How Do I Know If I Am In An Abusive Relationship?

partners arguing

The most common thing I hear from survivors of domestic violence is this: “He/she wasn’t always like this” or “How did I not see this coming?” These two statements are very central to the cycle of violence and the common thread running through many abusive relationships. In this blog post, we will examine the types of abuse and what it looks like to help make it easier for you to spot red flags of domestic violence. If you think you’ve been a victim of an abusive relationship, reach out to our team at Accepting Therapy in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Missouri for counseling services.

Before we again, let’s start with some education on the basics of domestic violence.

The cycle of abuse: Although the specifics of this cycle looks different for everyone, there is a general pattern all types of abuse follow:

Stage One: Tension Builds

I have often heard this stage described by victims of domestic violence as “walking on eggshells.” In other words, you can sense tension building in your partner and are just waiting for the bomb to drop. In this stage, feelings of anxiety will increase and you may feel more ‘jumpy’ than usual. It is important to note, that you cannot control another person’s behaviors nor are you responsible for them.

upset man with family

I like to compare this stage to trying to write a guidebook for how to save your relationship. Often, victims of abuse feel responsible for their partner’s behavior. By doing so, you are more likely to feel a sense of control and reduce some of the anxiety you are feeling. You may think “If I could just figure out what the rules are, what I’m doing wrong, then I would know how to avoid triggering him.” With this in mind, you do everything in your power to please your partner and avoid things that have caused arguments in the past. Despite all your effort, however, it feels like you cannot do anything right. Your anxiety becomes worse and you begin to notice an increase in behaviors that signify a fight is coming. These are different for everyone but may include: a decrease in communication, an increase in verbal aggression, and a heightened irritable mood. At this stage, you may be wondering “What did I do wrong? I thought I was following all the rules?” At this moment, you may realize that the rules have changed and you no longer know what to do. (Many persons in an abusive relationship feel as if the rules are always changing and that there is never a right answer or solution.)

Stage Two: Incident of Abuse

This is when an actual incident of abuse occurs. This is a good place to describe the different types of abuse. I would like to note that the presentation of this stage can look different for everyone based on the type of abuse, the personality of the abuser, physical environment, situation, and the degree of the abusive action.

couple arguing

Types of Abuse:

Physical Abuse: This is any physical act that is violent, demeaning, threatening, or any act that causes physical injury or harm. This can include: hitting, spitting, punching, grabbing, pushing, burning, use of a weapon or object to cause harm or pain, scratching, blocking an exit, hitting/throwing/damaging objects in front of you, or using physical force to assert control.

Sexual Abuse: Nonconsensual sex or other sexual acts, use of pictures or videos without consent, controlling the use of birth control methods, not informing partner of known STIs or STDs, unwanted kissing or touching, and use of sexual insults to humiliate, threaten, or control.

Verbal/Emotional Abuse: Potentially the most subtle, and most common, form of abuse. This type of abuse can be harder to spot due to its subdued nature, gender stigmas, and lack of knowledge. This consists of:

  • demeaning statements
  • making threats
  • insulting someone to establish control
  • lowering one’s self-esteem intentionally
  • isolating your partner (controlling who they can and cannot see, going through their phone, etc)
  • using sickness/anger or other emotions to control partner (from leaving the house, going to a friends, etc)
  • use of insulting names or put-downs
  • yelling or screaming at you
  • humiliating you in public
  • blaming you for their abusive behaviors
  • threatening suicide
  • threatening to harm you, your pet, or someone you love
  • using gaslighting techniques
  • damaging your reputation
  • accusing you of cheating
  • threatening to take children away
  • controlling other parts of your life (such as, what you wear)

Financial Abuse: Controlling all finances, this can be shared finances and individual. For example: controlling the bank account, taking your paycheck, dictating how the money is spent, taking out loans and credit cards in your name.

Immigration Abuse: This is abuse for persons who have not obtained legal citizenship of the country they are residing in. This can include: not allowing you to get a green card, threatening to report you, or using scare tactics related to immigration status.

After an incident/s of abuse occurs the next stage occurs.

Stage Three: The Honeymoon Stage

This is also referred to as the reconciliation stage. At this time, your abuser will appear very apologetic, express feelings of guilt and shame, beg for forgiveness, promise to seek help, and, often, showers you with gifts (a nice dinner, flowers, jewelry, a vacation, etc). This leads into a period of calm and you begin to think “Ah, there’s the person I fell in love with.” This stage is key to the cycle because this offers false hope to the victim. A glimpse of the person they fell in love with results in: hope for change, hope they can once again be that person, and hope that the abuse has finally ended. Then the tension begins to build again…and everything starts over.

couple hugging

The length of time and intensity can vary, however, the cycle is almost always the same. It is also important to note, that this cycle does not always occur in this order. For this reason, you will often see this cycle drawn as a circle with arrows showing that the stages are intertwined.

When we see the signs of abuse described in detail and in a direct manner, it appears as if it would be very easy to know if you were in an abusive relationship. However, it is not always that clear. You see, an abusive relationship does not contain all of the signs I have written above. An abusive relationship, often, consists of one or two of these and the abuse escalates in an insidious manner. The vignette below captures a more realistic nature of abusive relationships and how subtle acts of abuse can be.


Valery and Nick met in college and have been married for five years. Nick has always been very romantic and attentive to Valery. In the beginning of their relationship, he often took her to nice dinners, bought her flowers “just because,” and would send her sweet notes and texts. Nick has always been a little protective of Valery and Valery concluded this was because his last two girlfriends had cheated on him. Furthermore, Nick grew up an only child and did not have the best childhood. Valery believed some of Nick’s flaws were due to his childhood and lack of good role models. For example, Nick had difficulty communicating and expressing/managing his emotions. When Valery would express her concerns to Nick, he would respond by saying that was just how men were and how he was raised.

After graduating from college, Nick and Valery got married. They moved into a small home in the suburbs and began their life together. After moving in together, their fights began to increase. Valery understood that this was common for a lot of people and believed they just needed time to adjust to living together. Valery noticed that Nick often became irritated at her and she was determined to figure out what behaviors were annoying him. Valery and Nick worked opposite schedules (she was a nurse and worked the night shift). Nick began complaining that he felt unloved and was worried she no longer cared for him. Valery tried to make up for this; she cooked nice dinners for him on her days off, planned fun dates and would call him on her breaks at work. However, Nick was becoming very sad and Valery could tell he was lonely. Nick often told her he wished he had a wife that cared enough to be at home with him. Valery was consumed with guilt and felt as if she was failing as a wife.

Due to their opposite schedules, Nick would get very mad if she spent her days off with friends instead of with him. Although Valery valued her friends and wanted to spend time with them, she felt as if she was disappointing her husband enough and did not want to add fuel to the fire. And so, Valery dedicated all of her free time to pleasing Nick. On her days off, Nick was very sweet and attentive and Valery was reminded of their early years together. However, everything would change when Valery went back to work. Nick’s gloomy mood would return, he would become aggressive and Valery was beginning to resent coming home, knowing that a fight would happen as soon as she walked in the door. Valery was becoming miserable and the only solution she could come up with was to quit her job. For a while, things were fine. Nick was ecstatic she was home and they enjoyed spending more time together. Soon, Valery began reconnecting with her friends and would meet up with them a few times a week. This made Nick irate. He was upset that after working a long day, Valery was not home to make him dinner or ask him how his day went. Nick often accused her of cheating and began tracking her phone and credit card activity. Nick justified this by saying that it was his money she was spending and he had a right to know what his wife was doing. Things continued until Valery was completely isolated from her friends because it was just not worth the fight. This is when the physical abuse began and Valery felt as if she had no one to confide in.

frustrated couple in therapy

Do you see how subtle abuse can be? It can be very hard to recognize if you are in an abusive relationship and you are not alone. I hope this helps you understand the different types of abuse and how it can look in a real-life scenario. October is domestic violence awareness month and Accepting Therapy will posting more blog posts and podcasts on this topic throughout the month. Stay tuned to learn more about domestic violence. If you are in or just got out of an abusive relationship, our counseling team at Accepting Therapy is here to support you. We have locations in three different states: Chicago, IL; Easton, PA; Hinsdale, IL; Kansas City, MO; Burr Ridge, IL. Call us today to schedule an appointment!