Ways to spot domestic abuse

Domestic abuse happens behind closed doors, it is insidious and does not discriminate - it happens to women and men; of any sexual orientation; no matter how much someone earns; from any culture; with any ethnicity; young or old; able-bodied or disabled; married or unmarried. It is therefore important for everybody to have a proper understanding of what domestic abuse is and what to do if someone feels they are in an abusive relationship, or thinks they know someone who is. 


I have my own lived experience of domestic abuse and now as an accredited breakup and divorce coach, I educate, help and support many clients who are in abusive relationships, or who are trying to divorce an abusive ex-partner. Many of them come to me not knowing the patterns of toxic, unhealthy behaviour their partner is exhibiting is abuse. Let’s explore this further here. 

What is ‘domestic abuse’ and how common is it? 

Domestic abuse is defined as a single incident or a consistent pattern of behaviour by one person towards another person, where both individuals are over 16 and personally connected to each other. Behaviour is deemed ‘abusive’ if it consists of violent or threatening behaviour; controlling or coercive behaviour; economic abuse; psychological, emotional or other abuse; physical or sexual abuse.’ (Domestic Abuse Act 2021)

Domestic abuse is thought to be underreported, but the statistics are shocking: one in four women in England and Wales will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime; one in six men will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime; one in five children have lived with an adult perpetrating abuse.

It is estimated that around three women a week die by suicide as a result of domestic abuse; it takes, on average, seven attempts before a woman is able to leave an abusive situation for good; a domestic abuse related call is made to the police every 30 seconds, and yet it remains incredibly underreported, with less than 24% of domestic abuse crimes being reported to the police.

How to spot domestic abuse

Abuse is different to conflict. Conflict is to be expected in any relationship, in fact, some level of disagreement can be healthy. Abuse, however, is an extreme level of conflict which is toxic and unhealthy. It can be incredibly difficult to spot, because it is carried out in secret, behind closed doors, in our homes. 

Abusive relationships rarely start off where they end up, otherwise no one would get into them. Survivors often say that it started in very small, subtle ways where the perpetrator made them think that they were trying to be helpful and loving towards them. The behaviour can seem very confusing to a survivor, which contributes further to making it tricky to spot. There is a ‘drip, drip’ effect where the toxic behaviours grow, and even then survivors may not realise they are being abused, or if they do, they are just too terrified to try and get out of the relationship.

The following list is not exhaustive, but here are some of the key signs that a relationship may be toxic or abusive: 

  • Feeling under pressure to change who they are, or alter their behaviour, because they feel unsafe or are frightened about how their partner will react.
  • A feeling of ‘walking on eggshells’, worried that certain actions or words will make their partner angry.
  • Feels scared when their partner is angry because it is impossible to predict their behaviour.
  • Their partner is jealous or possessive, constantly critical and puts their partner down.
  • A partner who dictates what they can wear, where they can go and who they can see.
  • Stays in more often and sees less of family and friends to avoid arguments at home, which causes isolation. Their partner makes them feel guilty if they don’t spend time with them.
  • Gives up having opinions of their own, believing their partner is right about everything.
  • An abusive partner may threaten them.
  • Their partner is charming one minute and abusive the next.
  • Their partner constantly criticises them.
  • Dependent on their partner for everyday things, their partner controls money or steals from them and even builds up debts in their name.
  • There may be physical violence like pushing, hitting, force-feeding, kicking, choking, and/or throwing objects at them.
  • A partner who plays mind games and makes them doubt their judgement
    Ignores their partner’s wishes and makes them do things they don’t want to, such as have sex.
  • Cheats on their partner or accuses them of cheating.
  • A partner who monitors and tracks their messages or technology use.
  • A partner who controls their access to medicine, devices or care that they need.

What can you do if someone is in an abusive relationship?

A question that is asked a lot around domestic abuse is “Why don’t they just leave”? 

It can be very difficult to leave an abusive partner, even if someone wants to. In my experience, people stay in these relationships for many different reasons - they may still think they love their partner; believe the abuse is their fault and so feel a huge amount of shame and guilt; believe the abuser when they say ‘sorry and they won’t do it again’; they may be frightened for their life or for the safety of children if they leave; may have nowhere to go; may have no financial independence. Abusers often isolate their partners from family and friends in order to control them, making it even more difficult to exit the relationship.

People in abusive relationships need compassion, understanding and support and not to be made to feel like they have done something wrong by not getting out sooner. Abuse is always at the hands of the perpetrator and it is never the fault of the survivor, they are not to blame.

  • If something doesn't feel right in a relationship, then it probably isn’t. Opening up to anyone trusted is the first step - whether that is a GP, a friend, family member or work colleague; a local or national domestic abuse charity or support service; a specially trained divorce coach like me who specialises in domestic abuse. It doesn’t matter if someone has been isolated from their support network by the abuser - reaching out is the important thing and loved ones will be pleased to be in contact again.
  • Leaving an abusive situation is a process, it does not happen overnight and it needs to be done as safely as possible. Abuse can escalate when someone tries to leave the perpetrator, so getting the right professional help at this point is vitally important. This could be from a local or national domestic abuse charity or support service, a GP or the police. If they are not the right organisation, then they will signpost to the right one.
  • Don’t be afraid to approach someone if you are concerned they may be in an abusive relationship. If you are wrong or the person you are worried about denies it initially, it doesn’t matter. Better that way round than not saying anything. Try to be direct - start by saying something like, ‘I’m worried about you because…’ or ‘I’m concerned about your safety…’.
  • It can be terrifying if someone opens up about their domestic abuse, but it is important that they are believed and not judged. Reassuring a survivor that it is not their fault and that you are there to support them is really helpful and can make all the difference going forward. Let them take their time and try not to give too much ‘advice’. This could put the person or their children at risk, but may also make them feel bad for not taking action before. Decisions to leave a relationship must be made by the survivor when they are ready, no matter how much you want them to get out.
  • No one going through domestic abuse should feel alone, so focusing on support and building confidence to help cope well with the challenges and stresses of the situation now and in the future will really help.
  • If someone’s life is at risk then calling the police is essential, as soon as possible. 

The more we raise awareness of domestic abuse, the better understanding everybody will have about it, move it out of the shadows and so tackle it as a society. 

I am trained and experienced to give people the emotional support, tools and techniques to move forward, whether living in an abusive relationship and don’t know what to do; are struggling to divorce or parent with an abusive ex; or want to rebuild after an abusive relationship. I would love to help, so please ring me or email me if that is you or someone you know. 

Being in an abusive relationship is not your fault, there is support available and you will get through it one step at a time.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Cirencester, Gloucester, GL7
Written by Vanessa White, Relationship and Divorce Coach (Master Accreditation)
Cirencester, Gloucester, GL7

Vanessa White is an Accredited Breakup and DIvorce Coach who emotionally and practically supports Clients before, during and after their breakup or divorce, however complex. She combines her unique personal experiences with her certification training to give tools and strategies to help Clients recover and create a positive, fulfilling future.

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