The early warning signs of an abusive relationship you can't ignore.

Worldwide, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Fighting against domestic violence is a cause close to my heart because I know how frighteningly easy it is to inadvertently slip into an abusive relationship.

Image via iStock.

When I was much younger, it happened to me. I was living at home with loving and observant parents, enrolled in feminism studies at university (the irony), and hanging around with a big group of feisty, supportive friends. I had strong opinions on men and relationships, particularly the bad kind.

Not exactly a sitting duck, right? Wrong.

It happened as quietly, quickly and easily as walking through an open door.

It did not begin with a light-bulb realisation, or a drastic tear-stained dash for safety. There were no punches, slaps or shoves. Instead, it began as a subtle and creeping chain of inconspicuous moments.

Before I knew it, it felt too hard to get out, too late to change the situation and too embarrassing to admit the relationship had failed.

Today, I am in a stable marriage with a kind, genuine man – however, I wish I’d known the early warning signs to look out for, to help spot abuse in a relationship before it went further:

1. You will be romanced.

Most of the time, abusive behaviour arrives in disguise. It often masquerades as a core-shaking, mighty love – a love you may never have experienced before.

The abuser wants you all to himself and wins your trust quickly. The behaviour hides itself amongst good feelings, also known as the honeymoon period. These feelings can be glorious and giddy, exhilirating and exciting.

Obviously, romance is not an automatic precursor to abuse but it can be used as a manipulative technique to camouflage other worrying behaviours, such as jealousy, putting you down or making you feel guilty.

Image via iStock.

2. Abuse rarely begins physically.

That’s the thing about violence in a relationship – it rarely starts with a punch or a push, which makes it extraordinarily difficult to recognise.

Abuse almost always begins mentally, and it often starts with control. In my case, the control came hidden in the first love letter I’d ever received – a letter that asked me to cancel all my plans with friends to spend more time with him.    (Red flag number one, right there.)

I just want to see more of you,” the letter read.  I held it close to my chest and felt a delicious flutter of exclusivity. The control had begun, but I was none the wiser.

Controlling behaviour has a talent for cloaking itself in compliments, followed by contradictory comments.

“You are so beautiful,” then “those jeans make you look fat.”

“Babe, I love you so much,” then “why are you so fucking stupid?”

And it can quickly escalate.

“You should stay away from your friends – you’re better than them.”

“Don’t talk to that guy.”

“Forget what your family say, they only want to control you.”

It’s hard to sum up how this behaviour can make you feel in one word. The dictionary definition could be: “total mind fuck”.


3. The apologies are Oscar-worthy.

There can be mood swings, deflections of blame (“you provoked me to say that”) and unprompted verbal barrages, but it’s the apologies that are most convincing.

There might be tears, declarations of regret, a sudden flash of self-awareness, and a sincere promise he will change. In fact, the apologies can be so believable even an FBI agent could be fooled.

He might prefer to play the victim and blame you for his feelings and actions.  He may apologise for yelling or swearing at you, but will back it up with “it’s because I love you so much,” or “it’s because you drove me to it.”  He will make you feel that if you change your behaviour, he will be the amazing, sweet man you fell in love with.

You may stay because you hope he will change. Don’t, because he won’t.

4. It can feel almost impossible to leave.

Why don’t you leave straight away? Why didn’t you tell someone?  These are common questions often asked by those who do not understand the complex emotional and psychological web of relationship abuse.

Abuse has an underhanded, sneaky way of making people question their choices. It erodes self-esteem and makes it feel almost impossible to recognise bad behaviour or to make a decision based on your gut instinct.

In my case, months of verbal and emotional abuse felt like a veil had wrapped itself around me. It was an almost insurmountable task to untangle myself. However, my instinct finally kicked in after one unforseen punch in the stomach in a dark corner at a party, away from the eyes of his friends.

“You provoked me,” he said. This was wrong, and I knew it. I got out – swiftly and permanently.

Looking back, I had it so easy compared to many others. I got out before it went further, and had the safe haven of my parent’s house to return to.   My stomach churns writing this, thinking of the sheer number of people who experience otherwise.

I sometimes wonder if we all – men and women – knew how to recognise the warning signs, we might be able to work together to address and prevent violent behaviour before it even occurs.  That’s why it’s so important to get men involved.

Last week, alongside thousands of other men around Australia, my husband took the White Ribbon public oath to speak out against - and stamp out - domestic violence. As our nation’s only male-led campaign of its kind, it was powerful stuff.

However, I’d also like girls and women to make an oath. Today, and every day, let’s promise ourselves this:

We will know how to spot the early warning signs in a relationship. If we feel uncomfortable, frightened, guilty, isolated or pressured, we will trust our instincts and get out. We deserve more. We deserve to be respected and secure. We deserve real love, not control.

If you or someone you know is experiencing violence and need help or support, please contact one of the support services here. There are national and state-based agencies that can assist you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

NOTE:  The gender-based language in this post depicts abuse in a heterosexual relationship, however abuse occurs a similar rates in same-sex relationships and is also frequently perpetrated by women against men. We all have the right to be safe and happy in our relationships – regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

"If you would like to take action against domestic violence, please lend your support to Rosie Batty's campaign here."