7 Signs Your Loved One Is In An Abusive Marriage (And How To Help)

Abuse is a tricky subject. Some people may consider someone disagreeing with them abuse, but the abuse I'm discussing today is the kind that leaves long-lasting effects that have to be resolved through healthy coping mechanisms and a will to move on. This abuse isn’t surface level. It runs deep.

By Jessica Marie Baumgartner5 min read
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Here are seven signs of abuse, along with ways we can help our loved one change or escape their destructive situation.  

1. An Obsessive Partner

There is a huge difference between being in love and being married to someone who obsessively controls every facet of your life. Abusive partners are bullies. They want to be seen and heard above all others. 

These kinds of relationships might be easy to hide in the honeymoon phase, when newlyweds are taking extra time together to be all lovey-dovey, but over time it’s easier and easier to spot. My dad constantly wanted to know where my mom was and what she was doing at all times. My mom couldn’t leave my stepdad for more than 20 minutes without him constantly messaging and calling her asking when she would be back, why she was taking so long, and telling her she needed to return to him.  

How To Help: 

  • Help out by gently reminding your loved one that you respect them and their freedom – this subconsciously gives them a self-esteem boost and reminds them that they are a free being.

  • When your loved one mentions their partner, express concern for the partner as much as your loved one – this panders to their need to help the abuser while giving you the ability to remain in touch.

2. Alienation

Alienation goes hand-in-hand with obsession. Controlling partners will pick fights with their spouse’s friends and family to drive them away. They want their love all to themselves to do with as they please.

Controlling partners will pick fights with their spouse’s friends and family to drive them away.

My mother couldn’t have friends when she was with my dad. He would hit on all of her friends and even cheat on her with some of them. I dated some real jerks who would hit on the waitress at every restaurant we went to together, flirt and hit on my friends, and one cheated on me with someone I thought was my best friend at the time. 

People get disgusted by this behavior and distance themselves. Even if they want to help, they’re often pushed away by the victim.

How To Help:

  • Never stop inviting your loved one, and even their spouse, to events. 

  • Keep calling and messaging, offering an outside lifeline. Even just a text once in a while to talk about how much you hate a new show is a lifeline. 

  • Express concern about missing them, and ask how their spouse is doing – keep showing sympathy for both parties to keep the victim engaged. 

3. Animal Abuse

This is a huge one. People who abuse animals will and often do abuse their spouses and children. One of my first memories is being held back from trying to save my puppy as my dad beat the dog within an inch of his life. The young pup was so battered that afterward, when my mom and my aunt tried to take him to a veterinarian, the vet said he would have to press charges, and so my mom refused. My aunt nursed the dog herself, and he spent the rest of his life deformed and unable to stop shaking. 

Abusers don’t have the same ability to empathize as healthy people. They may “love” and “care” in their own way, but they are themselves suffering from some sort of mental issue(s) and can’t possibly overcome their outbursts until they treat the root of these problems. 

How To Help:

  • Don’t hesitate to help the animal get whatever care they need.

  • Don’t let the victim brush this behavior off. This is a crucial time. When a family pet is harmed by an abuser, it’s the best opportunity for the victim to draw lines and get the help they need. Gently discuss the situation and help them come to a decision on their own. 

  • Advocate for counseling, or some form of change. If you push too hard it will never happen, but gently offering a place to stay or some form of counseling for both people involved is helpful. Abusers are often reluctant, but even offering to have a grandparent (or your crazy cousin who has been to jail and turned their life around) discuss life with them can be helpful. 

4. Self-Blaming and Excusing Bad Behavior

Victims of abuse often blame themselves. Not only that, but when their partner makes a scene or lashes out at them in public, they work to excuse the behavior to deal with their embarrassment. They inadvertently become the ultimate enablers, because they don’t feel like they have any other choice. 

Victims of abuse blame themselves for not being able to help their loved one successfully.  

They are alienated, and often believe they are the only person who can help their abuser. This is where trauma bonding or Stockholm Syndrome really takes shape and wreaks havoc. Because most abusers are charming, or at least have some redeeming qualities, victims of abuse make excuses for them and focus on their good qualities. Then they take the blame for not being able to help their loved one successfully.  

How To Help:

  • Don’t bash the abuser, that only drives the victim to further defend them.

  • Use your own examples or other situations to draw parallels without vilifying your loved one, their spouse, or their relationship. Let them see the comparison themselves.

5. Depression, Anxiety, and Fear of Others

It’s completely understandable that depression and anxiety are not obvious indicators. So many factors contribute to these mental issues, but when a family member suddenly becomes afraid to go out, or they stop visiting family without reason, it’s self-alienation often linked to their fear. They fear so many things, not just abuse. 

Once a person enters this phase of abuse, they fear being found out. They don’t want the fallout of someone discovering a bruise or telling them that they saw their spouse making out with someone else in public. They don’t want to go anywhere or do anything anymore because life has become one big liability that could destroy their relationship. At least from their perspective. 

How To Help:

  • Spend time having fun with your loved one and compliment them. If they won’t go anywhere, come to them when their spouse is out and remind them what laughter is. But if they don’t want to hang out at home either, don’t push. Respect the severity of their need for space. 

  • Send them flowers or some kind of pick me up. Don’t expect a big response. They’ll likely be sad that the gift isn’t from their spouse, but will still remind them that you’re there. 

  • Use special occasions as a reminder of their need to socialize. It’s easy to hide on a rainy Tuesday, but avoiding family on holidays is something most victims won’t allow because it draws them into the spotlight by not being there and they’d rather just go and get it over with than have everyone asking why they were absent. 

6. Extreme Touchiness or Defensiveness

Oftentimes, when friends and loved ones try to help, victims of abuse are extra sensitive and will cry or break down at the slightest suggestion. Some even grow angry. They don’t know if they can handle getting help because they fear it will end their marriage.

This is why so many people, women especially, stay for so long. They’re so afraid to lose their partner that they become slightly abusive to others themselves. Whether it’s insulting their best friend to feel better about their situation, or pushing away their own sister, victims of abuse don’t always act or even seem like victims. Many fight back, or shout just as loud as their abuser, and they become so accustomed to that lifestyle that it bleeds out of the house and seeps into their other relationships. 

How To Help:

  • Don’t play the game – be cool and calm. Be reasonable and don’t let their behavior cause you to get angry or upset. (This is super difficult, it takes a lot of restraint.)

  • Calmly ask them why they are so upset. Offer a shoulder to cry on. Again, don’t push your solutions or bad-talk their abuser. Just be there for your loved one.

  • Gently discuss how they’re obviously suffering and how their spouse is probably hurting too. By displaying empathy, even for the abuser, you can help the victim seek solutions on their own terms without feeling judged or as if they’re abandoning their partner. 

7. Appearance Changes

This is one I never realized I did while I was in an abusive relationship, but I lived in my hoodie. Sure I get cold easily, but I gave up wearing my favorite V-neck sweaters to live in a hoodie. I didn’t care about what I wore anymore, or how I did my hair, and makeup seemed useless.

The hit to a victim’s self-esteem drives this more than the need to hide signs of physical abuse.

The hit to a victim’s self-esteem drives this more than the need to cover swelling or other signs of physical abuse. Their self-esteem drops so low that they stop caring about what they look like because “He’s going to hit me even if I dress up,” or “He went out with someone else after I got my hair done, so why bother?”  

How To Help:

  • Activate retail therapy powers. Whether having a girly shopping trip, sitting together on the couch and browsing clothes online, or texting images of cute outfit inspiration back and forth, just having a fashion buddy to remember that clothes and accessories are not worn for others, but to display our own individual personality, is so very helpful. 

  • Offer your loved one that shirt they’ve always loved, or those shoes they’ve always wanted to borrow. Maybe just gift them some cute lip gloss you know they’d love – it’s simple yet bold and daring, and best of all, gestures like this remind a victim that they still have options. 

  • Use any fashion excuse to slowly bring up your loved one’s appearance changes – a new movie, that wedding that’s coming up, anything that makes fashion choices a relevant topic. Don’t be afraid to ask about why they’ve turned into a walking laundry basket, just do it with good humor or a light conversational approach. 

Closing Thoughts

There are many different ways that victims show signs of abuse. But in my experience, an obsessive partner, alienation, animal abuse, enabling, mental issues, defensiveness, and extreme appearance changes are the biggest signs that something is seriously wrong. By offering your care and love to not only your loved one, but also expressing concern for their abuser, you may be able to help them help themselves. 

If this doesn’t work, the sad fact is that you may not be able to aid them at all. You can’t save someone who doesn’t want saving, but so long as you remain available and let them know you care you will be someone they reach out to if they really need it. That’s all that matters. 

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