Lauren Taylor speaks to the CEO at the charity Refuge, about the most common signs something could be wrong.
Physical violence in relationships rarely occurs out of the blue; it usually comes after a build up of emotionally abusive behaviour, a recurring pattern of put-downs and aggressions.
But emotional abuse alone may feel hard to recognise or pin down, particularly if it’s been woven into the fabric of your relationship over some time. In fact, it’s often part of the abuse to make you feel as if it isn’t happening.
“Domestic abuse is the biggest issue facing women and girls,” stresses Ruth Davison, Refuge CEO “It is much broader than physical violence and can involve the build up of more insidious and hidden forms of abuse over many months or years.”
Almost one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, according to the Office of National Statistics. Charities warned that domestic violence increased during the pandemic, as we all spent more time at home: The Crime Survey for England and Wales found that 1.6 million women and 757,000 men had experienced domestic abuse between March 2019 and March 2020 – a 7% growth in police recorded domestic abuse crimes. But so many still go unreported and people suffer in silence, feeling unable to leave for fear for their safety if they try to.
Refuge says two women a week are killed by their partners in England and Wales alone – so it’s so important to recognise the signs of a dangerous situation early and seek help to leave if you need it.
Here’s what to look out for:
Trying to control what you wear or who you see
Any indication of controlling behaviour is worrying, even if it doesn’t seem that sinister.
“Coercive control can start out very subtly – with women telling us it started as perhaps trying to control what they wore, who they saw, where they went, increasing in both severity and volume,” says Davison.
She says it’s increasingly common and the charity supports many people who have experienced this “hidden form” of abuse.
“Coercive control became a crime in 2015. Like other forms of abuse, coercive control rarely occurs in isolation, often happening alongside physical abuse and sexual violence.”
Jealously is a huge issue – for no tangible reason
If someone has cheated in a relationship, jealously and trust issues can be difficult to work through, but it’s not uncommon for abusers to accuse their partners of cheating, or of inappropriate behaviour, when there has been no such evidence.
If a partner is constantly concerned about other men or women looking at you or talking to you, it’s a huge red flag. If you’ve given them no reason to feel jealous or paranoid, yet it’s a source of arguments, it isn’t something to brush off. Jealously may be motivated by fear that you’ll leave them, but it can soon turn toxic and be another way of trying to exercise control over you.
Making you doubt your recollection of events
Gaslighting is a relatively new phase but it’s been happening in abusive relationships for a long time. Davison says the charity often hears it reported by the women they support.It’s a form of manipulation, where the abuser makes the victim question their judgement or their version of reality. At its worst, gaslighting can make the victim start to wonder if they’re losing their sanity and seeing things that aren’t happening.
“It can include abusive partners making women feel they are to blame for their partners actions, rubbishing women’s concerns about male behaviours, shrugging off these behaviours as ‘normal’ and making women doubt the validity of their own experiences,” says Davison.
It can include phases like, “I never said that” (when you know they did) or, “You’re remembering it wrong”.
She adds: “It is an insidious and dangerous form of abuse.”
Trying to persuade you to spend all of your time with them
Sometimes in the guise of being infatuated or in love and wanting you to spend all your time together, another worrying sign is if someone gets upset if you spend time with friends or peruse interests outside of the relationship.
“Abusers also use isolation as a form of control – cutting women off from their friends, family and support networks, which can make it harder for women to flee,” explains Davison. They want you to become wholly reliant on them and have no one else to turn to for support.
In a healthy relationship, a partner will always support your interests and encourage you to spend time with friends.
They can’t argue in a healthy way
Arguments are a part of relationships, even the healthiest and happiest partnerships will have them. But if your partner can’t have a minor disagreement or discussion without flying off the handle, putting you down or becoming aggressive, then it could be something to worry about.
You might want to dismiss it as ‘fiery’ or ‘passionate’ but if they’re using bullying tactics, so you feel as if you’re walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting them, it’s a concern. You should never be made to feel afraid of your partner – even slightly – or of an argument occurring.
Davison says Refuge encourages any woman who is afraid of her partner, or is simply concerned that something isn’t right, to get in touch: “Our team of expert female staff can offer guidance and support, and you are not alone.”