Family & relationships

June 26 2016

4 warning signs of an abusive relationship

the Psychlopaedia team
By The Australian Psychological Society

Abuse can happen to anyone, but recognising the difference between devotion and control can help to identify a potentially harmful situation before you’re in too deep.

When we hear of abusive relationships we often picture angry men and bruised women who say they’ve run into a door.

In fact, an abusive relationship doesn’t necessarily involve physical harm – it’s any behavioural pattern where one partner tries to dominate the other.

Common behaviours include criticisms, demands, threats and sexual pressure. A report by the ABS estimated that one in four Australian women have experienced emotional abuse by a partner.

The trouble is most abusive behaviour is very subtle at the beginning of a relationship, and many women struggle to tell the difference between devotion and control.

“So many women have told me about the most ordinary things that have happened while they were dating a person, who later turned out to be abusive, that they dismissed,” says counselling psychologist Carmel O’Brien MAPS*.

Here are her tips for identifying the warning signs of an abusive relationship:

They move into your life too quickly

 The classic Hollywood romance where a man sweeps an unsuspecting woman off her feet might sell cinema tickets but, according to O’Brien, in reality it can indicate that a new partner may seek to control the relationship.

“If you meet a guy and in the next 24 hours he sends you 70 texts you may think he’s your Prince Charming and not realise that it’s a red flag for someone who’s moving into your life far too quickly,” she says.

“A lot of women talk about being swept off their feet – for example, men who send flowers every day until they agree to go out with him. This is a person who doesn’t take no for an answer.”

They make decisions for you

 Abusive relationships are characterised by dominance and there’s nothing more controlling than someone who makes – or at least influences – all of the choices in your life, especially everyday decisions.

“Having someone make decisions about the ordinary things in your life that you’d normally make yourself is a subtle but worrying indication that something is wrong,” says O’Brien.

“It’s a way of operating that means the partner who is the victim has to check their behaviour all the time to make sure they’re not going to get into trouble.” She says a partner having too much say about things like what you should to wear to a party and what sort of car you should buy can be signs of trouble.

They isolate you socially

A pattern of dictating who you see and separating you from family and friends is a classic warning sign, says O’Brien. “A partner may be jealous and not want you to spend time with your family and friends, including telling you that your friends are stupid or they don’t like you, or that your parents are fuddy-duddies.

“You might notice your social network starts to shrink and you start to focus more on your partner’s social network. People find they lose friends or no longer see their family, or are forced to go to particular places or are not allowed to go to particular places.”

They coerce you in the bedroom

Sexual coercion is especially concerning among young people, with a recent survey by VicHealth revealing that 20 per cent of people aged 16-24 believe that women often say no when they mean yes.

“I run programs with young people at schools and some of the things that young women put up with are horrifying,” says O’Brien. “There is an expectation that they will provide sexual services no matter how uncomfortable they feel, and the social pressure on them to do that is substantial.

“If someone tries to force you to do anything you don’t want to do, if someone won’t listen to you when they’re about to cross that sort of boundary into your own personal bodily space, that’s a big warning sign.”

For professional help, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).

*Member of the Australian Psychological Society