I’ve previously talked about the case of Hannah Clarke, an Australian woman killed by her partner Rowan Baxter along with her three children in 2020.
Prior to her death, Hannah had spent a long time struggling to come to terms with the fact that she was in an abusive relationship. She spoke to a friend working in the domestic violence sector about some of the things Rowan had done to her during their relationship.
He would groundlessly accuse her of cheating on him, monitor her social media accounts and would also put her down and tell her she looked ‘disgusting’.
Her friend helped her to realise that Hannah was indeed experiencing abuse. Because Rowan had never hit her, Hannah hadn’t realised what was happening. But suddenly, once she could put her finger on why she was so miserable in her relationship, Hannah was able to see that it was time for a fresh start.
She tried to leave Rowan in December 2019 and was killed just two months later.
Now not all coercive relationships escalate into physical abuse. Some coercive relationships stay at an emotional level. But this isn’t to say that these relationships are any more tolerable for victims. In fact, we know that the emotional abuse is often what takes a greater toll on victims than anything else.
Our understandings of emotional abuse are not strong, and so it can be difficult for victims to realise that they are indeed victims.
So if you’re worried that you could potentially be in abusive relationship, how can you tell? Well here are just some of the warning signs.
Your partner has access to lots of facets of your life – and they’re always keen to know the minutiae of what you have done
Like many aspects of emotional abuse, this particular behaviour is very easy to confuse with affection or attentiveness. Often abusers will cloak their behaviour behind shows of legitimate concern and interest – and this can obscure the fact that at the heart of things, their intention is to control their victim.
Say your partner follows you on a location-sharing app like Find My Friends. It’s quite normal for people to follow their friends and family on these apps (kind of bizarre but we’ll go with it) so it probably doesn’t seem abnormal for partners to follow each other either.
Yet in the hands of an abusive partner, an app like Find My Friends is highly dangerous. The abuser may obsessively follow their victim and even begin to question them about their whereabouts.
In the early stages, this may seem ok. The controlling partner may simply comment on the victim’s whereabouts, asking what they did in a particular place and why they were there. If done in a banterous or friendly tone, this behaviour can appear to be attentive or even loving at first. But the issue is of course that as the abuser begins to question the victim regarding their whereabouts, a victim loses some of their own autonomy and independence.
Gradually, an abuser can become aggressive over a victim’s whereabouts, making them feel reluctant to go to too many places. Eventually, the abuser can start to use methods of coercion to have complete control over a victim’s location at all times.
This kind of access and intrusion is problematic. It’s fine for your partner to follow you on a location sharing app, so don’t feel worried about that in and of itself. But if they persistently question your whereabouts and repeatedly ask you to explain yourself, you should be concerned about the hold they have over you.
The same goes for social media. Some couples quite happily share social media passwords, and while that might feel alien to some, others find it completely normal. What becomes problematic is if a partner (whether they have access to your password or not) is monitoring your social feeds and even checking your messages. Abusers often try to isolate their victims from others and so ensuring that no social contact that they are unaware of takes place is often a perfect way for an abuser to cut a victim off from support systems.
Your partner resents the time you spend with others
Again, this one is really difficult. Sometimes partners do have legitimate grievances about the time their significant other gives to them. Sometimes it is totally reasonable for one partner to ask the other to spend more time with them.
But at other times this can be a huge red flag. Abusers routinely rely on isolating their victim from other sources of support. If a victim has happy and strong friendships of their own, then they are less vulnerable to abuse and can less easily be controlled.
If your partner sulks every time you see your friends or family, or acts as though you’re abandoning them, this should be a cause for concern. This method of guilt-tripping is often a highly effective way of forcing the victim to lessen their social interactions with others without actually making any demands. It convinces victims to believe that their level of socialising is unreasonably high and they then moderate their behaviour accordingly, gradually lessening their social interactions until the controlling partner is satisfied.
If you feel as though your partner becomes moody every time you do something nice independently of them, or cuts you off when you talk about your friends, you need to be aware that that’s not ok. Try having a conversation with them and asking them to tell you honestly how they feel about you seeing your friends – don’t just simply moderate your behaviour because you want to see their mood improve.
It may be the case that your partner genuinely feels that you don’t care about them. But equally, this kind of behaviour could be a ploy to encourage you to cut off your other connections.
Your partner puts you down – sometimes in front of others
Banter and teasing are a healthy and normal part of many relationships. If your partner mocks you for being a terrible cook or for your poor sense of direction this doesn’t have to be a cause for concern.
But what if they do it repeatedly, to the extent where the mocking becomes one-sided? What if they do it in a way that makes you feel hurt and useless? What if they make you feel humiliated in front of other people?
It’s really easy to second guess yourself and feel that you are being over-sensitive when it comes to certain abusive behaviours. But at the very least if your partner’s behaviour is making you feel low and causing you to lack self-esteem then you need to explore what is going on.
Abusive individuals often rely on their victims having low self-esteem in order to make them easier to control. If your partner is able to make you feel low with just one remark, and then able to manipulate you into feeling good again with just one other comment, then they have control over your full spectrum of emotions – making them very powerful and you very vulnerable.
So be attuned to how your partner speaks to you and speaks about you in front of others. If they dismiss you in front of their friends, encouraging them to do the same, then you are bound to feel excluded and hurt. You have every right to feel aggrieved and to recognise that you need to be treated with respect.
You find yourself doubting everything
If you find that you’re questioning what has happened all the time, and wondering whether you did x, y or z, you may be a victim of gaslighting.
Gaslighting is when one person manipulates another by convincing them that things they believe to be happening aren’t, and vice-versa. It is also described as making someone feel as if they are going mad. The term comes from a 1930’s play in which a husband manipulates his wife and insists to her that the gas lights she sees flickering aren’t – when in fact he is causing them to flicker himself.
Say for example that your partner constantly comments on your whereabouts, and even makes comments about places you don’t recall telling them you were visiting. You might start to become worried that your partner is perhaps tracking your location using an app. Yet when you confront them about this, your partner will insist that you did indeed tell them that you saw your parents at the weekend, or that you went to a pasta restaurant with colleagues.
And it’s tough, because memory is fragile, and when someone convinces you that something happened, it’s easy to just dismiss your non-recall of the occurrence as a simple act of forgetting.
Gaslighting can also be a key part of physical or sexual abuse. An abuser might make their partner sexually uncomfortable – but when their partner confronts them about what has happened, the abuser may insist that the victim is making everything up.
If you think you might be experiencing gaslighting but aren’t sure, start keeping a record of what has happened. If you find that your partner is alleging that wildly different things have happened to what you have on record, you need to accept that you may be in a very serious situation. Make sure you talk to someone and keep channels of external support open as far as possible.
Your partner tries to twist and turn their way out of serious conversations – often making you feel guilty
This behaviour is linked to gaslighting, and is highly traumatic for victims.
Perhaps you want to confront your partner about their behaviour, and get to the bottom of what is going on. Talking any problems through is a normal and important part of healthy relationships, so it’s definitely something you should try to do wherever you see issues arising.
Say you open up a conversation and tell your partner that perhaps the way they talk about you in front of their friends is upsetting you. If they then turn this back round onto you and say that you saying that is making them upset, then you should be concerned.
Classic behaviour from an emotional abuser is to constantly make you doubt what is happening and the way that you feel. They seek to invalidate your own emotion so that you become a slave to theirs. An emotional abuser often places their own emotions on a pedestal – so that everything in the relationship is done according to how they feel.
If you are trying to broach difficult conversations with your partner, it is to be expected that they might not go exactly as you’d hoped. But if your partner is twisting the essence of your conversation around, and making you feel like the issue is yours entirely, this could definitely be a sign of emotional abuse.