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Early Signs of an Abusive Relationship

A woman who's wondering if her date is abusive, looking out a window and thinking.

According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. But physical violence isn’t the only kind of abuse—other forms of abuse can include verbal and emotional abuse, coercion, or stalking to name a few. And it’s not uncommon for people to spend months, years, or even decades in a relationship or marriage that was filled with signs of an abusive relationshipright from the start.

But how can you know if you’re dealing with someone who may be abusive?

How you’re treated in the early stages of a relationship is the best indicator of how you’ll be treated in the future. If you’re in a constant state of worry, anxiety, and disappointment it’s time to hold up the stop sign. What might seem like a personality quirk or a bad stage can turn into a harmful relationship that chips away at your self-esteem—and the longer you stay, the harder it is to walk away from.

Here are early signs of an abusive relationship to look out for:

They have an explosive temper.
Do you find yourself worrying about what you say and do because you’re afraid that your date will get angry, put you down, or stop liking you? Are you constantly trying to please him or her and not rock the boat too much? Walking on eggshells will not prevent an abusive partner from getting upset. But it will drain your energy and destroy your self-esteem. If the person you’re with has an explosive temper you’re constantly trying to navigate, it’s a big warning sign.

They’re unpredictable.
Your cell phone rings and you see their name on the screen. Your stomach drops, is it bad news again? Do you answer the phone or let it go to voice mail?—Because if you let it go to voicemail you can listen to their message, analyze what they said, and craft your response. You never know what’s up with this person, so you want to be prepared. When you see an email from them with a vague subject line like Hi or Plans, you’re reluctant to open it because you don’t want to be disappointed.

Having a perpetual knot in your stomach, a continuous lump in your throat, and your heart pounding every time you hear from someone is hazardous to your physical and emotional health. Constant anxiety is not normal in a healthy relationship. And you shouldn’t have to worry about how the person you’re with will react.

They constantly criticizes you, especially the things you can’t change.
Are you inundated with damaging comments about your weight, body, facial features, or the clothes you wear? There is no place in a healthy relationship for relentless, negative feedback. It is grueling to be on the receiving end of this kind of vicious denigration. It’s especially cruel for your date to criticize something that you can’t change and it’s one way an abusive partner will try to manipulate and control you.

They’re always right and the expert on everything.
It is completely infuriating and exhausting to be with someone who has to be right 100% of the time. If you’re with someone who thinks they knows better than you, no matter what you say, it can slowly make you doubt yourself and your own knowledge and expertise. A typical example: You’re talking about buying a new car and no matter what car you think would be best for you, they say, “No way, the SUV is the car for you.” Then, even after you explain that you had an SUV and hated it, they keep insisting. Deciding things that you should decide, like what you should wear or eat, is one type of verbal abuse.

Another thing to look out for is someone who corrects whatever you say, especially on subjects you have more knowledge about. Imagine if you were a pharmacist telling the person you’re with about the side effects of an antibiotic and they said, “That’s not true, whenever I take that medication it never happens to me.”

This is especially true if you’re a woman in a relationship. Watch out for a man who has a problem letting you, the woman, be the expert or letting you, the woman, make decisions for yourself. If he’s doing these small things early on in the relationship, think about what it could mean later on—A man who has a problem letting you own your own decisions and intelligence, is a man who man who may think he owns you in other ways.

They get jealous and upset when you spend time away from them. 
You tell your date that you went out to dinner with friends last night and they say, “Of course you did, NOW tell me the truth!” You laugh it off and tell them who you went out with, where you went, and what time you came home. A few days later you tell them that you overslept for work because you were up late studying. They say, “Were you really out partying?” Someone who mistrusts your every move and accuses you of lying or cheating is someone who is trying to control you and make you feel like you’re doing something wrong, just by living your life. If your date has problems trusting you, constantly accuses you of coming on sexually to other people, or tries to make you feel bad for going out without them, they’re displaying signs of a potential abuser.

They demean you or put you down in front of others.
It may just seem like your date is being jerk, but when someone demeans you in front of other people it can also mean more than that. Someone who tries to make you feel small, or less than what you are, either through humiliation, name calling, or insults isn’t just being a jerk, they’re verbally abusing you.

They have old, outdated beliefs about the roles of men and women in relationships.
If you’re a woman dating a man this can be a big tip off. Does the guy you’re with think a woman’s place should be in the home? Does he want to control your finances? Or does he try to talk you out of going to school or pursuing a career? These types of antiquated beliefs about the roles of men and women can be one sign of a potential abuser.

Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish what an abusive partner really looks like when you’re in the middle of a relationship and really care about someone. Other times, a relationship may not be explicitly abusive but may have serious problems that make it unhealthy. Abuse can have serious physical and emotional effects, and an unhealthy relationship can damage you as well. If you think someone may be abusing you or someone you know, get help. And for more information on relationships and safety, visit

Fran Greene LCSW is a nationally renowned relationship expert. Flirting is her hobby, love is her passion, and her dream is for you to have a loving relationship! She has a private practice working with singles who want to maximize their social life and couples who want to improve their relationship. And she’s also an accomplished online dating coach. To learn more about how to get back into the dating world check out her newest book Dating Again with Courage & Confidence. She is also the author of The Flirting Bible.

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