Almost two thirds of women who say they have never been in an abusive relationship have experienced toxic behaviour — here are the signs to look out for

Many people don’t realise they are in emotionally or psychologically abusive relationships. Tiko Aramyan / Shutterstock
  • Someone doesn’t have to be left with bruises for behaviour to count as abuse.
  • Many people don’t realise they are in emotionally or psychologically abusive relationships.
  • This is because they don’t think their partner’s behaviour is bad enough.
  • In fact, early signs of abuse can even be misconstrued as “romantic.”
  • A study from Cosmopolitan and Women’s Aid highlights how downplayed emotionally abusive situations can be.

Abusive relationships are more common than you might think. Domestic abuse of some kind affects one in four women and one in six men in their lifetime.

But there are misconceptions about what makes a relationship abusive. For example, some people believe if their partner has never laid a finger on them, they can’t truly be harming them. This isn’t true, and psychological abuse can be just as harmful as physical abuse.

A study from Women’s Aid and Cosmopolitan back in May highlights just how downplayed psychological and emotional abuse in relationships can be.

The survey of 122,000 women found that over a third (34.5%) said they had been in an abusive relationship at some point. But perhaps the most shocking part was that out of the 65.5% of respondents who said they had never been in an abusive relationship, almost two thirds had experienced problematic, toxic behaviour from a partner, which could potentially amount to abuse.

Here are some of the ways they reported partners behaved:

  • Logged onto their social media accounts or looking at their phone without permission.
  • Criticised their social media use, followers, or likes.
  • Turned up unannounced to somewhere they weren’t invited, because their location was shared on social media.
  • Tried to stop them socialising with friends.
  • Made them feel bad with nasty comments.
  • Pressured them into anything sexual they didn’t want to do.
  • Intimidated them by being aggressive.

One respondent who said she had never been in an abusive relationship said one previous partner had pressured her into sexual acts she wasn’t comfortable with, including sending nude pictures.

“[He] told me I’m worthless, fat, a failure and only good for sex,” she said. Another said she had been verbally, physically and sexually abused but still answered “no” when asked “do you think you’ve ever been in an abusive relationship?”

Katie Ghose, the CEO of Women’s Aid, told Cosmopolitan that one of the biggest problems lies in the misconceptions we have about romance.

“Checking your phone, turning up unannounced and telling you who you can or can’t see is often misrepresented by your partner as showing that they care about you,” she said. “But this is not romantic. It is controlling behaviour that can slowly erode your confidence and independence and, if part of a repeated pattern, is ultimately abusive.”

Even something like texting you all the time can be a red flag. It’s fine if they just like talking to you, but if you feel it’s bordering on stalking and checking up on you all the time, it could be a warning sign they are starting to control you.

“As the shocking findings from our research show, many younger women may not recognise that their partner is abusive if there isn’t physical violence and may even think that threatening, controlling, and intimidating behaviour is normal in relationships,” Ghose said.

Other findings from the survey were that half of respondents (55.8%) had experienced hurtful comments from their partner, 38.2% had been pressured into something sexual they didn’t want to do, a third (33.4%) had been intimidated by their partner being physically aggressive, and 40.2% had experienced their partner isolating them from their friends or family.

If you think your friend or anyone else is in danger,the MyPlan App from One Love Foundation, the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, and Women’s Aid are resources that can help.