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Health & Sex

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When Intimacy Turns Violent

Know the early signs of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse to protect yourself from an abusive relationship and domestic violence.
WebMD Feature

Love isn't supposed to hurt, but for too many women, physical and sexual abuse are part of their lives. Domestic violence experts estimate that 2 to 4 million women are battered each year.

But domestic violence - an assault by a husband or boyfriend - doesn't always come in the most dramatic, headline-grabbing forms. Emotional and verbal abuse, date rape and more subtle forms of violence happen to women and girls of all ages. Are you - or is your daughter - in a potentially abusive relationship?

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Domestic violence is not about anger, says Michigan psychiatrist Laura McMahon, MD, who teaches young women what behaviors are - and are not - appropriate in a relationship. "Domestic violence is about domination, manipulation and control." And abusive behavior often starts when a couple is just dating, she says.

Types of Abuse

Abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional or verbal, says Mary Jo Fay, RN, MSN, author of When Your Perfect Partner Goes Perfectly Wrong. She explains the different types:

  • Physical abuse includes hitting, punching, strangling, restraining, pushing and slapping.
  • Verbal abuse includes name-calling, shouting and yelling.
  • Emotional abuse includes blaming, accusing and restricting your freedom - like preventing you from using the phone or talking to family members, or recording the mileage on your car to see if you've driven somewhere 'not allowed.' Attempting to confuse you mentally - as in the Hitchcock film "Gaslight" - is another perfect example, says Fay.
  • Sexual abuse is a forced sexual encounter of any type, says Fay. This includes intercourse, inappropriate touching of any kind (even through clothing) and even forced kissing when you don't desire it.

Common Abusive Behavior

Most women don't leave at the first warning signs of domestic violence, Fay says, because they're afraid to rock the boat or don't have the financial resources and social support to leave. "Because of the controlling nature of abusers," she says, "it's hard for many women to make contact with someone who can help them, or even to have any money."

Could you be in an abusive relationship? The Sojourner Truth House, an advocacy organization and shelter for battered women in Wisconsin, provides this list of abusive behaviors. While this list focuses on male partners, in a few cases, a woman could be the abuser in a relationship.

  • He always has to be right
    Can you voice your own opinions, even if your partner disagrees? Or does he push your ideas aside and insist on being right?
  • Short-tempered
    Is your partner short-tempered and quick to anger? Does he often slam doors, punch walls or throw things? Does he take out his anger on innocent animals?
  • Uses his physical force
    Has your partner grabbed or squeezed you so hard you were bruised? Does your partner hold you down or shove, slap, kick or hit you, to get his way?
  • Jealous and possessive
    Does your partner seem overly jealous or possessive of you? Does he frequently ask where you went, why, and whom you saw? Does he accuse you of things that you didn't do?
  • Fascinated by weapons
    Does your partner carry a knife, gun or other weapon, or spend a lot of time watching violent films and videos?
  • Heavy drinking or drugs
    Does your partner often drink heavily or use drugs, and become more hot-tempered when he does?
  • Fast-moving relationships
    Has your relationship moved faster than you'd like?

If your partner displays any of these behaviors, domestic violence experts advise you to leave immediately. "Unfortunately, you can't usually prevent domestic violence," says McMahon, "since most abusers don't feel they have a problem."

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