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Recognizing domestic violence can be challenging — but there are signs to look out for.
Domestic violence can come in many forms. It could involve sexual abuse, financial abuse, or the often subtle emotional abuse.
It can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, or race. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that more than 10 million people — men and women — are affected by domestic violence each year.
Not every situation will look the same, making it difficult to recognize.
If you’re in a domestic violence situation, understanding the most common signs of domestic violence can help you navigate this situation.
While the term “domestic violence” often refers to intimate partner violence, it could also include elder abuse, child abuse, and any other kind of abuse within a home or family unit.
The abuse could be psychological, emotional, financial, physical, or sexual.
Physical abuse includes directly hurting someone physically. It could also include threats to hurt you or your children, pets, or loved ones.
Sexual abuse refers to any type of sexual-related abuse, including sexual violence and assault.
This type of abuse could also include patterns of sexual coercion — for example, you might be manipulated into sexual activity by a partner who threatens to hurt you.
It’s important to note that elder abuse could also encompass sexual abuse.
Emotional abuse isn’t always easy to recognize — it can be subtle and covert. It can come in the form of actions or words from anyone, even a boss or co-worker.
It could include:
- attempts to control you and your behavior
- humiliating you
- insulting or belittling you
- putting down your interests, career, and/or relationships
- manipulating you through emotional blackmail or guilt-tripping you
- blaming you for their issues
- accusing you of cheating or not loving them
- outbursts, especially when you don’t do what they want
- isolating you from loved ones
Emotional abuse could also be a component of other forms of abuse.
Financial abuse includes restricting a person’s access to their own money. You might be forced to depend on the person who’s abusing you for financial needs.
This often makes it difficult to leave a violent situation.
The symptoms of domestic violence vary depending on the type of abuse. While some types of abuse leave visible scars and bruises, others do not.
Physical signs of domestic abuse
A person being physically abused might have frequent injuries and bruises.
Signs of physical abuse could include:
- black eyes
- bruises on the arms, limbs, or neck
- sprained wrists
- broken bones
- unexplained pain
A person who is being physically abused might be unable to explain what caused their injuries, or their explanations might seem shaky and inconsistent.
They might attempt to cover up their injuries by wearing heavy makeup or more clothing than usual such as a scarf or long-sleeved shirt when it’s hot.
They might also cancel events or avoid seeing people until their injuries heal.
Emotional signs of domestic abuse
All types of domestic abuse could impact a person emotionally.
If a person is in a domestic violence situation, you might notice changes in their behavior, such as:
- increased levels of anxiety
- increased levels of irritability and anger
- low self-esteem
- seeming more fearful, including flinching at sudden movements or sounds
- lack of interest in usual hobbies or activities
- fatigue and lack of energy
- increased crying
- seeming more sad, tearful, or numb
- suicidal ideation
These symptoms don’t necessarily prove that someone is being abused. There could be another explanation, including a recent trauma or loss.
Behavioral signs of domestic abuse
As a result of the abuse, a person’s behavior might change. This could include:
- sleeping too much or too little
- change in appetite
- using substances, such as drugs and alcohol, more often
- isolating themselves from loved ones
- withdrawing from social events
- avoiding activities/events they usually enjoy
Not every domestic abuse survivor will display these symptoms. There’s no one way to feel or act after abuse, and everybody reacts differently.
It isn’t always easy to tell whether someone is violent unless you see the violence yourself (or are told by someone who has witnessed or experienced it).
Although it isn’t always clear why people abuse, a person who abuses might:
- feel the need to control their partner, children, and others
- fear being abandoned or left vulnerable
- feel powerless
- have low-self esteem
However, these characteristics aren’t conclusive. There might be many reasons why a person is abusive or violent toward others.
If you think you might have a problem with violence, consider speaking with a mental health professional.
Domestic violence could have short- and long-term impacts.
In the short-term, domestic violence could lead to:
- feelings of shame and guilt
- feelings of fear and anxiety
- difficulty concentrating
- tense, painful muscles
- irritability and moodiness
In the long term, domestic violence could contribute to the development of the following mental health conditions:
- anxiety disorders
- eating disorders
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- substance use disorder
- suicidal ideation
There’s no “right way” to feel or act after experiencing abuse. Not all victims will be affected in the same way.
If you’re in a domestic violence situation, there are steps you can take to try to navigate the situation until you can safely leave.
It might be a good idea to:
- talk with someone you trust about your situation
- develop an exit plan
- connect with a local shelter
- speak with a loved one who might be able to help you leave
- seek the help of a therapist or join a support group
The National Domestic Violence Hotline has an excellent tool to help you create a safety plan.
Once you’re in a safe place, try to take photos of any injuries you have as close to when they happened as possible. It’s important to note that if you take photos, it’s a good idea to take them yourself or have another adult take them for you.
Taking screenshots of text messages and saving voicemail messages could also be helpful later on.
The signs of domestic violence can vary from one situation to the next. No matter the nature of the abuse, it’s not your fault.
If you or somebody you know is in an abusive relationship, help is available.
You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 (SAFE) or text “Start” to 88788.
Some other helpful resources you could try include:
- National Sexual Assault Hotline
- National Center for Victims of Crime
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- Pathways to Safety International
- Hope Recovery
- Casa de Esperanza (Spanish-speaking hotline)
- National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center
- Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence
- The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community
- National LGBTQ Task Force