Trigger Warning: Intimate partner violence, domestic abuse

Here are common definitions for terms related to intimate partner violence used in this article.  

Intimate Partner Violence

  • Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) includes behaviors exerted by an individual intended to exert power and control over an intimate partner. Types of violence range from physical, emotional, psychological, and financial abuse.
  • Domestic Abuse describes IPV that occurs under a roof of the partnership’s home. 
  • An intimate partner most is commonly defined as a past or present romantic partner. Many definitions also include family members as intimate partners.
  • A perpetrator is someone who abuses another person.
  • Gaslighting is when a perpetrator manipulates another person into questioning their sanity and undermining their sense of reality. Perpetrators gaslight by denying an individual’s valid perception of their environment, their experiences, or their feelings.


  • In the US, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience domestic abuse throughout their lifetime. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience an unhealthy relationship in their life.
  • Individuals of color and members of the LGBT community experience elevated risks of experiencing intimate partner violence.  
  • An intimate partner killed 58% of women murdered in the world in 2017.
  • Over 20,000 people call domestic abuse helplines every day in the US.

Disguised partner aggression

Why is it that society often perceives a victim with a bruise as so much worse than a victim who is fully isolated, constantly anxious, and required to share their phone location at all times? For some reason, society often draws the line at more “obvious” acts of abuse, such as continual cheating and physical assault.

However, if we minimize IPV and domestic abuse to a small subset of abusive behaviors, then this normalizes less recognized acts of abuse. Society often misconceives IPV and domestic abuse to entail only extreme acts of violence and aggression. With the help of perpetuated social perceptions and excuses, perpetrators of abuse disguise abusive behaviors as acceptable, or in extreme cases, even to be sweet. Here are three examples of sugar-coated red flags.

Sugar-coated red flags

Throughout these stories, I use the word “partner” and speak in the present tense, but this could also translate to a former partner or family member.

1. “Protection”

It is important to feel that someone you love is safe, and so it is natural to keep up with their plans. However, outside of these boundaries, behaviors of control, manipulation, or judgment can quickly escalate to unhealthy behaviors and crossed boundaries. Many unhealthy or abusive behaviors begin with a caring intention or rationale; however, when actions permeate the privacy and trust between each partner, relationships are at risk for an unhealthy power imbalance.


Your partner tells you that they worry about their safety on a night out without them. They want to know every detail of who you are with and what they are doing, as it unfolds. They have your location and freak out when you change locations without sending an update. When this happens, they won’t stop calling and lose their temper. Then, you apologize, but they explain how they felt worried sick and won’t forgive you. The same story replays the next time you go out. You start to wonder if it’s worth going out at all.

The act of incessant surveillance is unhealthy and can lead to detrimental effects such as isolation. Using the certified Risk Assessments that many organizations use to identify domestic abuse inquiries, support workers deem a behavior unhealthy if an individual constantly calls, texts, or checks up on their partner, usually without reassurance after confirmation from their partner. When someone vigilantly watches another’s every move, the ensuing “big brother” feeling quickly makes it easier to avoid going places altogether.

Perpetrators of abuse seek to isolate their partners to maintain control, by making it difficult, stress-inducing, and scary to leave. As a result, as victims of this surveillance withdraw from possibly inflammatory events (despite the nature of the event), they also withdraw and isolate from their friends and other support systems.

These behaviors are commonly born from mistrust or insecurity. However, a partner should freely grant trust, rather than require you to “earn” their trust. Additionally, no one should feel required to report to someone 24/7. Further, fear shouldn’t heighten  retaliation when there is a failed “check-in.”

You are worthy of freedom. You are worthy of stress-free nights out and stress-free nights in. Ultimately, you deserve someone who cares about your safety while also prioritizing your freedom and trusting your judgment.

2. “Sarcasm”

Everyone loves the funny one in the group, but laughter shouldn’t be at someone else’s expense.


You’re out with your partner and a group of friends. It was a long day at work, and you were looking forward to taking some weight off. You start telling the group about a fight you got into with your boss at your new insurance broking position. Then, your partner cuts you off to add, “Well, your boss has a point. I don’t see charming customers high on your talent tool kit,” followed by a laugh.

There is a bit of stiffness in the air, but others laugh as well. You let out a small chuckle to not seem overly sensitive. Then, you bring up the comment on the drive home, but he laughs it off, saying it was only a joke and to lighten up. The “jokes” keep coming. And, though you don’t notice it, you start to believe some of the hurtful things they say. You determine that you are all too sensitive.

These “jokes” maybe about your abilities, looks, or behaviors. In whatever form they appear, they are hurtful and demeaning. In Living with the Dominator, author Pat Craven categorizes abusive behaviors. She describes “The Headworker,” who uses emotional abuse to make victims feel “stupid and useless and worthless.” Next, she explains that “The Headworker is fond of using humor to achieve this. [They] like to make jokes…in front of others.”

Perpetrators use demeaning language to break down an individual’s self-worth and make them codependent on an abusive partner. Additionally, by writing off abusive remarks under the veil of humor, a perpetrator can begin to make their partner question their sense of reality, a common effect of gaslighting.

You aren’t overly sensitive, I promise. You don’t deserve to be intentionally put down, especially not by the person who says they love you. You’re a human who hurts when mean things are said to them.

If someone hurts you, your emotions should be validated, and they should apologize for their actions. Laughter from your partner’s jokes should make you feel happy and light after a long day.

3. “Preferences”

Lastly, a perpetrator of abuse may express “preferences” that are motivated by sexism and self-interest. Further, these opinionated requests probably feel more like demands, especially when they are backed with fear tactics or threats.


You pop your Easy Mac in the microwave. Then, your partner looks surprised and says, “With spring break coming up, I thought you’d pick a salad instead. That’s what all the fit people are doing anyway.” You brush off the comment and talk about tonight’s plans instead. Your partner talks about their friends, classes, and upcoming events.

However, when the microwave beeps, the conversation is back on you. This time, they express how you would be hot if you worked out more. As you take your first bite, your partner says, “Would you rather be covered in sweat at the gym now, or covered in clothes at the beach? It’s your choice, but you only have a few weeks to get into bikini body shape. I want you to look good.” Again, you try to brush it off. However, later that evening, you wonder if you might need to drop a few pounds? Before showering, you don’t look in the mirror, worried you won’t like what you see.

“Preferences” can be seen in many different forms. For example, one can have physical “types” that they want their partner to change to conform to, as seen in the scene above. In contrast, a perpetrator may try to change their partner’s personality. They may comment, “I prefer quiet people,” to jab at their beautifully outspoken, assertive nature, or just in an attempt to silence them when in reality, they are no “louder” than anyone else.

Relationships should grow together, but not at the will of one partner. You shouldn’t feel pressure to conform to your partner’s “preferences.” These aren’t “preferences”— they are sexist, objectifying, and debilitating demands.

Your partner should love you just the way you are. Further, they should encourage you to chase your dreams and whatever act of self-improvement you want to pursue. 

Power and control

You might question if you or a loved one has or is experiencing IPV. While experiencing or even committing one of the acts above does not inherently constitute an abusive partnership, that does not make these instances okay in any way. However, perpetrators of IPV will continue to perpetuate multiple, dangerous imbalances of power and control. Additionally, there are many indicators of abuse not covered in this article. Here are other examples from the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence that categorize patterns of abusive and violent behaviors.

The cycle of intimate partner abuse

Below is a diagram of the cycle of abuse, which depicts the typical stages of abuse that recur throughout a toxic relationship.

While the abusive behaviors pause momentarily, the cycle continues, from calm right back to tension building. Individuals who are subjected to intimate partner violence get addicted to the “calm” phase after reconciliation. Unfortunately, this phase gets shorter and shorter as abuse continues, and the victim is desperate to get back to the calm, honeymoon phase. Soon enough, however, the cycle continues, and with time, the incidents phase often escalates in violence and severity. By the time someone gets hit, they’ve already been convinced that they deserve it.

How to seek help

It can be difficult to recognize abuse when it is happening; however, there are many places to talk through what you are experiencing and help determine if you are in danger. None of what has happened to you is your fault. You are not alone. If you are ready to seek support or want advice to support a loved one, here are some resources:

National Domestic Abuse Hotline:

The National Domestic Violence hotline is running 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233. If you are in an emergency, please call 911. If you cannot safely call, you can log onto the or text 1-866-331-9474.

Helping a Loved One:

Additionally, this article advises on how to help your loved one who may be experiencing abuse. However, remember that help-seeking is your loved one’s decision and their decision alone.

Read also:
Comprehensive Sexual Education And Sexual Assault
#DearLadies: Gas-Lighting
The Type Of Sexual Assault We Don’t Talk About: Coercion