Common Traits of an Abusive Relationship

In my own experience, and in my exposure to the experiences of other women who are abuse victims, it is apparent that there is a bizarre, almost word-for-word script associated with the behaviors and character qualities of abusers. Although I have not been exposed to physical abuse, a majority of these earmarks seem to be evident, whether the abuse is physical, verbal and/or emotional. Here we go…

The Introvert Meets the Man of Her Dreams

The woman attracted to an abuser* will often suffer from low self-esteem and, although usually far from accurate, a diminished sense of her own value. As a result, she will probably be instantly flattered by this man’s constant attentions toward her. During their dating days, her suitor makes her feel beautiful and desirable. He will often attempt to jeopardize her time and ply her affections with regular phone calls, gifts and niceties. She believes his obsession with her constitutes love, when it is more likely he wants her as a possession rather than a partner.

He may question her relationships with other men, whether co-workers or friends. Unfortunately, these actions, which his victim mistakenly attributes to protectiveness, emanate from a combination of paranoia and jealousy. And his zealous claim on her time she sees as a sign of his stalwart commitment and desire to be with her, although it is more likely one of the first signs of control.

The Victim Ignores the Red Flags

Perhaps before the ring is ever on her finger, she may begin to see a dark side of her love – mood swings, unprovoked anger or unwarranted criticism seem fairly typical. But these women choose to overlook these questionable behaviors, clinging to her certainty that the attentive man who saw her as the most beautiful woman in the world is the real person she is marrying.

Because he seems to see in her what no man before him ever saw, she rationalizes that she is just the person to help her beloved work through whatever issues he is facing in his life. In her smitten state, she makes a dangerously incorrect assessment. It is only a matter of time before the demon in him awakens, and the words, “‘Til death do us part” begin to feel less like a promise and more like a prison sentence.

The Abuser Lives a Life of Blatant Hypocrisy and Double Standards

The abuser is a walking illustration of hypocrisy. He can be altogether charming and social. He shmoozes whom he uses, carefully rubbing shoulders with those in whose company he will find acceptance and support, people he believes are of use to him because of their community standing, usefulness or other helpful connections.

Although at home he is increasingly selfish, domineering, and mean-spirited, the victim’s friends and family members will probably perceive the abuser as welcoming, friendly and likable. As a result, the victim finds herself confused by their impressions, and begins to question her own understanding of how he treats her. Since she seems to be exclusive target of his terror, she arrives at the heart-breaking conclusion that she must be responsible for his cruel outbursts. That is exactly what he wants.

This is a man who arrives at church hand-in-hand with his wife and puts his arm around her during the service. He warmly greets his acquaintances and stops for polite and friendly conversation on the way to the parking lot. He might be a deacon or an elder in the church. The face he shows to the world defies the one his victim sees when they are alone. This reality cripples his victim. Everyone likes him.

The Abuser is the Supreme Authority

…on everything. End of story. The victim has the freedom to ask any questions, or dispute the abuser’s perspective – at her own peril. She is entitled to her own opinions as long as they are the same as his. The victim is not allowed to have much of an identity separate from the abuser. Whether it’s music, movies, home decor, politics, or religion, he has the final say. Even in matters of opinion, his opinion is superior. Get used to it.

He has made final, usually derogatory, assessments of the family, friends or acquaintances in the victim’s circle, decreeing them unfit to socialize with or trust. No one knows more than he (unless it is someone he needs to use or impress).

The Abuser is a Dictator

The abuser controls everything – schedules, finances, priorities, household responsibilities, hobbies, and friendships. The victim is given only whatever limited freedom the abuser chooses to allow. And although he makes the rules, they do not apply to him.

The Abuser is a Liar

To an abuser, the truth is whatever he decides it is. Even if caught in a lie, he has already rationalized what he believes is a perfectly appropriate justification that made his lie necessary, even helpful. The victim knows what’s true, but fears contesting the validity of what is not. The abuser cannot be trusted, and she’s afraid to do anything about it. If she chooses to point the finger at him, she will likely pay a hefty price for it. He can make her life a living hell. She learns it is best to keep silent.

The Abuser is Selfish

He doesn’t want to help with the kids, the dinner or the chores, and he is the first to criticize his victim for falling short in any one of her areas of responsibility.

Often, he controls the bank accounts and expenditures and makes sure his needs are met before anyone else’s. If that means hiding money or stealing it from the victim’s bank account, so be it. Once he is satisfied, with his permission, the victim might have access to some of what remains, and once in a while, he may buy her a gift, take her to dinner or treat her to a weekend away as a form of apology for one of his particularly egregious attacks. He holds the trump card with regard to what is on the television, where the family goes on vacation and who gets the last piece of chocolate cake.

The Abuser Has a Short Temper

The abuser may get angry at the dog, the mailman, a co-worker, someone driving too slowly in traffic, and the clerk at the grocery store, then come home and rant about how he was treated disrespectfully. Any offense gives him cause to take his frustration out on the wife, his children, the dog, or any other convenient target that can’t fight back.

The Abuser is Bitter

The abuser feels he has been dealt a bad hand. He keeps a long and ever-growing list of offenses that have been committed against him. He can painstakingly recite every occasion where someone has stepped on his toes and robbed him of some mysterious opportunity that would have made his life all it was meant to be. There are many whom he blames for his current, pitiable state. Anything and everything that is wrong with his life is someone else’s fault.

The Abuser is a Perfectionist

The abuser expects perfection from everyone but himself. God save the child of an abuser who gets a “B” on his or her report card, or the wife who gets in a car accident or overcooks his dinner. He had better find his favorite shirt pressed and hanging in the closet when he decides he wants to wear it. The abuser is demanding and unforgiving. Those who don’t deliver will surely hear about it.

The Abuser is a Control Freak

The abuser fears his victims’ independence and his exposure, so he severely limits his family members’ social lives and access to many, if not most, outside sources of emotional support. Not only does his wife’s absence from the house for social activities mean that he will be expected to pick up some additional responsibility – which he doesn’t want – but he fears that she might spill his secrets and receive validation and a sense of independence from the outside, which poses a threat to his grip on her life.

With this in mind, he may sabotage his wife’s endeavors outside the home, whether she wishes to attend college classes or Bible study, go jogging with a neighbor every morning, or periodically meet a friend for coffee. He will often call her to make sure she returns home at the earliest possible time. He may also monitor her checkbook, e-mails, phone calls, or vehicle usage. The abuser keeps her on a very short leash. It is crucial that he keep her completely isolated and dependent on him for everything.

The Abuser is Cruel

The verbal wounds inflicted on his victims through undeserved rage or slanderous denigration leaves them emotionally battered, with scars that last a lifetime. “How can he say such things?” his victims wonder. There is no good answer.

But words are not his only weapon.

The abuser may use silence – for hours or days – as a form of punishment. He may glare at the object of his contempt with such hatred that panic is a common response. He may throw things at his victims or intentionally damage their cherished possessions. Beloved pets may be abused, neglected or killed – a purposeful reminder as to the possible destruction that awaits any who cross him.

He may lock his victim out of the car, the bedroom or the house, and he doesn’t care if it’s 20 degrees below zero. He seems to glean genuine satisfaction from the misery of others.

The Abuser May Have Mental Health or Addiction Issues

It is not uncommon for abusers to suffer from a variety of mental health issues, which may include obsessive-compulsive tendencies, anxiety, depression, hypo-mania or manic-depression, and/or paranoia. He may suffer from any number of addictions, such as illegal or prescription drugs, alcohol, gambling, spending, or pornography. He may engage in extra-marital relationships, and some victims divulge that the abuser has either coerced or forced them to engage in sex acts that they find shameful, demeaning or violent.

The abuser seems to have an unquenchable void in his life that he seeks to fill with all manner of external, if temporary, fixes. He may often identify a new dream, hobby, toy or trinket that he feels will make his life complete – after the last dozen experiments failed. He feels fully entitled to possess whatever he “needs” without regard to expense or any negative effects his decision may have on others. No family sacrifice is too great if it might result in him finding happiness. His victim keeps hoping that, if just one of his crazy ventures would bring him peace, he would return to her, their home, and family, and they could live a happy, fulfilling life together.

No Change Signals Time For Change

When the abuser finally snuffs out the final spark of hope the victim holds out, his victim will need to muster the strength to tell her secrets and ask for help. Yet the abuser has been mindful to keep his public image distinctly separate from his private brutality. After so many months or years of surviving in the shadows – even fortifying the false image of their “happy” home and keeping the abuser’s terrible secrets – the day finally arrives that this abuse victim decides to take a risk and speak up. In spite of all she has been through, she has to wonder: Will anyone believe her?

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* It is understood that women as well as men can be abusers; however, the overwhelming majority of abusers are male. For this reason, references to abusers are in the masculine. The reader’s understanding is appreciated.

13 thoughts on “Common Traits of an Abusive Relationship”

  1. Cindy, this post is fantabulous. Thanks for putting it all so vividly. This is no socioligical analysis by a remote personage, it’s the words of a survivor who knows it from the inside, but you are clearly not limited by your particular experiences – you know the journeys of other survivors too.

    1. You actually made me laugh… You would be shocked how many times women have said that to me!

      I know what it’s like, because I lived it for 20 long years. I thought I was the only one. I thought no one could possibly understand what I was living with.

      Silly me.

      Abusers are basically all the same!

      I’m here for you.


  2. The part where his clothes have to be ironed and hung in the closet. I’ve been married 9 years now and just lately was told that he’s been mad at me all this time because I hung the shirts facing right instead of left. He never told me that. I think they are angry first and then find things about the wife to justify their anger. I don’t even believe anymore that they are actually angry about that ‘sin’. That’s why we can never get it right.

    1. Sunflower, those unrealistic expectations point to a variety of issues. First, YOU are supposed to know what he wants and expects without expressing it to you. You are supposed to be omniscient? Second, those expectations are ridiculous, and his criticism is unduly petty. Should you decide to accommodate it, you are telling him that he has the right to have such perfectionist expectations and demands. In reality, if he is that picky about those things, he should do them himself.

      You shouldn’t have to worry about always getting it right. We are all human and imperfect, and life is messy and unpredictable, and a healthy mate recognizes the imperfections in life and go with the flow and love you in the midst of them.

      Are you prepared to tell him ‘no?’ Do you fear the consequences if you do? Have you already tried and been shot down?

      I hope you know that you don’t have to live like that. I’m here to help if I can.

  3. How can there possibly be a way to truly be out when you know the abuser gets at least some custody of your innocent child???? I make sure to diffuse and cover the eruptions my abusive husband has several times a week. I turn up the TV, start to sing to my son loudly and when i can, tell him “let’s go get a treat” then leave and get treats and drive around until I think its safe to go home. I could never let him endure the abuse that I do. He would be alone with the evil emotional abuser with no protection! The court my area has been no help to me. He is a well known public official and has told me many times “its all who you know” and threatened to take custody if I try to leave.

    1. Hello, Micky. I am sorry to learn of your difficult situation. There are a couple of things I would like you to consider in your particular situation. First, although you are making every effort to attempt to diminish or diffuse the impact of abuse in your home, the reality is that you cannot manage it. Abuse creates an undercurrent of tension in our homes that cannot be overcome or masked, even by leaving or turning up music. I also completely understand your fear of your abuser’s threats because of his standing. He knows that terrifies you and uses it to keep you silent and paralyzed. If you are not already doing so, I would begin privately journaling about situations and conversations, and keep the information in a protected, private place – such as on a password-protected computer, etc.

      In the event that you decide to seek custody of your child, you will at least have documentation citing specific events in your home. In most custody cases, mediation is required, and a court mediator will meet with both parents, and you will have the opportunity to present your case. Depending on the age of your child, the mediator will also talk to the child and ask him to provide an account of what is going on in the home. I know it’s risky, but the mediator’s primary obligation is for the emotional and physical safety and security of the child. As your child ages, the court would also afford him the opportunity to choose with whom he or she wants to live. I cannot promise you anything, but I hope you will look for options, educate yourself on the process where you live. Consult with an attorney if you must and find out if you can move any court action to a locale that can assure you of greater objectivity if that is necessary.

      I will be praying for you – for wisdom and strength. And I hope you will keep me informed.


  4. Yes, I agree with the author that all of us who have been emotionally abused report many of these traits or when we read them, we go “aha yes”. I was always punished via silence for which appeared for no reason, which was emotionally devastating and penetrated confusion to every bone of me. The behaviors slowly crept up and got worse when I stood my ground. I was also gaslighted……what they call crazy making, when you feel very confused by the spining of reality and the way the communicate. He actually made me feel like I was crazy and a part of me doubted myself. 6 years post divorce, I am still getting back memories of his domination, need for control, words said that stabbed at my heart, etc., and beginning to really peace it all together. It is hard though because he has a new girlfriend and seems so happy. He is so kind and wonderful to my daughter (which is good for her), but it makes me doubt my reality and wonder it must have been me.

    1. Hello, Ally.

      You are not alone. I think there are times when we all doubt our reality, when we wonder if we over-reacted, or if it really wasn’t that bad. It was. Trust your memories and your feelings. Also remember that abusers are all about their public image. Just because he seems so happy in public doesn’t mean that anything has changed. He just knows how to play the game of perception.


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