What is Domestic Violence? Signs to Look Out For and What to Do

signs of domestic violence

If you have found yourself on this page you may be struggling with abuse in your relationship or worry that you may be experiencing abuse. Domestic violence is frightening and tragic. While you might feel scared, know that you are not alone. What are the signs of domestic violence? What can you do if you are experiencing them? There are resources to assist you in this troubling time that we will discuss in great detail below. But first, remember to call 911 if you are experiencing an immediate risk of harm or fear for your safety.

Domestic Violence Statistics

No one ever wants to go through domestic violence, yet nearly 3 in 10 women and 1 in 10 men in the US have experienced some form of physical violence and/or stalking by a partner in their life. Nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner; a child abuse report is made every 10 seconds. Victims of domestic violence come from all populations. Victims do not fit into any specific age, educational, financial, racial, or personality profile.

While most people think of physical violence when you hear the term, there are emotional, sexual, and financial forms of abuse as well. Emotional abuse is even more common than physical violence. Half of all women and men in the US report experiencing some form of psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Domestic violence in any form can cause confusion, pain, a risk of severe harm, and post-traumatic stress. Annually, 1 in 15 children are exposed to domestic violence, and the long terms effects of this exposure are profound to children. It is imperative to know the many forms of abuse and how to identify them.

Domestic Violence under North Carolina Law

In North Carolina, domestic violence can be classified as physical, emotional, sexual, or financial. Harassment and emotional abuse can occur through all types of communication, including written, telephone, e-mail, voicemail, or text, to name a few. Victims of domestic violence are protected by both civil and criminal laws. Here is the civil law statute in North Carolina:

Domestic violence is an act (or acts) committed against a person with whom the offender shares or shared a personal relationship, or against the minor child of such a person, including:

  • Attempting to or intentionally causing bodily injury
  • Placing someone or a member of someone’s family or household in fear of imminent serious bodily injury
  • Committing a sexual offense such as rape or an act of sexual violence
  • Placing someone in fear of continued harassment that is so bad it inflicts substantial emotional distress on the victim
  • Conduct that torments, terrorizes, or terrifies a person.

This statute is broad in its protection against abuse. The law protects victims even if they are no longer in a relationship with the offender at the time of the abuse. Further, the law covers all types of personal relationships, not just marriage. The protection extends to acts or threats against your children, family, and household members.

Types of Domestic Violence

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is a form of coercion or manipulation in which the abuser gains power or control in the relationship. Domestic abuse is about controlling someone’s mind and emotions as much as hurting their body. Usually, physical violence isn’t what comes first. Instead, it is a gradual decline that begins with seemingly minor insults, put downs, or odd requests. This is emotional abuse (also referred to as psychological or mental abuse) and is not always easy to recognize. The intent of an emotional abuser is to frighten, control, and/or isolate you.

It starts with little excuses for why you shouldn’t see family or friends. Your spouse or partner might make you feel guilty for the relationships you have with other people or force you to pick him or her over your family and friends. Sometimes isolation begins with complaints or requests that do not seem ill-willed or harmful, but before long you can become cut off from your entire support system, trapped by your partner.

Financial Abuse

Financial abuse is when one partner has financial authority over the other and uses money as a form of control or manipulation. This could occur when one person is the breadwinner while the other is a stay-at-home parent. The abuser may not allow a partner to work. Financial abuse could also occur when one partner takes the other’s income and withholds funds in an effort to increase their power and leverage.

Because of the nature of how finances are managed in a marriage it can be difficult to recognize financial abuse. Partners who share finances may sometimes seem strict when budgeting but should be open to discussion as far as how money is spent and not withholding essentials like grocery money from their spouse. Likewise, in families without tight budgets or individual bank accounts, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish whether one’s spending is for the benefit of the family or if they are syphoning money from their partner for their own selfish purposes. Be cautious of developing habits like gambling, alcoholism, or drug use as they can very quickly take a family into debt when living with a financially abusive spouse or partner.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is when one is forced or coerced into performing sexual acts on their partner or another against their will. Marriage is not automatic consent to sex and marital rape is a crime in the state of North Carolina with harsh penalties for offenders. Behaviors can include guilting a spouse into sex, making threats of harm if a partner won’t have sex, or threatening to have sex with others if sex isn’t provided.

If you are concerned that you might have experienced or be experiencing sexual abuse or marital rape, there are several steps you can take to assure your safety. Find a safe place, whether in your home or at a domestic violence shelter, and call a local rape crisis center for guidance. You may also want to seek medical attention both for your health and safety as well as for collecting evidence. Do not shower, urinate, or change your clothes prior to seeking medical attention so the evidence can be as well preserved as possible. If you are in immediate danger, always call 911.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse involves acts of physical violence. Though considered by many to be one of the easiest forms of abuse to recognize, it is not always so straightforward. In addition to causing intentional harm towards a spouse, physical abuse typically begins as acts of general physical aggression, such as throwing objects, punching walls or doors, and threats of physical violence. The degree of force is also irrelevant when determining if physical abuse has occurred and includes but is not limited to punching, kicking, scratching, slapping, biting, spitting, and more.

Often one form of abuse can lead to others, compounding the issue. Physical abuse is usually followed by emotional manipulation, in which the abuser will try to convince the victim that the violence was justified or brought on by the victim’s actions. This could form a cycle of physical assault and psychological manipulation that further disorients the victim, causes increased confusion, and creates feelings of guilt or self-blame.

Threats of violence are not uncommon and can quickly become real acts of physical aggression. Even if a partner never hits you, they can use threats of harm or worse, threats to kill you, as a way of keeping you in the relationship due to fear.

Signs of Domestic Violence and Abuse

If you can recognize abuse early, you can protect yourself (or a loved one) and prevent further harm. Each type of abuse has signs that you can look for to determine if you or someone you care about is experiencing it. Here are just some of the signs of domestic violence.

Signs of Emotional Abuse

Signs of emotional abuse include jealously, controlling behavior, humiliation, criticizing, dismissiveness, overly sarcastic remarks, patronizing language, and derogatory name-calling. It is important to not make excuses for your partner, even if you do love them or feel some sense of blame. Emotional abuse involves exploiting vulnerabilities and unjustly causing you guilt and shame, belittling your accomplishments, and shutting you down for your interests or desires. If you feel your partner is overly critical or dismissive, it may actually be emotional abuse. Emotional abuse can also include gaslighting, a form of manipulation in which your partner pushes you into questioning your own sanity.  Other forms of emotional abuse may include threats of suicide, fleeing with the children, or harming other family members.

Signs of Financial Abuse

In terms of financial abuse, the biggest indicators are when a partner begins taking full control of the finances, starts hiding cash, or constantly berates you for your spending habits. A partner who reminds you that they are the breadwinner during arguments or tells you that you could never make it in the world without their financial support, is actively committing financial abuse. Being forced to fear for your well-being due to financial instability, or having money taken or withheld from you for leverage, are forms of financial abuse that coincide with emotional abuse.

Signs of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can be hard to understand or notice, but it is a serious cause for concern. Acts of aggression in intimate moments, bodily injuries inflicted during sex, or non-consensual sexual actions are all signs to look out for, as well as threats to have sex with others if a partner doesn’t comply with their demands or name-calling that alludes to promiscuity in order to belittle a partner.  An abuser may enjoy using force during sex or demand sex even though the partner is asleep, tired, or ill.

Signs of Physical Abuse

Signs of physical abuse include bruises, broken bones, black eyes, cuts, or other injuries to the body. Sometimes physical abuse may not leave any visible marks, but any physical act of aggression is considered physical abuse, regardless of the severity. Abusers may make threats: “ I will kill you” or “You better watch yourself”. They make also break objects or furniture as way to frighten and gain control over the victim.

Discussing Domestic Violence with Loved Ones

Am I Being Abused?

If the signs of abuse mentioned above cause you to feel uneasy, it might be time to examine your relationship and check in with your support system. Reaching out to family members, friends, and your therapist can be a great way to voice your concerns and get help from those who only want the best for you. A personal therapist or other medical professional can help you in framing the issue and sorting between common marital issues and clear signs of abuse. The line between the two is hard to see from within the relationship so a trusted outside perspective can give you insight, support, and aid in seeking protection, if it comes to that.

You can always call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233) or visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence website for resources. There are also a number of local resources available on this website. If you worry that your partner might be tracking your computer or phone, consider using a computer at work, a library, or friend’s house. It is also safer to discuss your concerns with friends and family in person, to prevent any trace of the conversation that your partner might find and try to leverage against you. Again, if you are experiencing an immediate threat of harm or danger, please call 911. Resources for domestic violence victims may include:  a restraining order; emergency housing; possession of the marital home; custody of the minor children; custody of family pets; and other assistance.

What if Someone I Care About is Being Abused?

On the other hand, if the name of a friend or family member popped into your head when reading the signs of abuse section, you might be wondering how to broach this issue with them. It is normal to be anxious. When you confront someone, there is a chance they may lash out and pull away from you. This only further plays into the isolation an abuser is inflicting on them. In some cases, your friend’s partner may have been speaking poorly of you to the victim, attempting to deteriorate the friendship. If you come on too accusatory when voicing your concern, the victim may end up siding with the abusive partner over you due to the misinformation of the abuser.

Instead of starting the conversation with how you feel about the situation, try offering your ear to your friend. Allow them to steer the conversation towards topics of abuse. People are more inclined to accept that there is a problem if they have come to the conclusion on their own volition. The best you can do is show them that you care, are willing to support in any way, and aid them in reaching the right conclusion. Don’t blame the victim; assure the victim that the abuse is not his or her fault. Help the victim by sharing information about the resources that are available: shelters, relocation help, counseling, court orders, and safety plans.

Lastly, if you suspect your friend is being abused, try not to raise any suspicions with the abusive partner. Avoid texting or emails, excessive phone calls, or acting out of character. If possible, reach out to your friend in public settings, face to face.

How to Stop Abuse

If you feel your partner is becoming overly jealous or has begun criticizing you more frequently there is still hope that you two can work together to fix things. Couples therapy is a great start in terms of working through forms of emotional abuse and preventing escalation. However, if your case is more severe, you may need to talk with an attorney. North Carolina allows victims of domestic violence to apply for a Domestic Violence Protective Order. There are multiple types of protective orders, including emergency protection orders and restraining orders. A lawyer can guide you through the process for each type.

While we truly hope you never become a victim of domestic violence, it is valuable to know what to look out for and what you can do in the unfortunate event you find yourself, or someone you love, in an abusive relationship. Equipped with how to identify the signs of domestic violence and what to do when they are present, you could save a life.


Rosen attorneys are available for consultations by both phone and video conference – call 919-787-6668 for more information.Learn More
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