Signs of physical abuse like bruises and scratches are easy to see, but domestic violence dynamics can be more subtle. Learn to identify them and end the abuse.

Many people equate domestic violence with direct physical abuse, but experts warn this is a dangerous myth.

This narrow view of domestic violence can sometimes allow the insidious and far-reaching effects of other kinds of abuse in a relationship to go unacknowledged, says Michele Kambolis, PhD, a clinical therapist and mind-body health specialist based in Canada.

In fact, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, harassment, and stalking all fall under the umbrella of domestic violence, says Jennifer C. Genovese, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker and assistant teaching professor in the school of social work at Syracuse University in New York.

Signs of these kinds of abuse in a relationship aren’t always easily detected by people outside the relationship, and can be even harder to recogniSe for those experiencing them. “Domestic violence typically occurs behind closed doors and may be hidden from loved ones and others outside the relationship. Therefore, being aware of the subtle signs of abuse is essential,” says Dr. Genovese.

Abusive relationships may appear intense or “loving” at first, Genovese says.

“The dominant partner may seem very attentive, protective, and complimentary, and show an unusual amount of attention and affection,” Genovese explains. “A strong bond may be established between the couple, and the relationship may move quickly, with early discussions of moving in together, or marriage, or discussions of having children,” says Genovese.

The swift intensity of the relationship allows the abuser to quickly establish control over the victim’s life, Genovese says.

Who Is at Risk of Experiencing Domestic Violence?

Also commonly referred to as domestic abuse or intimate partner violence, domestic violence can happen to anyone. “Perpetrators and victims of abusive relationships come from all walks of life, all economic backgrounds and cultures, and can be any race, age, gender, or sexuality,” says Genovese.

That said, some people are known to have a higher risk of experiencing domestic violence at some point in their lives. “Individuals who are isolated, vulnerable, or with limited or unavailable support systems are at great risk of being in abusive relationships,” says Genovese.

Dr. Kambolis says women are more likely to face domestic violence than men – and if you’re a Black woman, Indigenous woman, or woman of coloUr, your risk is even higher. The World Health OrganiSation (WHO) estimates that 1 in 3 women worldwide have been subjected to physical or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

A person’s immigration status can also play a role in domestic violence, reports the non-profit Women Against Abuse. Fears about deportation or separation from children born in the United States and difficulty with language barriers are all challenges that play into an unequal power distribution that disproportionately affects the person being abused, Women Against Abuse states.

Additional risk factors for domestic violence, Genovese notes, are:

  • A personal or family history of domestic violence
  • Financial instability
  • Traditional gender norms
  • Lack of social support
  • Poor neighbourhood support
  • Low education level, or having parents with less than a high school education
  • Unhealthy family relationships
  • Young age


One of the trickiest parts in identifying domestic violence is that the signs don’t always appear right away. This is because abusers often try to hide this part of themselves at first, says Jennifer Kelman, a licensed clinical social worker and certified professional counsellor based in Boca Raton, Florida, who specialises in relationship issues with JustAnswer. But abusers can only contort themselves for so long before the abuse tendency becomes apparent, Kelman says.

Watch out for these five lesser-known signs of an abuser that aren’t based on physical violence.

1. They Insist on Accompanying You Everywhere

An abuser who wants to isolate you from others has many “looks” – including never leaving you alone. This is not because they “love you so much and only want time together,” warns Kelman. It’s about establishing power and dominance and separating you from loved ones, which makes relying on the abuser necessary, Kelman explains.

The abuser may indirectly isolate someone by not allowing them to leave home or carry out any activities alone, such as going to school or work, doctor appointments, grocery shopping, picking up their children, or participating in events with extended family or friends, Kelman says.

Establishing this type of control doesn’t happen overnight though. The perpetrator may become progressively more possessive or jealous over time, Genovese says, eventually forbidding the person to participate in any activities alone.

2. They Frequently Employ Gaslighting Tactics

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which an abuser causes a person to question his or her own reality. It’s named after the British dramatist Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light, which tells the story of a husband who slowly manipulates his wife into thinking she’s mentally ill.

According to Genovese, gaslighting can involve taunting or humiliating a person, and then accusing them of being overly sensitive or dramatic when they react to these taunts. “The victim is made to feel confused, or that their reactions are out of proportion to the circumstances and to begin to question their own reactions and feelings,” says Genovese.

In these types of relationships, the abuser often paints a picture of the person being abused as mentally unfit and over-reactive, or downplays abusive incidents as normal arguments, says Kambolis. Over time, the person being abused may come to question all their own thoughts, leaving them even more dependent on the abuser.

This type of emotional abuse puts people at higher risk of experiencing physical harm, Kambolis adds.

3. They Use ‘Love Bombing’ to Smooth Over Emotional Attacks

Emotional abuse often involves emotional attacks, which Kambolis defines as constant judgement and criticism and treating someone as if they’re worthless. It’s not uncommon for an abuser to emotionally chip away at the other person’s self-esteem, leaving them feeling dependent and incapable of leaving, Kelman adds.

Love bombing – which can take the form of gifts, compliments, apologies, and grandiose promises to never repeat the abusive behaviour – often follows these emotional attacks as a way to smooth things over, Kelman explains.

If this pattern of emotional attacks followed by love bombing develops, reach out for support to safely break free of the relationship, Kelman advises. In general, attempts to talk to an abuser about this type of behaviour result in the abuser using blaming, manipulating, and gaslighting tactics to avoid responsibility, she says.

4. The Person Being Abused Seems Eager to Please Their Abuser

A person experiencing domestic violence may agree with, compliment, praise, or make excuses for the abuser in an attempt to minimise the abuse, explains Genovese.

For example, a person may check in with her abuser before making any decisions, no matter how small. They may also avoid responding to questions in front of others without seeking permission from their abuser. “This permission-granting may be non-verbal, perhaps just a subtle nod of the head, or the blink of an eye, but permission must be granted before the victim feels safe enough to respond,” Genovese says.

This may happen for several reasons, researchers say. It may relate to a trauma response called the fawn response. This is a behaviour, often learned in early childhood as a result of trauma, that occurs when a person being abused immediately attempts to please or appease their abuser to avoid further trauma, according to The Dawn, an international accredited rehabilitation centre for individuals with trauma and related psychological issues. The fawn response can often give way to entrapment and co-dependency in abusive relationships, The Dawn reports.

5. The Relationship Has Been Through Several Breakups and Makeups

Someone experiencing domestic violence may try to leave an abusive relationship several times before being fully able to reclaim their life, says Kambolis.

According to Women Against Abuse, there are several reasons for this:

  • They lack resources, such as a safe place to stay or a reliable mode of transportation.
  • They fear falling into financial insecurity or poverty.
  • They worry about the wellbeing of children or pets.

A fear of harm or retribution from the abuser may also lead someone to stay in an abusive relationship and to mistakenly believe they can end the cycle of abuse if they simply “try harder” to make things work or avoid upsetting the abuser, explains Kelman.

The abuser may also threaten self-harm or suicide — a specific form of control used to prevent someone being abused from leaving the relationship, says Genovese.

While it can be emotionally challenging to leave an abusive relationship, getting support is a first step toward healing and freeing yourself from abuse, says Kambolis.

And while it can be difficult to see a loved one return to an abusive relationship, emotional and psychological violence is never the victim’s fault. “We can’t expect an abuse victim to be empowered in a powerless situation. You can, however, be unwavering in your support,” says Kambolis.



This national family violence and sexual assault counselling service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s confidential and free to call. They can also help with advice about online safety if you think someone is watching your online activities. Read more about online safety on the 1800RESPECT website.

To contact 1800RESPECT:

  • call 1800 737 732 to speak with a professional counsellor
  • use the services directory on the 1800RESPECT website to find help in your area
  • go to the 1800RESPECT website.

1800 ELDERHelp line

The Elder Abuse Help Line directs you to your state or territory service. Operating hours vary. Call 1800 353 374.

Black Rainbow

Black Rainbow is a national organisation for promoting the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTI+ people. They provide information, as well as a pre-paid phone and data credit service for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTI+ people affected by family and domestic violence.


Compass is a national website with information and resources about the abuse of older Australians. If you or an older person you know needs help, you can use it to find support in your area.

Disability Gateway

The Disability Gateway connects you to information about family and domestic violence and support services in your state or territory. You can find this information in the Safety and Help section of the Disability Gateway website.

Family Relationship Advice

The Family Relationship Advice Line can help you with family issues and separation. They can also refer you to local services for more help.

Call them on 1800 050 321. The line is open:

  • Monday to Friday, 8 am to 8 pm
  • Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm.

Read more about the Family Relationship Advice Line on the Family Relationships website.

Financial Counselling Australia

You can talk with a private financial counsellor from Financial Counselling Australia for free. Read more about financial counselling on the Financial Counselling Australia website.

Intellectual Disability Rights Service

The Intellectual disability rights service is a disability advocacy service and a community legal centre. They help people with disability to promote and protect their rights. To contact them, you can either:

  • call 02 9318 0144
  • go to the Intellectual Disability Rights service website.

Kids Helpline

Kids Helpline is a free service for young people aged 5 to 25.

To contact them:

  • call 1800 551 800 at any time
  • go to the Kids Helpline website.


Lifeline offers personal crisis support services if you’re affected by family and domestic violence.

Call them on 131 114 at any time.

Read more on the Lifeline website.

MensLine Australia

MensLine Australia is a phone and online support service. They provide specialist help to people affected by family and domestic violence. They also offer support to people using violence.

To contact them:

  • call 1300 789 978 at any time
  • go to the MensLine Australia website.

Men’s Referral Service

The Men’s Referral Service is a free phone counselling, information and referral service. They help men to stop using violence and abuse against family members.

To contact them:

  • call 1300 766 491
  • go to the No to Violence website.

The line is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is available nationally.


The Moneysmart website can help you manage your money. They have information about urgent money help and divorce and separation.

National Debt Helpline

The National Debt Helpline can help you tackle your debt problems. Call them on 1800 007 007. They’re open Monday to Friday, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm AEST.

National Disability Abuse and Neglect Hotline

The National Disability Abuse and Neglect Hotline is a telephone service for reporting cases of neglect and abuse of people with a disability. Call the hotline on 1800 880 052.

National Legal Aid

National Legal Aid can help you find the legal aid commission in your state or territory. Read more about their services on the National legal aid website.

People With Disability Australia

People With Disability Australia provides short-term advocacy to protect you from violence and abuse. To contact them:

  • call 1800 422 015 or 02 9370 3100
  • TTY free call: 1800 422 016
  • TTY: 02 9318 2138
  • Go to the People With Disability Australia website.


QLife provides anonymous support and referrals for LGBTI+ people who may be experiencing family and domestic violence.

To contact them:

  • call 1800 184 527
  • go to the QLife website to chat online.

The phone line and webchat are available from 3pm to midnight, every day.

Raising children

The Raising Children Network website has a list of helplines and other resources for children experiencing abuse.

Say It Out Loud

Say It Out Loud provides information on family and domestic violence, safety planning and referral services for LGBTI+ people. It is a national resource, and also provides information on state and territory specific supports.

Women With Disabilities Australia

Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) represents and advocates for women, girls, feminine identifying and non-binary people living with disabilities across Australia. WWDA’s work involves a broad range of activities and projects that aim to promote human rights and end all forms of discrimination and violence on the basis of disability and gender. Read more on the Women with Disabilities Australia website.