The stereotype of a domestic abuser looks like this: A domineering male with a short fuse who routinely erupts, physically assaulting a vulnerable female.

But it’s rarely that simple. 

Domestic abuse can mean outright physical violence, but it can also mean a lot of other things, from sexual assault to emotional manipulation, reproductive control to financial intimidation.

Domestic abuse can develop over time or begin all at once; it can be sporadic, or constant. And it can arise in any type of romantic relationship – no age group, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, culture or class is immune. 

Because the outward appearance is not always the same, it can be difficult for people to recognize they are being subjected to dangerous and destructive behaviors. 

“These relationships are really complicated,” says Raenetta L. Liberty, RN, BSN, an Emergency Department nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center. Liberty serves as the UVM Medical Center and Vermont State coordinator for the Forensic Nursing Program, which provides sexual assault exams and domestic violence screenings to all Vermonters. “What is really important for everybody to know is that anyone can be an abuser and anyone can be abused,” Liberty says.

Domestic abuse occurs between people who are supposed to be able to trust one another. But abusers often use the loyalty and affection of their partners against them, making it harder for them to seek safety and care. Shame, guilt, social pressure and threats – often of suicide or toward shared children – are other common tactics used to discourage people from leaving their partner.

“For the most part, the partners do love each other; they’ve been together, maybe they’ve had kids,” says Liberty. It is worth remembering this if you are observing a relationship from the outside and feel tempted to think: “Just leave if you’re being abused.” It is never that simple. Couples are connected in many ways, and the ties that bind them tend to be strong.     

To help cut through some of the confusion, Liberty shares a list of “red flags,” or general warning signs that might indicate someone is abusive or could become abusive toward their partner. The common denominator in domestic abuse, she explains, is domination: “Abuse is really just about power and control.” The expressions might vary, but the goal is always the same.

Signs of Abuse

Controlling tendencies: Abusers often limit their partner’s freedom and autonomy, directly or indirectly, to assert their power and encourage unhealthy levels of dependence.

Isolation: If someone cuts ties with friends and family, gives up their favorite pastimes or withdraws from work and other obligations, they may be under pressure from an abusive partner who wishes to separate them from their support networks in order to avoid scrutiny and consolidate their power.  

Excessive or increasing jealousy: Allegations of infidelity are a common feature of abusive relationships. Abusers use these accusations to try to justify their abuse and to encourage their partner’s isolation.

Unpredictable rage: Angry outbursts create an atmosphere of uncertainty and menace. They are also destabilizing and demoralizing to anyone in their vicinity.

Cruelty to animals: A lack of respect for life and its vulnerability is rarely limited to one part of a person’s outlook. If someone is comfortable hurting animals, they are more likely to hurt human beings. 

Disproportionate or aggressive criticism: Disapproval and disparagement, especially if constant or severe, reinforce unequal power dynamics in relationships and contribute to stress, self-esteem issues and a sense of alienation. 

Dangerous sexual practices: Liberty highlighted strangulation as an example of an act that can have dire health consequences, and can indicate that a relationship has an abusive dynamic. But any sexual practice initiated by one partner that puts the other at risk of physical or psychological damage is worth looking out for. 

Intimidation: Not all abuse is obvious. An abuser may use indirect threats of violence and harm as a weapon against their partner to restrict behavior and ensure obedience. 

Escalation of verbal and physical violence: The line between a “red flag” and actual abuse is incredibly thin. Vigilance is important because troubling behaviors can quickly turn into destructive actions. 

This not an exhaustive list, Liberty emphasizes. All relationships are different and domestic abuse can be highly specific to individual couples and their unique circumstances. These warning signs are intended to give a general sense for how abuse can begin, and to empower everyone in a relationship to safeguard their health, dignity and overall wellbeing.

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