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It can be really difficult to spot the signs of an abusive relationship, especially if you’re in one yourself: sometimes, when you’re in the middle of it, it can be tricky to see things objectively.

So what does an abusive relationship actually look like? Here are some key things to look out for:

Types of abuse

There are different types of abuse:

  • Physical abuse – this can include hitting, shoving, kicking, throwing objects, or pinching.
  • Psychological abuse – this can include threats, insults, manipulation, gaslighting, and blaming you for things you haven’t done
  • Financial abuse – this is the control of your finances and resources, and may include withholding money from you, stopping you from working, or taking your wages
  • Sexual abuse – this includes physical acts of sexual abuse, as well as manipulating you or pressuring you into doing things you don’t want to do
  • Coercive control – when an abuser uses their power to control you (you can read about this in more detail in our feature: What Is Coercive Control?)
  • Tech abuse – this includes demanding access to your email and social media accounts, sharing images of you online, and tracking your location

Red flags

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Recognising abuse can be difficult, especially if you are in a relationship: it can be hard to see straight when you’re in the depths of it.

There are some ‘red flags’, or signs, that you should look out for. These include:

  • Jealousy/possessiveness
  • Tracking your location and your messages
  • Anger and violent behaviour
  • Pressuring you into sex, even when you don’t want to
  • Controlling behaviour, like telling you where you can and can’t go
  • Switching rapidly from being loving to being threatening
  • Insulting you and putting you down all the time
  • Controlling your finances
  • Restricting your access to resources you need, like family support, or even medication
  • Gaslighting, or making you feel unsure of yourself

These are not signs of a healthy relationship. The question of ‘what abuse looks like’ is tricky because it can be quite subtle. But overall, you should be with someone who makes you feel respected. Any sign of trying to control you, anger or violence, insults, or pressure to do things you don’t want to do is a red flag.

If you are worried, you should call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247. You can call at any time, day or night, for free.

What should I do if someone I love is being abused?

If you’re reading this because someone you love is in an abusive relationship, then there are a few things you can do.

Firstly, it’s really tough to watch someone you love go through this. Ultimately, you can’t restrict the person from being in the relationship, and you can’t tell them what to do. That can be really painful and difficult to deal with.

Services like Refuge and Women’s Aid can help you, and the National Domestic Abuse Helpline can be incredibly useful.

Ask gentle questions

You can confront the issue in a gentle way. Ask them questions like ‘are you okay, you haven’t seemed like yourself recently?’. This gives them a chance to open up without being too direct.

Make it clear to them that you are a safe space; you won’t judge her, you’ll just listen. Take what she says seriously, and remind her that she isn’t alone. This is really important. Abusers will often try to remove the person from their support network. So make it clear that she can lean on you no matter what.

You can also encourage her to contact Refuge or Women’s Aid. They’ll be able to offer specialized support.

Leaving an abusive relationship is really difficult, and it may take some time. The key is to be patient and to let her know that you’ll be there for her.

How can I talk to younger women about abuse?

As a mother, I want to make sure that my children know what abuse looks like. But how do you do this?

The NSPCC has some great advice about this. Ultimately, you want to keep the channels of communication open without it being too formal. Perhaps you’re watching television together and a character is in an unhealthy relationship. This is a good starting point for a conversation about healthy relationships.

It’s not a one-and-done conversation; it should be an open conversation that can be picked up again at any time. You can even ask them: what do you think red flags are in a relationship? You can expand on their answers and fill in any gaps.

Teaching young people the red flags to look out for is vital to arm them with the information they’ll need to keep themselves safe in the future. It’s really important that we teach our sons, our daughters, our nieces and nephews, and our younger siblings how to recognise and avoid abusive relationships, and what to do to get help.

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