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Symptoms of Domestic Violence

Abusive relationships have a powerful psychological impact on the victims. And while domestic violence is not a mental health condition formally recognized by mental health professionals as warranting its own diagnosis, victims of domestic abuse can have many of the following symptoms.

Many victims of domestic violence may qualify for a mental health diagnosis, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The longer domestic violence occurs for, the more likely a victim will qualify for a mental disorder diagnosis as its negative effects continue to grow. Few victims come out od a domestic violence situation emotionally (or physically) unscathed. The best thing a victim of domestic violence can do for themselves is to recognize the signs and get help.

Symptoms of Domestic Violence

Victims of an abusive relationship may experience some of the following emotions and behaviors:

  • Agitation, anxiety and chronic apprehension
  • Constant state of alertness that makes it difficult for them to relax or sleep
  • A sense of hopelessness, helplessness or despair because the victim believes they will never escape the control of their abuser
  • Fear that one cannot protect oneself or one’s children. This person will turn down the assistance offered by relatives, friends or professionals.
  • Feeling paralyzed by fear to make decisions or protect oneself
  • A belief that one deserves the abuse
  • A belief that one is responsible for the abuse
  • Flashbacks, recurrent thoughts and memories of the violence and nightmares of the violence
  • Emotional reactions to reminders of domestic violence

Physical Symptoms

Victims of domestic violence can also have physical symptoms that aren’t directly caused by physical abuse. These symptoms are instead caused by the constant stress and tension of living in an abusive relationship. These symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Asthma
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Chronic pain
  • Restless sleep or inability to sleep
  • Genital soreness
  • Pelvic pain
  • Back pain

You may also be interested in learning more about these symptoms by reading the article, The Physical & Emotional Injuries of Domestic Violence.

The Common Pattern of Domestic Violence

In 1979, psychologist Lenore Walker found that many violent relationships follow a common pattern or cycle. The entire cycle may happen in one day or it may take weeks or months. It is different for every relationship and not all relationships follow the cycle — many report a constant stage of siege with little relief.

This cycle has three parts:

1. Tension building phase

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 battering episode

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 phase.

3. The honeymoon phase

First, the abuser is ashamed of his behavior. He expresses remorse, tries to minimize the abuse and might even blame it on the partner. He may then exhibit loving, kind behavior followed by apologies, generosity and helpfulness. He 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.

This cycle continues over and over, and may help explain why victims stay in abusive relationships. The abuse may be terrible, but the promises and generosity of the honeymoon phase give the victim the false belief that everything will be all right.

Who are the Abusers?

Abusers don’t wear signs that say, “I’m an abuser.” That’s because anyone could be an abuser. Domestic violence abusers aren’t more likely to be one type of person over another.

A person who engages in domestic abuse or domestic violence can be a doctor, lawyer, judge, nurse, plumber, policeman, clergyman, mechanic, janitor, or the unemployed. They could be white, black, Asian, Hispanic or Native American. They may have had five previous spouses, or may never have been married.

However, research shows that abusers are likely to have some common characteristics. In general, some of the general characteristics shared by abusers include:

  • Are less educated than the abused partner.
  • Come from a lower socioeconomic group than the abused partner.
  • Need great amounts of attention.
  • Are possessive, jealous and controlling of their partner.
  • Fear being abandoned by the partner.
  • Are emotionally dependent on the partner.
  • Have low self-esteem.
  • Have rigid expectations of the relationship.
  • Have poor impulse control and low frustration tolerance.
  • Are prone to explosive rage.
  • Use children to exert power over partner.
  • Blame their partners for their own abusive behavior.
  • Lie to keep the victim psychologically off-balance.
  • Manipulate the victim and others to get on their good side.
  • If a man is abusing a woman, he often has very traditional beliefs about the roles of men and women.

You may recognize these signs in your partner or your spouse — or that of a friend’s. If you do, be sensitive to other signs that may suggest a person crossing the line from arguing to hitting. It may help to recognize the signs of domestic violence, because abuse isn’t just physical — it can be sexual or emotional as well.

Need Help Now?

Nobody deserves to be abused, and nobody deserves to be afraid in their own relationship. If you’re afraid or the victim of abuse, please get help. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline today toll-free at 800-799-7233. They also have great resources for recognizing the signs of abuse. You can also call the domestic-violence hotline toll-free at 800-799-7233 (SAFE).

Symptoms of Domestic Violence


Toby D. Goldsmith, MD

APA Reference
Goldsmith, T. (2019). Symptoms of Domestic Violence. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 14, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/symptoms-of-domestic-violence/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Jun 2019 (Originally: 22 May 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 23 Jun 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.