Signs That Indicate a Relationship Could Turn Violent

Most relationships do not start off abusive or violent, and most intimate relationships never become abusive at all, but unfortunately many do. In fact, domestic violence happens with startling, heartbreaking frequency.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. While this abuse happens to people of all genders, women are most likely to be impacted with 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men experiencing severe physical violence by an intimate partner. Sadly, intimate partner violence makes up a whopping 15% of all violent crime. And this crime rate does not include cases of emotional abuse or unreported physical abuse.

Married couple in a verbal fight
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Warning Signs

It can be very challenging at the outset of a relationship to know if someone will turn violent—and it's important that the victims not feel responsible or be blamed. But there are some signs to watch out for that may foretell if a relationship that starts off seemingly happy and healthy is likely to become abusive.

One key is to be aware of anything that makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable and to address those issues with your partner early on, even in an otherwise positive relationship, in order to ward off a situation that may progress toward domestic violence. It's encouraging if your partner is receptive to your concerns, less so if they are overly dismissive or defensive.

Scientists have also weighed in on what to watch out for. Over the years, researchers have tried to determine which factors and behaviors exhibited early in a relationship may be signals of trouble in the future. Various studies have identified some aspects of interpersonal relationships that appear to predict future abuse or violence.

One big indicator, it turns out, is that alcohol and substance misuse can play a role in whether a relationship turns abusive or not.

Alcohol and Marital Violence

One early study, The Buffalo Newlywed Study, focused on the relationships between husband violence, marital conflict, and the couple's drinking patterns in the first three years of marriage.

Led by Dr. Brian M. Quigley of the Research Institute on Addictions, the study interviewed 414 newlywed couples regarding alcohol use and their experience with violence at the time of marriage, before marriage, one year after marriage, and three years after marriage.

"We wanted to see if drinking at early stages predicts violence later on. We know that drinking is used as a way to cope with emotions or depression associated with violence, but that's not the whole story," Quigley said.

Subsequent research has continued to affirm this relationship between drinking and increased rates of future domestic violence.

Couples Who Argue During the First Year

Couples who argue a lot during their first year of marriage are more likely to have violence erupt in later years if the husband is a heavy drinker and the wife is not, the researchers have concluded.

"As it turned out, the couples in which the husband was a heavy drinker and the wife [was] not were most at risk for experiencing violence," said Quigley. "That could be a result of arguments over the amount consumed, money spent on alcohol, legal problems, or lack of intimacy," he said.

The researchers found that violence in the first year of marriage also predicted whether more violence would take place in the next two years.

Arguing About Drinking

Even when no violence occurred in the first year, how much the couple argued predicted the extent of violence in future years. Violence was also more likely to happen over the course of the marriage when couples argued a lot.

How much the husband drank before marriage also affected whether violence would occur in the first year of marriage, but the amount both the husband and wife drank during the first year predicted violence in the second and third year.

Conflicts in the Relationship

"It is probable that these inappropriate drinking patterns lead to conflict in the marriage. The conflict may be over the drinking itself or over problems associated with the drinking, for example, hangovers, loss of jobs, or legal problems," Quigley said.

But couples who rarely argued or had verbal conflicts in the first year of marriage, were much less likely to have violence in later years, whether the husband was drinking or not.

The investigators pointed out that women can be the aggressors in violent relationships, too, although more often it is the reverse, and that alcohol does not "cause" the violence because there are many perpetrators of domestic violence who are completely sober.

Mate Retention Behaviors

A series of three studies at Florida Atlantic University focused on tactics used by men to continue and protect their relationships, actions called "mate retention behaviors."

The investigators examined 1,461 men who reported their use of mate retention behaviors, 560 women who reported their partners’ mate retention behaviors, and 214 individuals forming 107 couples who each reported mate retention and violent behavior.

The studies, led by Todd K. Shackelford, found that some of those behaviors could be a harbinger of danger and signal a possibility of future violence.

The study found that behavior which could lead to future violence included:

  • Vigilance over the partner's whereabouts
  • Emotional manipulation
  • Dropping by unexpectedly to check up on the partner
  • Calling to make sure the partner is where they said they would be
  • Monopolization of the partner's time
  • Threatening retaliation for infidelity

Specific Danger Signs

"Mate retention behaviors are designed to solve several adaptive problems, such as deterring a partner's infidelity and preventing defection from the mating relationship," Shackelford wrote. "Vigilance over a partner's whereabouts was the highest-ranking tactic predicting violence," he said.

"At a practical level, results of these studies can potentially be used to inform women and men, friends and relatives, of danger signs—the specific acts and tactics of mate retention that portend the possibility of future violence in relationships in order to prevent it before it has been enacted," Shackelford said.

Relationships That Turn Deadly

Unfortunately, when a relationship turns violent, that violence can escalate and become increasingly dangerous. As the relationship becomes more violent, the more likely the victim of the violence is likely to try to escape the relationship, and that is when the situation becomes the most dangerous and often when it can become deadly.

In a small study of 32 domestic violence-related deaths in Hamilton County, Ohio, conducted by the University of Cincinnati's School of Social Work, researchers found that in 83% of the cases, the victim was either separated or about to terminate the relationship. In 96% of the cases, "predictors of death" were present in the relationship.

The Cincinnati study was one of the first to give a scientific basis for the long-held belief that the most dangerous time for those involved in abusive relationships is when they try to leave.

Additionally, a more recent review by the Colorado Attorney General's office found that 70% of the 2018 domestic violence murder victims in their state had told a friend or acquaintance about the abuse.

Of those 32 domestic-violence-related fatalities in Cincinnati:

  • 91% who died were female
  • 16% had a protection order
  • 36% had children present

Predictors of Death

In 96% of the cases, researchers say there were deadly warning signs present in the relationships. The major findings of the study identified the following risk factors (predictors of death):

  • Separated – 83%
  • Substance abuse – 68%
  • Escalating abuse – 56%
  • Stalking behaviors – 50%
  • Criminal history – 46%
  • Threats to kill – 43%
  • Prior domestic violence-related charge – 36%
  • Child abuse – 33%
  • Threats of suicide – 33%
  • Perpetrator mental illness – 31%
  • Perpetrator brought a weapon – 29%
  • Strangulation – 29%
  • Threats with weapons – 25%
  • Property damage – 23%
  • Violated a protection order – 23%
  • Previous serious injury – 23%
  • Sexual assault – 21%
  • Animal abuse – 8%

Again we see that alcohol and substance misuse may not be the primary cause of domestic violence and abuse but it can be a factor. If you have recently separated from a partner who is drinking or using drugs after a history of escalating abuse, you could be in great danger.

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.

A Word From Verywell

If you are in an escalating violent relationship, it is important to carefully develop a safe plan to leave, rather than simply leaving on impulse or in the heat of an incident. Get help from experienced professionals who can guide you in creating a safe escape plan. Learn all you can about the dangers of trying to leave and how to develop a safety plan.

If you know someone who is in an abusive relationship, be careful about giving them advice, such as, "You need to get out of there immediately!" Learn all you can about domestic violence, how to recognize the signs of abuse, how to help someone who is being abused, and the need for a carefully planned and safe escape.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading