Domestic violence is a serious threat for many women. Know the signs of an abusive relationship and how to leave a dangerous situation. By Mayo Clinic staff
Your partner apologizes and says the hurtful behavior won't happen again — but you fear it will. At times you wonder whether you're imagining the abuse, yet the emotional or physical pain you feel is real. If this sounds familiar, you may be experiencing domestic violence.
Recognize domestic violence
Domestic violence — also called domestic abuse, battering or intimate partner violence — occurs between people in an intimate relationship. Domestic violence can take many forms, including emotional, sexual and physical abuse. Men are sometimes abused by partners, but domestic violence is most often directed toward women. Domestic violence can happen in heterosexual or homosexual relationships.
It may not be easy to identify domestic violence at first. While some relationships are clearly abusive from the outset, abuse often starts subtly and gets worse over time.
You may be experiencing domestic violence if you're in a relationship with someone who:
Calls you names, insults you or puts you down
Prevents you from going to work or school
Stops you from seeing family members or friends
Tries to control how you spend money, where you go or what you wear
Acts jealous or possessive or constantly accuses you of being unfaithful
Gets angry when drinking alcohol or using drugs
Threatens you with violence or a weapon
Hits, kicks, shoves, slaps, chokes or otherwise hurts you, your children or your pets
Forces you to have sex or engage in sexual acts against your will
Blames you for his or her violent behavior or tells you that you deserve it
You may also be experiencing domestic violence if you're in a lesbian relationship with someone who:
Threatens to tell friends, family, colleagues or community members your sexual orientation or gender identity
Tells you that authorities won't help a homosexual, bisexual or transgendered person
Tells you that leaving the relationship means you're admitting that homosexual relationships are deviant
Tells you that abuse is a normal part of homosexual relationships or that domestic violence can't occur in homosexual relationships
Justifies abuse by telling you that you're not "really" homosexual, bisexual or transgender
Says women can't be violent
Portrays the violence as mutual and consensual
Depicts the abuse as part of a sadomasochistic activity
Pregnancy, children and domestic violence
Sometimes domestic violence begins — or increases — during pregnancy. During this perilous time, your health and the baby's health are at risk. The danger continues after the baby is born. Even if your child isn't abused, simply witnessing domestic violence can be harmful. Children who grow up in abusive homes are more likely to be abused and have behavioral problems than are other children. As adults, they're more likely to become abusers or think abuse is a normal part of a relationship. You may worry that seeking help will further endanger you and your child or that it may break up your family, but it's the best way to protect your child — and yourself.
Break the cycle
If you're in an abusive situation, you may recognize this pattern:
Your abuser threatens violence.
Your abuser strikes.
Your abuser apologizes, promises to change and offers gifts.
The cycle repeats itself.
Typically the violence becomes more frequent and severe over time.
The longer you stay in an abusive relationship, the greater the toll on your self-esteem. You may become depressed and anxious. You may begin to doubt your ability to take care of yourself or wonder if the abuse is your fault. You may feel helpless or paralyzed. If you're in a lesbian relationship, you may be less likely to seek help after an assault if you don't want to disclose your sexual orientation. If you've been sexually assaulted by another woman, you may also fear that you won't be believed. Still, the only way to break the cycle of domestic violence is to take action — and the sooner the better.
Start by telling someone about the abuse, whether it's a friend, relative, doctor or other close contact. At first, you may find it hard to talk about the abuse. But you'll also likely feel relief and receive much-needed support.
Create a safety plan
Leaving an abuser can be dangerous. Consider taking these steps:
Call a women's shelter or domestic violence hotline for advice. Make the call at a safe time — when the abuser is not around — or from a friend's house or other safe location.
Pack an emergency bag that includes items you'll need when you leave, such as extra clothes and keys. Hide it or leave the bag with a friend or neighbor. Keep important personal papers, money and prescription medications handy so that you can take them with you on short notice.
Know exactly where you'll go and how you'll get there, even if you have to leave in the middle of the night.
Protect your communication
An abuser may use technology to monitor your telephone and Internet communication and to track your physical location. To maintain your privacy and safety:
Use cordless phones and cell phones cautiously. Your abuser may intercept calls and listen to your conversations. He or she may check your cell phone to see who has called or texted you. Your abuser also may check billing records to see your complete call history.
Use your home computer cautiously. Your abuser may use spyware to monitor your e-mails and the Web sites you visit. Consider using a computer at work, the library or at a friend's house to seek help.
Frequently change your e-mail password. Choose a password that would be impossible for your abuser to guess.
Clear your viewing history. Follow your browser's instructions to clear any record of Web sites or graphics you've viewed.
Where to find help
In an emergency, call 911 — or your local emergency number or your local law enforcement agency. The following resources also can help:
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE or 800-799-7233. Call the hotline for crisis intervention and referrals to resources, such as women's shelters.
Your doctor. Doctors and nurses will treat injuries and may refer you to safe housing and other local resources.
A local women's shelter or crisis center. Shelters and crisis centers typically provide 24-hour emergency shelter, as well as advice on legal matters and advocacy and support services.
A counseling or mental health center. Counseling and support groups for women in abusive relationships are available in most communities. Be wary of advice to seek couples or marriage counseling. If violence has escalated to the point that you're afraid, counseling isn't adequate.
A local court. Your district court can help you obtain a restraining order that legally mandates the abuser to stay away from you or face arrest. Local advocates may be available to help guide you through the process.
It can be hard to recognize or admit that you're in an abusive relationship — but help is available. Remember, no one deserves to be abused.