5 Signs That Someone May Be in an Abusive Relationship—and How to Spot Them
Plus, how to support when you're unable to see them in person.
Warning: This article discusses domestic violence and abuse.
The same measures that have been keeping many of us safe from coronavirus (COVID-19)—i.e. social isolation and restricted access to the outside world—are the exact measures that are keeping many victims of abuse in increased danger. At the beginning of the pandemic, reports of domestic violence rose across the country by as much as 35% in some areas, and an August study in the journal Radiology found a significant increase in the rates of physical intimate partner violence (finding deep injuries in 28 IPV patients during March 11th through May 3rd of 2020 compared to 16 over the last three years). To make matters worse, not only are the conditions of the pandemic exacerbating situations of abuse, they're also making it more difficult for loved ones on the outside to notice when something's wrong.
Outside the context of the pandemic, a common red flag of an abusive relationship is when the abuser is cutting their partner off from friends and family. Under the cover of the pandemic, however—as Crystal Justice, the chief development and marketing officer at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, explains—it may seem like the abuser is simply trying to keep their partner safe. In reality, though, "the abusive partner is just using the pandemic as an excuse to further isolate their partner and now feels more justified in doing so," she says.
Justice explains that many abusers have been weaponizing the pandemic, doing things like blocking their partner's access to health care, withholding necessities like hand sanitizer and antibacterial soap, and spreading misinformation about the pandemic. Through The Hotline, she learned that some abusers even told survivors that going outside or to the store was illegal, forcing them to stay at home. Financial abuse—which occurs in 99% of domestic violence cases—has also been significantly exacerbated by the pandemic, with some abusers withholding government stimulus checks, keeping survivors financially dependent.
All of these forms of abuse can be harder for someone on the outside to notice when they're spending less time with the survivor in person; however, there are still ways to pick up on red flags, even if all of your interactions are virtual. We talked with Justice and other advocates to learn what kinds of signs you should look out for to determine if someone is in trouble and the ways you can offer support during the pandemic.
Signs someone is in an abusive relationship during the pandemic:
Their partner is always monitoring their interactions.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, extreme jealousy, possessiveness, and controlling behavior are all common warning signs of an abuser. If you're on a video call with a friend, loved one, or even a coworker and you notice that their partner always seems to be listening in—when not invited to—this could be a red flag that this partner is being controlling and possessive over that person's interactions.
They change the subject when their partner enters the room.
Another way to notice if someone's partner is monitoring their conversations is if the person you're talking with seems to abruptly change the conversation when their partner is around. You may be able to notice this whether on a video or regular phone call. Mannette Morgan, author of Finding Your Voice: A Path to Recovery for Survivors of Abuse, says this is something she used to do herself. Morgan, now an advocate for others like her, is a survivor of childhood emotional, sexual, and physical abuse and ended up in an emotionally abusive marriage before escaping at the age of 24.
When in this marriage, Morgan says she would sometimes open up to her mom on the phone about things that were going on in her life, including troubles with her husband. But, "if he would walk in the door, then my conversation would change dramatically," she says. "It would go from, 'Yeah, he really hurt my feelings,' to, 'Oh yeah, Mom, I think we're going to have meatloaf for dinner.'"
While, in some cases, this may just mean the person on the other end of the call wanted to talk in private, Morgan says this could be a sign that a survivor is "not feeling comfortable around the person they're with and they're hiding stuff." Hiding things can also be a sign that someone is in an abusive relationship.
They're hiding things or lying about aspects of their life.
With decreased interaction with the outside world, it can be a lot easier for survivors to cover up the abuse they're enduring. However, if you're conversing with a loved one and keep catching them in a lie or inconsistencies about different aspects of their home life, this may be a sign that they're trying to hide an abusive situation.
They're being defensive.
Another way that a survivor might cover up or hide aspects of their home life is by responding in a defensive nature. If you're checking in on a loved one, asking how they're doing, how their partner is doing, or if everything is okay, and they lash out, that could be because "they're defensive and they don't want you to know they're scared," Morgan explains. This may be because the survivor is feeling shame and isn't ready to admit that they're in an abusive relationship.
They're showing significant changes in personality.
Drastic changes in personality are a common sign that someone may be enduring abuse. "Let's say they've always been outgoing, and they become more introverted, they've changed their style, their job, their hobbies, or their personality drastically changes. That's usually the effect of an abuser that is controlling them," Morgan says.
Morgan notes that personality changes and withdrawal from socializing can also be signs of depression, so this doesn't necessarily mean someone is a victim of abuse—especially during a time like now, when the pandemic is putting a strain on mental health. However, if you notice many of the above signs and see that someone is acting differently than usual, there may be something more serious going on behind closed doors.
Keep reading below for how you can offer support if you're concerned someone may be in an abusive relationship.
How you can help a survivor during the pandemic:
During the pandemic, having someone to talk to is important for everyone but especially those in situations of abuse. As a concerned loved one, you may be eager to offer advice or solutions to a survivor, but don't forget about the important role you can play by simply offering a listening ear. "Sometimes survivors just need to feel not alone," Justice says. "So being able to talk about their situation—without feeling the pressure of needing to do something—is really important, because anytime we can decrease the isolation for that survivor, it has a really helpful effect on them being able to move to safer outcomes."
When listening to a survivor talk about their situation, Justice says it's human nature to want to tell the survivor what you would or wouldn't do in their shoes (like saying, "I wouldn't leave someone if they hit me"). But "that actually takes the power away from the survivor even more," she says, because it can produce shame rather than understanding.
Francie Schnipke Richards, vice president of The Allstate Foundation, which has invested in various efforts to end domestic violence over the past 15 years, agrees that it's crucial to suspend judgment when talking to survivors. "Let them make their own decisions," Richards says. "Any judgment about their ability to make decisions may deter them from confiding in you in the future. Encouragement is key."
Morgan adds that when helping a survivor, it's important to go into the conversation knowing that "you cannot fix them or save them," because taking that approach could make the survivor feel even more unsafe. "All victims live in a controlled environment by their abusers," she explains. "The last thing they want is to try to feel manipulated and controlled by someone else."
Morgan knows the importance of this firsthand, explaining that judgment-free support from her mom gave her the needed strength to leave her abusive husband. "[My mom] never said, 'What's wrong with you? Why don't you do this?' She never did that to me," she says. "She just remained there and supportive."
Ask what the survivor needs from you.
If you're concerned about a loved one's safety, it makes sense that you may want to strongly encourage them to leave their abuser or call the police—but that may not be the safest option in their situation. As Justice explains, "We at The Hotline firmly believe that the survivor knows their situation best," so she recommends asking the survivor directly what form of support they need. "It's much more productive for us to say, 'How can I support you? How can I help you?' and 'Let's talk about how we can create a safety plan if you're not feeling safe,' instead of going to what you think they should or should not do."
That said, Richards says you shouldn't be afraid to let a survivor know you're worried about them. While they will know their situation best, "it’s important to help them recognize the abuse while acknowledging the difficulty of their situation," she says. However, "if they’re not ready to talk about it, don’t force it," she adds. "Recognize the right time, and make sure they know you will be there if and when they are ready."
Share information about healthy relationships.
For those inside of an abusive relationship, it can be difficult to recognize the signs of abuse as they occur. So, Justice says it can be helpful for those on the outside to share information about the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships, whether directly or to a broad audience on social media. For those in an abusive relationship, seeing this information could allow them to acknowledge their situation and take the next step to ask for help.
"A lot of people who reach out to The Hotline may not even know that they're experiencing abuse," Justice says. "They just know something's not quite right, and so it's through the validation with our live advocates that they're able to name it and able to move through the process of, 'Okay, if this is abuse, then how do I seek a safer outcome for myself and my family?'"
Share safety tips.
If a survivor has opened up to you about being in an abusive relationship, you can help by providing information that can make their situation safer while they're in it. For example, if the survivor is searching for information about abuse online or discussing their relationship over texts, remind them to clear their search history and delete their messages to avoid retaliation from the abusive partner.
Justice also recommends asking the survivor when it's a safe time for them to talk, in case their partner may be listening in or monitoring their calls.
If the survivor is interested, you can also talk with them about setting up an alert system for emergency situations when they feel their life is in immediate danger or they need to leave. This could be a unique safety word or a specific text message the survivor could use to alert you to call for help or pick them up if needed.
Seek expert help.
Justice shared the important reminder that The Hotline doesn't only exist for those in abusive relationships. "We're here for everyone who's affected and who wants to support a survivor," she says. So if you suspect a friend, family member, or colleague may be in an abusive relationship and aren't sure what steps to take, head to thehotline.org to get in touch with an advocate and get support.
If you are a survivor of domestic violence and need help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You are not alone.