No one wants to entertain the idea of their partner being physically or emotionally abusive. But according to research published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, there’s no universal motivator for partner abuse—and taking precaution could be what helps a person survive that situation.
Outside this study, the American Psychological Association finds “more than one in three women and more than one in four men in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime,” with interpersonal violence being the leading cause of female homicides and injury-related deaths during pregnancy. (Get the info you need for your health and happiness with Prevention’s FREE newsletters. Sign up here.)
Researchers recruited 348 female college students to take a series of surveys and questionnaires that measured the amount of relationship conflict they’ve experienced in the past. The questions inquired about minor and severe acts of aggression, like pushing and kicking, sustained injuries, and emotionally abusive behavior, such as suspiciously questioning where your partner has been to belittling them in front of other people. (Could you be a victim of verbal abuse and not even know it? Here’s what to look out for.)
The results: 95% of participants have been emotionally abusive while 30% have been physically abusive. Why? After the inability to express themselves verbally, women resort to abuse because they’re angry, retaliating for emotional hurt or just—believe it or not—stressed. This suggests that anger and stress management could be helpful in reducing partner violence, says the study.
So what’s an effective course of action? Prevention, especially since abuse is a cycle and not one that is easily broken, says Ramani Durvasula, PsyD, a psychology professor at the California State University, Los Angeles and the vice chair of the APA’s Committee on Women. “Once you give permission for a person to verbally or physically abuse you, precedent is set and communication with your partner goes out the window.”
Same goes for insults. “If it’s easy to use defamatory words in arguments or undermine another person, then pay attention,” she says. “It is abuse and can take a tremendous toll.” Specifically, it puts a person at greater risk for depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, anxiety, low self-esteem and poor physical health, says the APA. (Three women share what it feels like to go through emotional abuse.)
Partners who go in for the push or hit of any kind should set off alarm bells, says Durvasula. (Meet this amazing nurse who is manager of the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination & Domestic Violence Programs.)
Beyond that, control, or feeling like your partner is keeping track of your every move, is another sign of potential abuse. In which case, partners should seek help. “Such help can allow a person to establish a plan of safety,” says Durvasula. (Get the APA’s guidelines for such, here.) “Even if nothing has happened yet, you can create a plan to help stop an abusive situation before it escalates.” (Here are the long-term side effects of domestic violence no one talks about.)
Coerced or forced sex
On a similar level, sex that feels coerced or forced is another cause for concern, says Durvasula. “We are reluctant to call it ‘rape’ when it’s happening within a relationship, but no means no whether you’re married, dating, or anything else.”
Destruction of property
Then there are the physical signs your relationship may be taking a dangerous turn. “Destroying property during arguments, like wall punching and breaking objects, is a sign of dysregulated anger, or mood swings, that could escalate in the future,” says Durvasula. (You can’t afford to miss these 11 anger management tips.)