When Intimacy Turns Violent

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

Medically Reviewed by Amal Chakraburtty, MD on June 01, 2007
5 min read

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?

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."

If you are - or suspect you are - in an abusive relationship, there are steps you can take to help ensure your safety, says McMahon.

  • In a heated situation, stay away from the kitchen - reportedly one of the most common places for domestic violence - where there are too many potential weapons. Also avoid any small rooms, such as bathrooms or closets, where you can be trapped.
  • Call 911 as soon as possible.
  • Get medical help as soon as possible if you've been hit.
  • Take photos of any injuries to yourself or your children.
  • Try to keep a phone with you at all times, and memorize emergency phone numbers (such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE).
  • Set up a system with a trusted neighbor - such as flashing your porch lights on and off - to alert her that you're in danger and you want her to call the police.
  • Keep a small suitcase packed for yourself and your children, with key documents like your Social Security card, health insurance card and driver's license.
  • If you're being stalked, get an unlisted phone number, screen all your calls, and frequently change your driving times, routes and other daily habits.
  • Alert the security officer at your workplace if you think you're in danger.

Finally, says McMahon, pay attention to your instincts. "If you're feeling bad about the relationship - even if you don't know why - don't ignore it. Listen to your gut."

Domestic Violence and Abuse: The Facts

If you wonder whether domestic violence is really a problem, consider these numbers.

• Battering. About 572,000 assaults by intimate partners are officially reported each year, and at least 170,000 of these assaults require hospitalization, emergency room care or a doctor's care.

• Sexual assault. Every year about 132,000 women in the United States report rape or attempted rape - and more than half of them knew their attackers. Domestic violence experts estimate that many more women are raped but don't report it. Every year, 1.2 million women are forcibly raped by their current or former male partners, some more than once, according to the National Association of Women.

• Death. Every day 4 women die in the United States as a result of domestic violence at the hands of their husbands or partners. The number of women who have been murdered by domestic violence is greater than the number of soldiers killed in the Vietnam War.

Domestic violence is a grim reality, but you can help protect yourself by watching for early signs of abuse and getting out of an abusive relationship as quickly as possible.