Top Warning Signs of Domestic Abuse

Depressed woman sitting alone on bed
Boy_Anupong​ / Getty Images
Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Some of the signs of domestic abuse, such as physical marks, may be easy to identify. Others may be things you can easily explain away or overlook—say, chalking up a friend's skipping out on an activity you once enjoyed together as being due to a simple loss of interest.

Domestic abuse affects each person differently, but it impacts everyone both physically and psychologically. It's often an aggregate of related signs of domestic abuse that tip someone off that a person is at risk.

Domestic abuse can happen to anyone regardless of their social, educational, or financial status. While red flags aren't always proof that someone is being mistreated in this way, they are worth knowing. Many who are abused may try to cover up what is happening to them for a variety of reasons, and it goes without saying that these individuals could benefit from help.

Physical Signs of Domestic Abuse

If someone is being physically abused, they will likely have frequent bruises or physical injuries consistent with being punched, choked, or knocked down—and they'll likely have a weak or inconsistent explanation for these injuries.

Some signs of physical abuse include:

  • Black eyes
  • Bruises on the arms
  • Busted lips
  • Red or purple marks on the neck
  • Sprained wrists

It's also common for someone to try to cover up the physical signs with clothing. For example, you may notice someone you care about wearing long sleeves or scarves in the hot summer. Wearing heavier than normal makeup or donning sunglasses inside are also common signs of domestic abuse.

Abuse occurs when one person in a relationship attempts to dominate and control the other person. Usually, the control begins with psychological or emotional abuse, then escalates to physical abuse. When domestic abuse includes physical violence, it's termed domestic violence.

Emotional Signs of Domestic Abuse

Domestic abuse, of course, can take a serious emotional toll, creating a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, or despair. Domestic abuse can cause people to believe that they will never escape the control of the abuser. They may also exhibit a constant state of alertness to the point they never can completely relax.

Other emotional signs of abuse include:

  • Agitation, anxiety, or constant apprehension
  • Changes in sleep habits (sleeping too much or not enough)
  • Developing a drug or alcohol problem
  • Extremely apologetic or meek
  • Loss of interest in daily activities
  • Low self-esteem
  • Seeming fearful
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Talking about or attempting suicide

These symptoms, of course, could be due to many other conditions or factors, but they are typical of domestic abuse victims who feel they are trapped in an abusive relationship.

How Abuse Causes Behavior Changes

If you notice that someone who was once outgoing and cheerful has gradually become quiet and withdrawn, it could be a sign of domestic abuse.

You may notice that the person:

  • Becomes reserved and distant
  • Begins isolating themselves by cutting off contacts with friends and family members
  • Cancels appointments or meetings with you at the last minute
  • Drops out of activities they would usually enjoy
  • Exhibits excessive privacy concerning their personal life or the person with whom they're in a relationship
  • Is often late to work or other appointments

Showing Signs of Fear

People who are being abused may seem anxious or nervous when they are away from the abuser, or they may seem overly anxious to please their partner. If they have children, the children may seem timid, frightened, or extremely well-behaved when the partner is around.

Although victims may not talk about the actual abuse, they might refer to the abuser as "moody" or having a bad temper. They may reveal that the partner is particularly bad-tempered when drinking alcohol.

Sometimes, the fear a victim of abuse experiences is so intense they feel paralyzed to make decisions or to even protect themselves or their children. When the fear gets to that point, they will even turn down help offered by friends, family, or even professional protective services.

What Controlling Behavior Looks Like

Domestic abuse is not about violence, it's all about control. If you notice that someone seems to be controlled or extremely manipulated in all areas of their life, it could be a sign they are being abused at some level.

Here are some examples of control:

  • Asking permission to go anywhere or to meet and socialize with other people
  • Constant calls, texts, or tracking by their partner wanting to know where they are, what they are doing, and who they are with
  • Having very little money available to them, not having access to a credit card, or having to account for every penny spent
  • Not having access to a vehicle
  • Referring to their partner as "jealous" or "possessive," or always accusing them of having affairs

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How to Help a Loved One

If you suspect a loved one is experiencing domestic abuse, there are steps you can take to support them and encourage them to get help. Listening to your loved one, watching for warning signs, and offering support are essential.

If your loved one confides in you, help them make a safety plan. This plan should include excuses they can use if they need to leave the situation, where they can go if they decide to leave, and an escape bag filled with essentials they will need if they need to leave quickly. 

Also, put your loved one in touch with resources to help them stay safe and get the help they need. This can include domestic violence shelters and helplines offering information and direct assistance. The National Domestic Abuse Hotline is a resource that offers assistance via phone, chat, or text. You can text "START" to 88788 or call 1-800-799-7233 to speak to an advocate. You can also find more tips for creating a safety plan on their website.

You can also encourage your loved one to join a domestic violence support group to help them heal from their experiences.

If you witness or know that abuse is happening, contact 911 immediately.

A Word From Verywell

Helping someone who is the victim of domestic abuse is a delicate matter. By learning some of the warning signs, you can feel more comfortable offering a sympathetic ear and seizing the opportunity to help a victim of domestic abuse or violence.

If you are experiencing domestic abuse and these signs are all too familiar, know that what's happening to you is not your fault. You are not alone and help is available.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Nemours Foundation. Abuse.

  2. Rakovec-Felser Z. Domestic violence and abuse in intimate relationship from public health perspectiveHealth Psychol Res. 2014;2(3):1821. doi:10.4081/hpr.2014.1821

  3. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Types and signs of abuse.

  4. State of Florida. Common signs and symptoms of abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

  5. Malik M, Munir N, Ghani MU, Ahmad N. Domestic violence and its relationship with depression, anxiety, and quality of lifePak J Med Sci. 2021;37(1):191-194. doi:10.12669/pjms.37.1.2893

  6. Eckstein JJ. Reasons for staying in intimately violent relationships: comparisons of men and women and messages communicated to self and othersJ Fam Viol. 2011;26:21-30. doi:10.1007/s10896-010-9338-0

  7. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). Signs of abuse.

  8. Queensland Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services. Support someone experiencing domestic and family violence.

  9. United Nations. What is domestic abuse?

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.