the only person I could ever talk to," or "I've never felt loved like this by anyone." He/she pressures you for an exclusive commitment almost immediately.

  2. Jealousy: An abuser will always say that his jealousy is a sign of love. Excessively possessive, calls constantly, or visits unexpectedly, suspicious of your friendship and involvement with others.

  3. Controlling Behavior: Questions you intensely about whom you talked to and where you were, checks car mileage or checks up on you in other ways; keeps all the money; insists you ask for permission to go anywhere or do anything.

  4. Unrealistic Expectations: Expects you to be the perfect partner and to meet his/her every need and/or the children's needs without help.

  5. Isolation: Limits your involvement with family and friends; deprives you of a phone or a car; tries to prevent you from holding a job. You try to keep the abuser happy by not seeing anyone but him/her. You become truly isolated with no friends or family you feel close enough to talk to about what's going on.

  6. Blames Others for Problems: Any mistakes made by the batterer will be blamed on you or someone else. The job, the waitress, you, anyone - it's always someone else's fault if any thing goes wrong. Everyone is out to get him/her.

  7. Blames Others for Feelings: They say, "You've caused this problem by making me feel this way" or "You make me angry, I can't help it" instead of "I'm sorry" or "Let's work this out".

  8. Hypersensitivity: Is easily insulted. They'll rant and rave about injustices that are just part of everyday living.

  9. Cruelty to Animals and Children: Kills or punishes animals brutally, being insensitive to their pain or suffering. Also, may expect children to do things beyond their ability, tease them until they cry, or tickle them until they hurt.

  10. Playful Use of Force During Sex: Enjoys throwing you down or holding you down against your will during sex, says he/she finds the idea of rape exciting. A batterer may show little concen about whether you want to have sex and use anger to get you to give into having sex.

  11. Verbal Abuse: Constantly criticizes you or says cruel things, degrades you, swears at you, name-calling.

  12. Rigid Sex Roles: Expects you to serve, obey, and remain at home.

  13. Sudden Mood Swings, "Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde": Switches from sweet and loving to explosively violent in a matter of minutes. Mood swings and explosive emotions are typical of a battering personality.

  14. Past Battering: Admits hitting men/women in the past but says the situation brought it on. Legal convictions of past battering with another partner, but denys wrong-doing.

  15. Threats of Violence: Makes statements such as, "I'll hurt you", "I'll kill you" or "I'll slap you", then dismisses them with "I really didn't mean it" or "I was just upset."

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Cycle of violence, power and control, equality, and healthy relationships

Emotional abuse can escalate into physical violence under certain circumstances. Here are some risk factors associated with an increased severity in abuse:

If you recognize any of these patterns or warning signs, you are not alone. One in three women experience domestic violence in her lifetime. The abuse is not your fault. Being a victim is nothing to be ashamed of and help is available.

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Portions of this page are derived from The Cop and the Survivor



The information on this website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.



Women Are Safe, Inc., does not discriminate in regard to sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, age, or marital status. All of our services are free. The program receives funding from United Way, from the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, and from the Gannett Foundation through The Tennessean. This program is partially funded under an agreement with the State of Tennessee, Department of Finance and Administration, Office of Criminal Justice Programs. Points of view or opinions contained within this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the Department of Justice.