Any abuse, including any violent, coercive, forceful, or threatening act or word inflicted by one member of a family or household on another can constitute domestic violence. Domestic violence can occur in a variety of relationships: partners – married or unmarried, heterosexual, gay or lesbian relationships, living together, separated, dating, and any family relationship (i.e., abuse from a parent to child, abuse between siblings). Abuse is a repetitive pattern of behaviors to maintain power and control over an intimate partner. These are behaviors that physically harm, arouse fear, prevent a partner from doing what they wish, or force them to behave in ways they do not want. Abuse includes the use of physical and sexual violence, threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, and economic deprivation. Many of these different forms of abuse can be going on at any one time.

Anyone can be a victim. Victims can be of any age, sex, race, culture, religion, education, employment, or marital status. Although both men and women can be abused, most victims are women. Domestic violence affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels.

The cycle of abuse has three parts:

1. Tension Building Stage. Tension builds over common domestic issues like money, children, or jobs. Verbal abuse begins. The victim tries to control the situation by pleasing the abuser, giving in, or avoiding the abuse. None of these will stop the violence. Eventually, the tension reaches a boiling point and physical abuse begins.

2. Acute Explosion Stage. When the tension peaks, the physical violence begins. It is usually triggered by the presence of an external event or by the abuser’s emotional state–but not by the victim’s behavior. This means the start of the battering episode is unpredictable and beyond the victim’s control. However, some experts believe that in some cases victims may unconsciously provoke the abuse so they can release the tension, and move on to the honeymoon stage.

3. The Honeymoon Stage. First, the abuser is ashamed of his or her behavior. He or she expresses remorse, tries to minimize the abuse and might even blame it on the victim. The abuser may then exhibit loving, kind behavior followed by apologies, generosity, and helpfulness. The abuser will genuinely attempt to convince the partner that the abuse will not happen again. This loving and contrite behavior strengthens the bond between the partners and will probably convince the victim, once again, that leaving the relationship is not necessary.

The cycle of abuse continues over and over again and may help explain why victims stay in abusive relationships. The abuse may be terrible, but the promises and generosity of the honeymoon stage give the victim the false belief that everything will be alright. The fact is that, over time, the tension building stage and honeymoon stage get shorter and the battering or acute explosion stage increases. This pattern results in battering incidents that become increasingly longer and more severe.

Answer the questions below. The more yes answers you have, the more likely you are in an abusive relationship.

  • Do you feel afraid of your abuser most of the time?
  • Do you avoid certain topics out of fear of angering your partner?
  • Do you believe that you deserve to be hurt or mistreated?
  • Do you wonder if you are the one who is crazy?
  • Do you feel emotionally numb or helpless?
  • Does your abuser humiliate or yell at you?
  • Does your abuser criticize you and put you down?
  • Does your abuser ignore or put down your opinions or accomplishments?
  • Does your abuser treat you so badly that you’re embarrassed for your friends or family to see?
  • Does your abuser blame you for their own abusive behavior?
  • Does your abuser see you as property or a sex object, rather than as a person?
  • Does your abuser act excessively jealous and possessive?
  • Does your abuser control where you go or what you do?
  • Does your abuser keep you from seeing your friends and family?
  • Does your abuser limit your access to money, the phone, or the car?
  • Does your abuser constantly check up on you?
  • Does your abuser destroy your personal belongings?
  • Does your abuser have a bad and unpredictable temper?
  • Does your abuser hurt you, or threaten to hurt or kill you?
  • Does your abuser threaten to take your children away or harm them?
  • Does your abuser threaten to commit suicide if you leave?
  • Does your abuser force you to have sex?

The most common warning signs of an abuser are: Extreme jealousy, exhibits controlling behavior, has unrealistic expectations, isolates the victim, blames others for their problems and feelings, is hypersensitive, cruel to animals or children, “playful” use of force in sex, verbally abusive, breaks or strikes objects, or uses any other force during an argument.

People who are being abused may:

  • Seem afraid or anxious to please their abuser.
  • Go along with everything their abuser says and does.
  • Check in often with their abuser to report where they are and what they are doing.
  • Receive frequent, harassing phone calls from their abuser.
  • Talk about their abuser’s temper, jealousy, or possessiveness.

People who are being physically abused may:

  • Have frequent injuries, with the excuse of “accidents.”
  • Frequently miss work, school, or social occasions without explanation.
  • Dress in clothing designed to hide bruises or scars (i.e., wearing long sleeves in summer or sunglasses indoors).

People who are being isolated by their abuser may:

  • Be restricted from seeing family and friends.
  • Rarely go out in public without their partner.
  • Have limited access to money, credit cards, or the car.

People who are being psychologically, emotionally, or verbally abused may:

  • Have very low self-esteem, even if they used to be confident.
  • Show major personality changes (i.e., an outgoing person becomes withdrawn.).
  • Be depressed, anxious, or suicidal.

If you suspect that someone you know is being abused, speak up! If you are hesitating–telling yourself that it’s none of your business, you might be wrong, or the person might not want to talk about it–keep in mind that expressing your concern will let the person know that you care and may even save his or her life.

Make sure you ask if something is wrong, express concern, listen, and validate your friend’s feelings. Offer help, and support his or her decisions. Do not judge or blame your friend, pressure him or her, give advice, or place conditions on your support.

Even if your children are not being abused, they can be affected by exposure to domestic violence. Children and youth who are exposed to domestic violence experience emotional, mental, and social damage that can affect their developmental growth. Some children lose the ability to feel empathy for others. Others feel socially isolated, unable to make friends easily due to social discomfort or confusion over what is acceptable.

Whether or not children are physically abused, they often suffer emotional and psychological trauma from living in homes where their fathers abuse their mothers. Children whose mothers are abused are denied a kind of home life that fosters healthy development. Children who grow up observing their mothers being abused, especially by their fathers, grow up with a role model of intimate relationships in which one person uses intimidation and violence over the other person to get their way. Because children have a natural tendency to identify with strength, they may ally themselves with the abuser and lose respect for their seemingly helpless mother. Abusers typically play into this by putting the mother down in front of her children and telling them that their mother is “crazy” or “stupid” and that they do not have to listen to her. Seeing their mother treated with enormous disrespect teaches children that they can disrespect women the way their fathers do.

Most experts believe that children who are raised in abusive homes learn that violence is an effective way to resolve conflicts and problems. They may replicate the violence they witnessed as children in their teen and adult relationships and parenting experiences. Boys who witness their mothers’ abuse are more likely to batter their female partners as adults than boys raised in nonviolent homes. For girls, adolescence may result in the belief that threats and violence are the norm in relationships.

Children from violent homes have higher risks of alcohol/drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and juvenile delinquency. Witnessing domestic violence is the single best predictor of juvenile delinquency and adult criminality. It is also the number one reason children run away.

The aim of emotional abuse is to chip away at the victim’s feelings of self-worth and independence. If you are the victim of emotional abuse, you may feel that there is no way out of the relationship or that without your abusive partner you have nothing.

Emotional abuse includes verbal abuse such as yelling, name-calling, blaming, and shaming. Isolation, intimidation, and controlling behavior also fall under emotional abuse. Additionally, abusers who use emotional and psychological abuse often throw in threats of physical violence or other repercussions if you do not do what they want.

Many people think that physical abuse is far worse than emotional abuse, since physical violence can send you to the hospital and leave you with scars. But the scars of emotional abuse are very real, and they run deep. In fact, emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse–sometime even more.

Getting out of an abusive relationship isn’t easy. Maybe you’re still hoping that things will change or you are afraid of what your abuser will do if he or she discovers you are trying to leave. Whatever the reasons, you probably feel trapped and helpless. Help is available if you are being abused and battered. You deserve to live free of fear.

Whether or not you are ready to leave your abuser, there are things you can do to protect yourself. The following safety tips can make the difference between being severely injured or killed and escaping with your life:

Prepare for emergencies: Know your abuser’s red flags and be aware when your abuser is getting upset and may explode in anger and violence. Identify the safe areas of your surroundings, avoiding closets, bathrooms, or rooms with weapons (such as the kitchen). Come up with a code word to signal your children, neighbors, or co-workers that you are in danger and the police should be called.

Make an escape plan: Be ready to leave at a moment’s notice by keeping fuel in your car, hiding a spare key where you can get to it quickly, and having emergency cash, clothes, phone numbers, and documents stashed in a safe place (a friend’s house, for example). Practice escaping quickly and safely, so if and when you are under attack from your abuser, you are aware of your escape plan and it can be implemented. Make and memorize a list of emergency numbers such as emergency contacts, local shelter, domestic violence hotline, friends, and family.

When you decide to leave your abuser, contact your local domestic violence shelter (when it is safe to do so). Ask for information, resources, and help. Always be aware of your personal safety and the safety of your children.

And always remember: You are not to blame for being battered or mistreated. You are not the cause of your abuser’s abusive behavior. You deserve to be treated with respect. You deserve a safe and happy life. Your children deserve a safe and happy life. You are not alone. There are people waiting to help.

The most important step to stopping the cycle of abuse is for the victim to acknowledge the existence of the abuse. Victims tend to minimize the abuse. Abuse does not have to be physical. It is frequently emotional and/or psychological. You do not have to wait for broken bones or a black eye before you consider it abuse. Yelling, name-calling, intimidation, and threats are all forms of abuse. If you are forced to have sex without your consent, it is abuse and sexual assault.

Ask yourself: “Are you often walking on eggshells?” Denial is one factor that keeps the cycle of violence going. Do not minimize the abuse, do not make excuses for your abuser, and do not blame yourself for your abuser’s actions. Acknowledge the existence of the abuse.

Reach out for help. You are not alone.