4 July 2018 - Article

How to spot the signs of abusive behaviour

Dr Jacqueline Harness PhD MBA MCouns


There is a big difference between a lousy “takes two to tango” marriage and an abusive one, yet it can be difficult to see the difference in your own relationship when you have been living with your partner for some time.   Couples who have been together for a while can have an entrenched narrative that things are ‘just the way they are’.  You may need an objective outsider witness, such as a therapist, to help sort out what’s really going on.  This short article aims to highlight some of the research into why it’s so tricky for people to notice abuse in their relationship and also give you some warning signs.  As you read, you might like to reflect on your own behaviour, as well as your partner’s.


Although abusive relating can go both ways, studies have shown that over a third of women who reported Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) did not view themselves as a victim of violence (Hamby, & Gray-Little, 2000) and some describe harmonious relationships (Frieze, 2005).  Less aggressive perpetrators tend to underestimate the degree to which slightly hostile behaviours impact their partners, and perceive this behaviour normal and justifiable (O’Leary, Malone & Tyree, 1994).   Added to that the “perfect-love” discourse that dictates we unconditionally accept our mates, can potentially silence victims voicing problems with violence (Towns & Adams, 2016).


Often, the underlying drive for abuse, from either person in the relationship, is to control the other.  This can be subtle, therefore to notice control when it rears its head, it’s important to understand the ways in which you or your partner try to keep the other in check.    The following definition in its totality would indicate a couple in extreme distress; yet at least one or two of these traits could be subtly apparent in any relationship.  Can you recognise yourself or your partner behaving this way?


The US Office of Violence Against Women (2009) defines domestic violence as “A pattern of abusive behaviour in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain control over another intimate partner”.  In addition to more overt physical and sexual abuse, the office defines other forms of control as:


Emotional abuse – constant criticism, diminishing the other’s abilities, name calling and damaging the partner’s relationship with their children


Economic abuse – maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding access to money, forbidding the other to work or further education


Psychological abuse – causing fear by threatening harm to the self, partner, children, partner’s family or friends, destruction of property, forcing isolation from family/friends, or school and/or work.


Warning signs of abusive behaviour include:

  • Extreme jealousy and possessiveness
  • In general has a negative attitude about the opposite sex
  • Mistakes and failures are someone else’s fault
  • Shows extreme charm
  • Is easily frustrated and has little flexibility
  • Is selfish and has a need to always be right
  • Grew up in a violent household


The potential psychological impacts on the person on the receiving end of abuse include learned helplessness, whereby people are conditioned to believe that they can’t escape the relationship, deficits in problem solving skills and coping abilities, self-blame, mood problems, addictions and stress.


The media often portrays men as ‘perpetrators’ of IPV and women as ‘victims’; this is often the case.  However abusive relating can go both ways, albeit with differing gender profiles.


If you feel you are suffering, reach out.  Therapy provides a safe, confidential space to work out what’s really happening.



Frieze, I. (2005).  Hurting the one you Love: Violence in Relationships. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadworth.

Hamby, S.L., & Gray-Little, B. (2000).  Labelling partner violence: When do victims differentiate among acts? Violence and Victims, 15(2), 173-186.

O’Leary, K.D., Malone, J., & Tyree, A.  (1994).  Physical aggression in early marriage: Pre relationship and relationship effects.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 63(3), 594-602.

Towns, A.J. & Adams, P.J. (2016).  “I didn’t know whether I was right or wrong or just bewildered”: Ambiguity, responsibility and silencing women’s talk of men’s domestic violence.  Violence Against Women, 22(4), 496-520.

© 2018 Jacqueline Harness All Rights Reserved