23 Eye-Opening Things Experts Wish You Knew About Domestic Violence

Updated: May 28, 2021

One in four women experience some form of physical, emotional, sexual, or financial domestic violence each year in the United States. Three professionals debunk myths about domestic abuse and explain the best course of action to get out of abusive relationships.


It’s a lot more than just physical violence

“We hear a lot of women who call us and are like, ‘Well, I’m not sure if I should be calling you because he’s not hitting me,’ but there’s a lot of other power and control dynamics that are being utilized in the relationship that are creating fear and intimidation.” —Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline (Everyone should know these self-defense techniques.)


Abusers make the first move during a vulnerable moment

“Most of the people I know who got involved in battering relationships were somehow vulnerable when they initially met the battering partner, and by vulnerable, I mean vulnerable in the way we all will be at some point in our lives when we are going through a crisis. So things like losing a job, parents being very young, going through financial crisis, it all starts at different times in our lives. During those times, I think we are more at risk because batters are looking for someone they can control.” —Rene Renick, vice president of programs and emerging issues at the National Network to End Domestic Violence


Verbal abuse is a type of domestic violence

“Our clients are belittled, are called names, are made to feel to feel that they’re stupid, that they’re worthless. It’s this campaign to make the victim feel small. My clients are always told, ‘You’re stupid. You’re a bitch. You’re a whore,’ all of the typical sexist language that exists in the world is hurled at our clients. … One thing that’s very common is for the abuser to say, ‘Nobody else would want you. I am the only one who would be with someone like you,’ to [make the victim] feel trapped so that she can’t leave the situation.” —Jennifer Friedman, managing director of the Center for Legal Services at My Sister’s Place (Look out for these signs your partner is emotionally abusive.)


Isolation is a serious warning sign

“Sometimes partners present it as, ‘You know, I just really love you and I want to spend a lot of time with you. Don’t go out with your friends tonight. If you really loved me, you would just stay with me tonight.’ That happens over a period of time where they don’t see their friends and family and really try to create a space where everything is about them and you don’t have space for yourself.” —Katie Ray-Jones (Isolation is also a sign of depression. Here’s how to help a depressed spouse.)


If he’s too good to be true, he probably is

“It’s kind of a myth that someone who batters is nasty and abusive from the beginning. In fact, the opposite is true. They often come off as very, very charming. They write poetry, bring flowers, seem emotionally open. A lot of the time victims would say, ‘Yeah, I thought it was too good to be true, but I really wanted it to be.’” —Rene Renick (Is your partner a keeper?)


Beware of people who are too eager to commit

“[Victims] will say, ‘We went out, and the next day he called me, and that was wonderful. And the next day he called three or four times, and we were on the phone three or four hours. And then we went out again, and then the next week, he was at my doorstep with his toothbrush, and it was like a whirlwind. And six weeks later, there we were in Vegas getting married.’ Batters move very quickly to get someone into a relationship with them and get them into a worn-down position.” —Rene Renick

iStock/Ben Harding

Victims are forced to depend on their abusers financially

“I have had many clients over the years who work full time, but on Friday night when she gets paid, the batterer takes her paycheck and says, ‘I am going to give you this limited budget for food, for the kids, for a week and you have to live with it.’ Or on the flip side, I have had clients who were physically abused every time they were ready to have a job interview, and it was a very purposeful way of preventing her from being able to have her own independent resources. We see that very commonly. It can also take the form of taking out credit cards in the victim’s name and running up debt and then leaving her with the debt.” —Jennifer Friedman


Low self-esteem doesn’t necessarily make you a target

“There is a pretty widespread belief out there that victims of domestic violence got into these relationships because they have low self-esteem. Through my work with many victims of domestic violence, I would say that that is completely not true. From what I can tell, most of them have average, normal self-esteem when they got into the battering relationship. What is true is that the impact of having been in a battering relationship certainly damages self-esteem.” —Rene Renick (These science-backed tips will boost your confidence.)


You can get raped by your significant other

“There are many women who don’t think they can be sexually abused or raped by their partner or their husband, but we really focus a lot of education about how a husband or boyfriend can rape you and how when you are in a relationship, you should still be providing consent if you are going to be having sex.” —Katie Ray-Jones


Abusers don’t lash out randomly

“There’s still a lot of people that think that someone who batters is out of control and just sorts of loses it, and they think, ‘Well, sometimes I get mad and I kind of lose it.’ But that’s not the truth. Batters are in very good control. They are purposely choosing when and who they are battering. They’re not out of control.” —Rene Renick (Follow these tips to control your anger.)


Abuse is going digital

“Most people think of jealousy in ways that it’s someone talking to someone of the opposite sex if they are in a heterosexual relationship and they say, ‘You know you shouldn’t be talking to other men. The way you’re dressing, you’re trying to encourage other people to look at you.’ We are also seeing it show up in the way where on social media, people are commenting on their posts or some type of feed and they are becoming jealous and accusing them of cheating on them or having another relationship. We do a lot of education on jealousy being a natural emotion, but it’s also an unhealthy emotion that is rooted in insecurities and how someone acts on their jealousy could be a huge red flag. We also see this in some controlling ways where the partner constantly texts someone, and if they don’t respond to the text message, there are regressions to that.” —Katie Ray-Jones


Know the term “gas lighting”

“It comes from [the 1938 stage play Gas Light] in which the manipulator made the person feel that she was crazy. It’s a purposeful narrative that’s kind of spun to say, ‘You aren’t in touch with reality. You don’t know what’s going on,’ to make stuff up. Then it causes the victim to get a little bit confused about reality. It’s kind of like crazy-making behavior.” —Jennifer Friedman. Here’s more on gaslighting and how to tell if you’re experiencing it.


Popular culture keeps some women stuck in abusive relationships

“There’s not enough information out there about what is healthy behavior, healthy relationships, and what’s not. There are also a lot of messages in our culture that support some of those unhealthy messages. You could probably go to a grocery store this afternoon and find a women’s magazine that in some way says that women are responsible for men’s behavior. You can find headlines that say, ‘How to keep your man from having an affair,’ as if that is a responsibility of the partner, but it’s not.” —Rene Renick


Men can be victims, too

“A portion of our callers, about 4 percent, identified as being male victims. I think people assume it’s usually a homosexual relationship, but often it’s not. We hear a lot from heterosexual relationships where the male is the victim. … We had a male victim recently reach out to us who was terrified of losing [his] kids, and he had grown up without a dad so he didn’t want to lose his kids. If it meant he was going to be hit by her, he would let her hit him so he could be with his kids. We do a thorough assessment to ensure that we understand the safety of the male.” —Katie Ray-Jones


Educating younger generations can prevent future abuse

“Kids as young as elementary school should be taught about what a healthy relationship looks like, starting from a young age and going into the teenage years. Teenage domestic violence is a very serious problem. Dating abuse is a very serious problem for our young people, and it is just critical that we educate just boys and girls on the warning signs and how to construct safe, loving, and supportive relationships.” —Jennifer Friedman


Concerned loved ones can take action

“About 12 percent of [National Domestic Violence Hotline] callers are loved ones, friends, neighbors. If someone that you know you think is in an abusive relationship the hotline is a great resource to anyone to bounce ideas off of. Sometimes a friend or family may say, ‘You know, I want her to come stay with me,’ and we might say, ‘Let’s talk about the risks,’ because there might be risks if the partner knows where you live. Then you could become a target.” —Katie Ray-Jones


The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when the victim decides to leave

“We know that the most dangerous time for a domestic violence victim is that after she leaves, whether that’s after she walks out the door or two or three years later. It’s whenever the batter perceives that she’s really gone. It is often the case that someone who has been out of a battering relationship for a year or two, they are still at a high level of danger, because batters get really desperate and they want to get that person back into the relationship.” —Rene Renick (Can you trust your partner?)


Use the right resources to plan that exit

“Anyone can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline [1-800-799-SAFE (7233)]. We are available 24/7 to speak to an advocate and plan that out and what that exit might look like or who the best person in their life might be to talk to, and then, of course, we have people who aren’t ready to leave the relationship. We safety plan with them. If a fight does break out, if there are kids in the home, what are you going to do to ensure safety?” —Katie Ray-Jones

iStock/Laura Clay Ballard

Manipulation can continue after the victim leaves the relationship

“Maybe our client has an order for protection, so the physical violence is not there anymore, but the manipulation and the power and control can play itself out throughout the course of the litigation… Very commonly in custody litigation, the father is perpetually canceling visitation at the last minute, so Mom is jumping through hoops. She’s getting the kids ready, and they are all excited to see Dad, and then he cancels the visitation at the last minute, leaving kids disappointed and leaving the kids to say, ‘Why doesn’t dad love us? This is all your fault,’ and leaving her with more problems. Very manipulative.” —Jennifer Friedman (These subtle signs point to a toxic relationship.)


If you’re a victim, don’t suffer in silence

“Take good care of yourself because it is extremely stressful and traumatic. We encourage victims to be patient and kind to themselves through the process because it is not an easy transition. To be knowledgeable and educated about domestic violence is the best way to end it.” —Katie Ray-Jones


Recovery can take years

“Lots of victims of domestic violence I work with have shared with me that actually it was the emotional abuse that caused them some of the greatest damage and took them the longest to get over, long after any bruises healed, because hearing that kind of emotional assault does damage how you view yourself. It’s especially damaging when it comes from someone who supposedly says they love you.” —Rene Renick


Tough love isn’t the right way to support a victim

“A woman typically leaves a relationship almost seven times before she leaves for good. We have a lot of friends and family who call us frustrated and have made it a point to say, ‘I’m just going to do tough love. I’m done with her,’ and that’s the last thing that we want. We want to talk about the expectations and how that should be part of going into helping someone. There could be a lot of going back and forth. [Be] patient and nonjudgmental, ensuring the person knows that the abuse not their fault. It’s a choice the abusive person is making to engage in abusive behavior.” —Katie Ray-Jones

iStock/Jacob Wackerhausen

Domestic violence is everyone’s problem

“Domestic violence exists in every facet of society, rich or poor, across ethnic and racial lines, across heterosexual and LGBT communities, young and old. It’s often swept under the rug and something that is a family’s dirty secret and isn’t brought out. It’s just so important that victims know what their resources are and that people support their local domestic violence organizations because this is an issue that affects all of us.” —Jennifer Friedman