Seen, Heard, Felt, Hidden: Recognizing Domestic Violence Signs

couple-covering-mouthsI had been working with “Nicole” for almost a year. She had made remarkable progress in her efforts to overcome the abuse and neglect of her childhood and wanted to draw on her newfound insights to improve her relationship with her husband. Gradually, she was making connections between the attachment deficits from her family of origin and the “disconnects” within her marriage. But then some things started surfacing: how her husband “Jeff” controlled all the finances and made her ask for money; how he would get sullen and sulky for days when she made plans that didn’t include him; how he would start an argument with her just before she was leaving to go out with her friends, usually ending up with Nicole giving up and staying home; how he made light of her pursuit of a college degree and insisted she take out student loans in her name rather than use his income to pay for her books and tuition.

As a therapist with more than seven years experience working with partner violence perpetrators and victims, I recognized the red flags. As her husband’s controlling ways became more apparent, our work focused on her managing this relationship rather than enhancing it. Not surprisingly for someone raised in an atmosphere of authoritarianism and abuse, Nicole never equated her husband’s “tantrums” or “selfishness” with partner abuse. She did what most victims and perpetrators do—she minimized it, made excuses for the abuser, blamed herself, justified it, or just flat out denied it. We explored ways of empowering Nicole to set boundaries, be assertive, expand her social support system (like many abused partners, she had become isolated) and build self-confidence and self-esteem. Leaving Jeff was the last thing she wanted to talk about. There were just enough “honeymoon phases” to allow her to believe that he would change, that it could work, that it would all be okay. And he talked about attending couple’s counseling just often enough to keep her hopes alive.

Through all this, Nicole maintained that Jeff had never physically abused her; no, not once had he raised a hand to her. She hated the manipulation, control, and the temper tantrums, but she did not feel physically threatened. She insisted that she did not need a safety plan, and anyway, where could she go? Her parents were as indifferent as ever, her favored sister was off in her own world in happily-ever-after land, and Nicole had no money of her own. Besides that, she feared that she would not be able to afford the vet bills for her beloved dog, Cleo.

Then, the flags started getting redder. It seemed that Jeff had taken to checking her cell phone. His temper tantrums increased and the insults became more biting. As Nicole was getting healthier, Jeff was getting more fearful and controlling.

And then came the day I got the panicked phone call from Nicole. She had to leave, now. Jeff had gotten physical with her the night before when they got into an argument. They were in the car at the time and he began driving recklessly on the rain-slicked road. Nicole was terrified. She was eventually able to jump out of the car at a stoplight but as she tried to run away, Jeff chased her and tackled her to the ground. He started to choke her, but stopped himself. He got into the car and left her outside in the rain. The argument had started when Jeff found a text about him while checking Nicole’s phone.

I helped her make a safety plan over the phone and Nicole got out safely. While Jeff was at work, she stuffed her clothes, schoolbooks, and CDs into garbage bags, grabbed Cleo, and went to the home of a classmate. She has been on her own ever since, struggling to live and finish school.


Nicole is one of the lucky ones—she got out safely without being stalked or threatened (with physical harm, anyway) and she never had to go to a shelter. Jeff filed for divorce and got a lawyer to help him protect his assets, including their home and furnishings, his $100K salary, 401K, and some investment accounts that he tried to hide from Nicole. The only thing Nicole asked for was Cleo, whom Jeff also fought to keep out of Nicole’s reach despite never showing much interest in the dog before.

When Nicole and I first sat down together all those months before and began charting a path to wholeness and healing, neither of us would have predicted this outcome. Could I—should I have seen this coming? But then, why had Nicole not mentioned the times Jeff threw things across the room during his temper tantrums? Why didn’t she tell me that he regularly called her “stupid,” “crazy,” and “white trash,” or that he coerced and shamed her into having sex when she did not want to? Was she frightened? Protective? Ashamed?

Perhaps all three apply, but the most significant and surprising thing I have learned in working with individuals caught up in partner violence is that more often than not, they do not recognize abuse for what it is. Their defenses go into overdrive: “He didn’t hit me; he just put his fist through a wall.” “She has a really bad temper when she gets mad.” “Yeah, she hits me all the time—but she’s 5’ 4”, it’s not like she can really hurt me.” “I just grabbed her by her arms to get her attention, you know, to let her know I was serious.” “I warned him not to piss me off.” “If I didn’t control all the money, she’d put us in the poorhouse.” And my personal favorite, “She bruises easily.”

I’ve heard every one of the above statements, and many more, by people who literally do not know that they are in an abusive relationship. Sadly, what they also do not know is:

  • It does not matter if there are no physical injuries: abuse is abuse
  • Emotional abuse has longer-lasting and more devastating effects than most physical abuse
  • Partner abuse is a progressive dis-ease, like alcoholism, and can be fatal
  • It undermines self-confidence and self-esteem and makes it harder to make healthy decisions in all areas of their lives
  • Their children know what is going on. Even if they’re not there, asleep, at Grandma’s, etcetera, children sense the tension and hostility and begin to equate those feelings with love
  • Children who grow up with partner violence are more than twice as likely to abuse or be abused themselves
  • Violence can escalate dramatically when a victim leaves or attempts to leave an abusive relationship
  • Women and men have been shown to be equally likely to be the initiator of physical violence
  • There is a high correlation between controlling behaviors and violence, whether by a male or a female
  • Lesbian and gay partners are just as likely to be abusive and violent as their straight counterparts

Because most abused and abusive people don’t know these things, it is important that those of us in the helping professions do. When our clients can put the proper name to their experience, they have taken the first step to safety and healing. Often, we must spend a great deal of time helping our clients see the sad reality of their circumstances before they are able and willing to move forward. It can be frustrating to see our clients return each week with another horrendous story of pain and humiliation, or with bruises and abrasions (or worse), and still not call it what it is. We must have the patience to witness their pain and fear without judgment, without demands or reproaches for “allowing” this to go on. We must acknowledge our own feelings of helplessness in order to better understand their helplessness and despair. And we must be watchful of our own indignation and anger toward the abuser.

(Some of the above data is from Domestic Violence Resource Center,

© Copyright 2010 by Leslie Larson, LPC-S. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jacquie

    January 22nd, 2010 at 5:58 PM

    Great article, Leslie! Could it be that the victims know it’s abuse and don’t want to put a name to it because if they name it, it becomes more real and something to be dealt with?

  • J.wilson

    January 23rd, 2010 at 3:50 AM

    it can be very confusing and frustrating to have somebody tell you what you should do and what you should.nt…after all,everybody wants freedom in their decisions and choices.

  • Terri

    January 23rd, 2010 at 10:22 AM

    wow- cant imagine having to stay in this kind of relationship. Must be hard to deal with but even harder to get out of.

  • Leslie Larson

    January 24th, 2010 at 8:16 AM

    Thanks, Jacquie. Yes, I agree that may be the case in many instances. It may be that if it becomes “something to be dealt with” that touches on a fear greater than the physical or emotional pain: abandonment.

  • Alissa Jameson

    January 24th, 2010 at 3:17 PM

    Most people are not able to open up in issues like these because it is often embarassing to talk of what went wrong in their personal lives.And telling innate details is all the more difficult, so most would conveniently forget to tell many details…it is natural.

  • TM

    January 25th, 2010 at 9:55 AM

    It feels like being trapped in a closet to have an abusive partner…because you have no outlet to let your feelings out and share your feelings with… it can get very messy…

  • runninfast

    January 25th, 2010 at 10:11 AM

    It is exactly that honeymoon phase that so many spouses are expert at giving to their significant others which makes so many women prone to stay in abusive relationships. This is what makes you think that he is finally willing to make a change for the better and that you are gonna stay with him and love him through this no matter what. Unfortunately what most women fail to realize until it is too late and too many years of their lives have been wasted on this loser is that he will never change because he likes the ultimate feeling of control that he exerts over you and if he changes that feeling will go away. I encourage all women who are stuck in these cycles though to get help- talk to someone, anyone, who may can help you get out of these situations before you have to pay for loving someone with your life.

  • Winnie

    January 26th, 2010 at 5:45 AM

    My mom lived for years on those promises- ain’t gonna happen with me.

  • patricia

    August 5th, 2010 at 7:51 PM

    i have been in an abusive relationship for children are mixed…that seems to be a start off point everytime he wants to fight with me …he has held guns to my head threatened to kill me and my children and has visically assulted me numerous times …i have a torn up knee im dealing with now,wich he said is my fault because i shouldnt have fought with him..kicker to this storie…we have been seperated for 3 yrs …he moved away …but we still stay n contact via the phone …he wants me to move with him.but i told him not until my boys graduate …this makes him enraged and he starts calling me and my children awful names …ill tell him not to call or text anymore…he stops for a few days but always sucks me back into this web after a few days …hes always so careing supportive loving…i dont know how to end this relationship of terror…ive changed my number but somehow one or the other gives n and finds it out ….im tired of the mental frustration and virble abuse on a daily basis …i just dont know how to stay away ,,,,,,

  • Anna

    September 6th, 2013 at 8:45 AM

    It sounds like you want to break the cycle, and I asked a good friend of mine who is a therapist if she had any resources you might be able to look into. She gave me this website and said that they can connect you with organizations that might be able to help you in your area. I can’t even begin to imagine what you have had to deal with, but you are brave to speak out, and I wish you the best, and hope you are able to take the next step towards freedom and happiness. Good luck to you, and stay strong!!

  • Alice

    October 5th, 2013 at 4:19 AM

    As someone who is a moderator of an abused survivors’ group and has done extensive research on the subject….we need to take the word, “domestic” out of violence…violence is violence. I stayed with a verbal abuser (some physical ) for 36 years and it wasn’t until I found the book which saved my life that I made plans to leave: The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans; it is a book which I believe should be required reading for everyone one the planet. Abuse is literally brainwashing. I preented my paper: Society’s Hidden pandemic, Verbal Abuse, Precursor to Physical VIolence and a FOrm of Biochemical Assault at the Michigan Counseling Association….no degree, but a lifetime of abuse and research has made me an “expert” on the subject. Without education, the cycle will continue. “When you blame me, you shame me and keep me silent.” Most women don’t talk about it, and when they do more often the person they have trusted doesn’t understand and further abuses her…as in….why don’t you just leave?

  • musika

    March 20th, 2020 at 9:23 AM

    good information to use in causing positive change while addressing concerns related to domestic violence.

  • Mary

    March 12th, 2022 at 9:22 AM

    This article is great, thank you. It needs to be revised– her husband did not try to choke her after he chased her out of the car, He strangled her.

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