The Signs & Cycle of Abuse

The Signs of Abuse

Victims of abuse can have a very difficult time talking about their experience and reaching out for help. They can experience a range of emotions, including fear, denial, embarrassment, depression, and anxiety. It's important to familiarize ourselves with the signs of abuse so that we can better identify them in our family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. Understanding the signs of abuse enables people to better support survivors in getting the help they need.

Does Your Partner Ever...

  • Insult you or put you down? 
  • Set limits on where you can go and who you can talk to?
  • Push, slap, or choke you in a threatening way?
  • Tell you not to talk to certain people you used to be close to, including family members or friends?
  • Make important decisions that affect both of you without consulting you? (financial, social engagements, etc.)
  • Leave you without access to transportation so you can't get to work or other responsibilities?
  • Control the money in the relationship? (have sole control over the checking account, keep the debit and credit cards, make you ask before withdrawing or spending money)
  • Destroy your property?
  • Threaten to harm you, your family members, friends, or your pets?
  • Threaten to take away your children?
  • Intimidate you with weapons? (brandish guns or knives and threaten to use them)
  • Threaten to kill you or commit suicide if you try to leave them or don't do what they want?

Red Flags For Bystanders

  • Partner is extremely charming in public, but is controlling, possessive, and insulting in private

  • The relationship gets very serious very quickly at the urging of one partner (move in together, get engaged, married, or have kids very early in the relationship)

  • Partner gives intimidating or threatening glances or looks in public

  • Partner puts them down in public or pokes fun at them amongst friends, making the victim uncomfortable or upset- often later saying they're being oversensitive

  • The person in the relationship questions whether they're crazy or overreacting to warning signs

  • Can't decide anything without asking their partner (where they can go to dinner, how long can they stay out, etc)

  • They need to ask permission for things they should be able to decide for themselves- e.g. how long can they stay out, where they can go, what they can do, what they can eat, etc

  • They start to uncharacteristically isolate themselves for long stretches (not answering texts or calls, not being able to hang out)

  • Have visible bruises or cuts, or they stay covered up and wear long sleeves and sweatshirts even when it's warm out

  • Explain their bruises away (as them being clumsy, or there was an accident)

  • Excuse their partners behavior or accept blame (they're stressed at work, it wasn't that bad, I shouldn't have done [X] to provoke them, etc)

  • They appear nervous or anxious for seemingly no reason

  • Their partner is overly flirtatious with other people or comes onto you

  • Your friend starts putting themselves down, criticizes their body, or has low self-esteem

  • You notice they never attend work functions

  • Notice that their partner is always outgoing and energetic at social functions but your friend/coworker appears subdued or quiet

  • They are often interrupted at work by family emergencies or many phone calls that need to be answered in private

  • Your friend builds them up to be perfect but they seem too good to be true

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The Cycle of Abuse

People often wonder why someone in an abusive relationship doesn't just leave. Why would they put up with verbal or physical abuse? These are difficult questions, but there are a number of reasons why someone will stay in unhealthy and abusive relationships (The National Domestic Violence Hotline). 

Fear. They may worry that if they try to leave their partner will become violent and hurt them, their pets, their friends, or family

Low self-esteem. Worry that they won't find anyone else, or that they don't deserve better

Embarrassment. May be ashamed that they're in this situation so having a hard time admitting that their partner is actually abusive


Love. They genuinely believe their partner will change and that they're worth it

Skewed view of "normal" relationships. If they've been abused in the past, or haven't had many normal or healthy relationships, they may believe that this is what a normal relationship looks like

Religious or cultural pressures. They may feel pressured by traditional gender norms or cultural expectations to stay in an abusive relationship and try to make it work- i.e. don't believe in divorce, etc.

Children. May feel like they need to raise their children with 2 parents, or their partner may have threatened to take their kids away or expose them as an unfit parent

Language barriers/Immigration status. If they are undocumented they may fear that reporting abuse could lead to their deportation or negatively affect their status. If they have difficulty speaking the language that also makes the process of leaving and starting over difficult.

Distrust of law enforcement. Distrust of police, law enforcement, the judicial system often leaves people feeling helpless and unwilling to report abuse- i.e. could fear what the abuser will do if they find out they pressed charges

Money. If their partner has control of the finances, or if they don't make much money on their own, they may find it incredibly difficult to leave and start over- need money for a new place to stay, gas, etc.

Dependency. If they rely on their partner as a caregiver, or if they have a disability that requires assistance, they may feel more trapped in the relationship thinking they can't afford to lose them 


Uncertainty. They may feel like they have nowhere to go if they leave their abuser. Would they have to leave their home? Live in a hotel? Can they afford to do so? Alternative conditions are usually not desirable or accessible, like shelters or living out of a car or on the street. 

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In addition to the above reasons why people stay in abusive relationships, abusive behavior also occurs in a cycle that can trap the victim. For more information visit the (National Domestic Violence Hotline).


Stress/Trigger: Some stress or trigger will put a strain on the relationship. The abuser may start putting down their partner, making them feel worthless, that they don't deserve better, that they won't find any better, and that they're lucky to have the abusive partner.

Violence: The victim will often start walking on eggshells and try to modify their behavior to appease the abuser. The stress will continue to build until the abuser eventually becomes physically violent.

Make Up: The abuser then jumps into make-up mode, and will often apologize profusely, beg for forgiveness, plead for the victim to stay with them, say how sick they are and want to change, buy the victim gifts to apologize, and promise it will never happen again.

The amount of time between incidents can be days, weeks, months, sometimes even years. The abuser will almost always apologize and beg the victim to give them another chance, and will be on their best behavior until another stress or trigger starts the cycle again.

Supporting Loved Ones


Supporting Loved Ones

One of the hardest things is to suspect someone you care about is being abused, and feeling powerless to help or stop it. Thankfully there are ways that you can support them without putting them in danger or emotionally closing them off to you (The National Domestic Violence Hotline).

It's important to remember that the person being abused is a victim. Now this may seem obvious, but our tendency is to try to make sense of the situation by shifting blame onto the person being abused. From an outside perspective, the solutions seem obvious- if you're being abused, you should leave that person and file a report with the police immediately. We've gone over why someone may stay with an abuser in the Signs and Cycle of Abuse, so hopefully you have a little more understanding of the dynamics of abusive relationships- why someone may feel trapped and not ready to report them, or even accept that their relationship is unhealthy.


The best time to talk to your friend about your concerns and suspicions of abuse are in the stress/trigger and violence stages of the abuse cycle. They will likely be more receptive to your concerns and willing to open up in these stages as opposed to the make-up phase. When you talk to someone about their abusive partner, there are certain things you should try to avoid doing to make it the most productive conversation possible.

What Not to Say

Here's what you should do:

Listen. Your loved one is already incredibly conflicted. They may be feeling anxious, depressed, unsafe, and like there's no way out. They also may still love their abusive partner, and they may not even recognize the red flags that you've seen. The best thing you can do is be a sounding board for them. Encourage them talk to you about what's been going on- make it clear that there's no judgment, and that you love and support them no matter what they tell you. Try to refrain from telling them what they should or shouldn't have done, and what they have to do going forward. Just listen, ask questions, and get a gauge on where their mind is at.

Develop a code. Come up with code words or phrases that they can share with their friends, family, neighbors, or anyone they trust, that would alert them to something not being right. Use innocuous phrases or words that wouldn't tip the abuser off to something being wrong if they happen to be hovering over their shoulder during phone calls, or when they're typing text messages or emails. At minimum, they should have a code to signal that 1) their abuser is agitated and may become violent, 2) that their abuser is hovering or reading their texts, 3) that their abuser has a weapon, and 4) that you should call the police. This is one of the easiest things you can do, and could end up saving their life.

Have them turn off their location services/GPS. If it's safe to do so, suggest that they turn off their location services on their phone or car to make it harder for their abuser to track their whereabouts. Crisis Centers that offer safety planning can help decide whether this is the best option for them.

Refer to local resources for a safety plan. Encourage them to go to their local crisis center/agency that specializes in domestic violence safety planning. They will likely be hesitant to go, and will probably flat out refuse. Let them know you're willing to go with them for support. They will probably thank you and say, "okay I'll let you know." Let's be real: they will probably never let you know, and still probably have no intention of going. Eventually you may need to find a day and time that works with their schedule and drive them to the center. Assure them that everything is confidential, nothing gets reported unless they agree to it (they don't even have to give their abuser's name), and all they need to do is give enough information to the counselor so that they can devise a plan to keep them safe and eventually help them leave. 

Have a getaway bag. Encourage them to put together a weekend bag to keep hidden from their abuser (i.e. their car if they don't share, a closet, etc), containing some cash, clothes, important legal documents (birth certificate, SSN, insurance cards, etc), medication, and a list of important phone numbers. If you're willing to hold onto this bag for them for safe keeping and to ensure their abuser won't find it, let them know.

Encourage them to join a local support group. Many local churches, community centers, colleges, and agencies have support groups for victims of physical and sexual assault. Do the leg work for them, and find out when and where these groups meet. Offer to go with them, or offer to at least drive them to the meeting. Make it as easy and convenient as possible for them to take advantage of these resources.

Attend local conferences. One of the best things you can do to help is to educate yourself on domestic violence/sexual assault. Faith communities, local colleges/universities, and community centers often have conferences for domestic violence in October, which is DV awareness month. They go over how to spot the warning signs, the complexity of these situations, the cycle of abuse, how to help, and how you can be an advocate.

You should not...


Tell them to just leave. Unless you're willing to assume the responsibility for their safety, never suggest that they leave without making sure they have a safety plan, somewhere to go, and a willingness to leave. You could inadvertently be putting their life in danger if they don't have a safe place to go, or a safe way to escape. The best way to come up with a plan is to go to the local crisis center/shelter/DV agency that specializes in safety planning.


Give them an ultimatum. They are already feeling a multitude of conflicting emotions. If you tell them you'll cut them off or not talk to them anymore if they keep seeing their abuser, the likelihood that they'll ever leave is severely diminished. Tell them you love them and will support them no matter what, and encourage them to keep talking to you and trusted resources. Remind them of the things that make them great, that they are deserving of love, and that what happens to them is never okay.

Talk negatively about their partner. This is a hard one. We want to say what we hate about their partner, and what we dislike about them as people, but that tends to shut the victim down and put them in defense mode- He's not that bad, he does a lot of really great things, we have great conversations, he's fun to be around most of the time, etc. They'll likely start to excuse their partner's abusive behavior and the conversation may be derailed before it can get started. When talking about their partner, focus on the things they do that you dislike rather than attack them as people.

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