Nearly half of women and half of men have been in a psychologically abusive relationship, and many don't realize they're in one at first. Abusers often come off like good partners initially, and abuse isn't always obvious. Many people stay with their abusers for years before seeing the relationship for what it is. But knowing what signs to look our for could help you spot the issue sooner.
"Things rarely start out abusive in a relationship," Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist Esther Boykin tells Bustle. "Rather, there are minor red flags along the way that, if ignored, can snowball into a harmful cycle of abuse." These red flags can be precursors to physical, psychological, or sexual abuse, which often go together.
Victims of intimate partner violence also may not recognize the abuse because the abuser brainwashes them to think there's nothing wrong — or that the issue is really with the victim. Making someone doubt their perceptions is known as gaslighting, and this tactic leads many to stay in abusive relationships and even defend their abusers despite their friends' and families' warnings. "You feel like you can't trust your judgement about what's happening," Boykin says. "And then you start to doubt your worthiness of a healthy relationship."
Here are some signs to look out for to avoid getting trapped in an abusive relationship.
1They Isolate You
Abusive partners will sometimes try to limit your time with your friends or family or even turn you against these people so they have total control over you, says Boykin.
Abusive people are often possessive, so they'll act jealous even when you've given them no reason to be. Their jealousy may be directed toward imagined romantic partners as well as friends they claim are hijacking your time.
3They're Concerned About Your Relationships
Sometimes, in an effort to isolate you and to look like they're the good guy, abusive partners will express concern about the way other people in your life are treating you and whether they're a good influence on you. They may be especially likely to do this to people who have caught into the abuse. "These controlling behaviors can be perceived as love or concern as they often accuse others of not caring about you as much as they do or not having your best interest," says Boykin. "Be careful not to confuse control with concern."
4You End Up Apologizing When You've Done Nothing Wrong
Emotionally abusive people will twist your complaints about them into accusations against you. If it feels like you always end up apologizing in the process of seeking an apology, they could be manipulating you.
5They Blame You For Their Behavior
Abusive people will convince you their abuse was justified by arguing that you did something to deserve it. "Abusive partners are master manipulators and often craft seemingly logical reasons why you (or someone else) are to blame for their angry, cruel, or demeaning behavior or will simply dismiss the facts of a situation altogether," says Boykin. "A partner who does not fully take responsibility for their bad behavior is not someone who will build a healthy relationship with you."
6They Snoop On Your Devices
In an attempt to gain control over your life, abusive partners may read your texts, log on to your email or social media accounts, or even suggest sharing accounts with you.
7They Tell You What To Do
Telling you where to go, what to eat, who to hang out with, or what to do with your life in any regard is an abusive behavior.
8They Criticize You
It's one thing for your partner to tell you that something you did bugged them, but it's another for them to attack your character, personality, or appearance.
9They Threaten Violence
Don't take phrases like "I want to kill you" as mere figures of speech. Even if they don't lead to actual violence, the mere threat can leave you feeling unsafe. "Threats of physical violence without ever actually hurting you is still abuse," says Boykin. "Intimidation is often a cornerstone of emotional abusive relationships."
10You're Scared To Speak Around Them
Intimate partner violence victims are often afraid to open their mouths around their partners because they don't know what will set them off. We all deserve relationships where we feel safe to speak our minds, confident that even if what we have to say upsets our partners, they won't hurt us. Boykin recommends asking, "Do they make you feel safe or do you feel like you are walking on egg shells? Do you work hard to avoid upsetting them or fear their temper? Do you censor yourself or feel afraid to share your true opinion when they are around?"
"If any of these red flags occur in your relationship, slow things down and seek the support and opinion of a trusted friend or family member," says Boykin. "Sometimes being in a situation can make it difficult to sort out what's really a red flag or not. Don't ignore your gut feelings, and if you really aren't sure, check in with a friend. A good, honest friend or family member will tell you if they see signs for concern."
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship and needs help, you can call The National Domestic Violence Hotline.