12 Traits of an Abusive Relationship

Laura Petherbridge

Updated Dec 21, 2023
12 Traits of an Abusive Relationship

“My boyfriend is jealous. He gets furious when I won’t dump my friends and spend all of my free time with him,” the weeping woman shared with me. “I was so thrilled to have a devoted boyfriend that I ignored the warning signs of abuse. I convinced myself that he loved me, and that things would get better with time. I was wrong—completely wrong.”

After 25 years of ministry, I frequently hear this cry from men and women who are in bad relationships. Christians often believe that domestic violence, abuse, and manipulation don’t occur within the church, but nothing could be further from the truth.

I’m using the female perspective for easy readability, and also because I’m typically working with women in my life coaching and ministry; however, it’s essential to note that both male and female abusers may exhibit these patterns. Sometimes men are portrayed as the sadistic ones, but women can be equally dangerous. To be clear, I fully understand—and agree—that a female can be just as abusive as a male.

Here are 12 traits abusers commonly exhibit.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Vasyl Dolmatov
a happy couple, the church should make spaces for singles looking to date

1. Charming

He quickly lavishes his newest victim with gifts, praise, and attention. She immediately become his whole world. He instantaneously pushes for an exclusive relationship, using phrases such as “I can’t live without you.”

The reason so many people fall into an abuser’s trap is because the tenderness and attention feels loving, and appears to be the romance we see in the movies. Even when told, “I think we are moving too fast” or “I’m not ready for this type of commitment”, the abuser continuously pushes. Eventually, his comments turn to, “If I can’t have you, I’ll kill myself. That’s how much I love you. Life isn’t worth living without you.” These comments are an immediate warning sign of extreme danger. Run, Forrest, Run!

Photo Credit: ©Jonathan Borba/Unsplash

2. Jealous

2. Jealous

The abuser views all other people and associations as a threat to the relationship. This includes parents, siblings, extended family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. He relentlessly accuses you of flirting, cheating, and lusting for others. The former doting qualities have morphed into possessive qualities.

Common phrases such as “I know you are having an affair,” “I need to check your phone,” “I need your passwords,” and “I love you so much, that’s why I’m jealous,” are clear indicators that the concern isn’t healthy or wise; it’s an obsession. All the while the victim desperately tries to prove that they are faithful, but nothing works.

No amount of verification of fidelity is enough for the abuser, and the irony is that the abuser is typically the cheater. He has figured out how to use the accusations and allegations in a devious effort to deflect the infidelity away from him and onto her. Abusers are often very intelligent and cunning.

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/clownbusiness

A puppet master

3. Manipulative

Abuse and manipulation almost always go hand-in-hand. The abusers hunt for their prey’s area of weakness, then use it as an ingenious weapon of mass destruction to control and demean the victim. 

Like a stake through the heart he rants, “You are so fat and ugly, now I know why your mother left you,”

“No wonder you were sexually abused as a kid, you are as stupid as they come. It was your fault,”

“God hates you because you had an abortion,” “You can’t leave me, no one else would put up with a disgusting idiot like you,”

“I just pretended to love you so that you would sleep with me, and you are so brainless that you fell for it. Ha!”  

The continuous barrage of verbal abuse and cruel insults eventually takes its toll. The victim begins to believe the heinous lies spoken about them. Eventually shrinking under the verbal whipping of shame, fear, and guilt, the victim no longer has the strength to reach out for help or say, “No more!” 

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Irina Shatilova
narcissist silent treatment unhappy couple

4. Controlling

Constantly checking the whereabouts of the victim is a common trait for the abuser. He wants to control every single aspect of her life. This includes finances, jobs, where they vacation, how the kids are parented, where they spend the holidays, everything. 

All is done under the guise of “love”:  “I check the mileage on your car so I know where you are,” “I don’t want you to go to the gym because you might meet someone else,” “I saw a text message from Susan. I know she’s your boss, but she’s too pushy. I don’t want you learning to act that way, so I sent her a reply saying I don’t want her texting you anymore,” “Why are you calling your ex-husband? You don’t need to speak with him about anything. I’m the man of the house here,” “The Bible says that married couples are supposed to have a lot of sex. Just because you don’t feel well isn’t an excuse.” 

At first, the victim senses that this isn’t a healthy relationship. As the criticism and restrictions escalate she begins to question herself, and becomes convinced that the commands, regulations, and overbearing monitors are loving. She works harder and harder to make him happy. She keeps the house cleaner, and shuffles the kids off to their rooms to quiet them when he is around. The pornography that she knows is sin is inflicted into their marriage and bedroom as a good thing, if she really loves him. 

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/dragana991

5. A Victim

5. A Victim

An abuser doesn’t take any responsibility for his poor choices. He is NEVER at fault—for anything. Everyone else is to blame. There is no self-reflection or insight regarding his poor choices and how they lead to serious consequences. 

When he loses his job, the boss is too demanding. When he gets into a fight, he was provoked. When he punches his wife, he says “If you would just shut up, I wouldn’t have to hit you. You make me do it.” When he battles alcohol or drug addiction, it’s “I drink because you stress me out.”  When he is deep in debt due to his overspending, it’s “I don’t want all these nice things, but I have to buy them to keep you happy..” 

The abuser will stoop to any level to make certain he appears to be the sacrificial sufferer. If others would just do what he wants, how he wants it, and when he wants it, everything would be fine. It’s similar to the behavior of a two-year-old. 

Photo Credit: © GettyImages/Fizkes

haughty man pointing to himself with prideful expression

6. Narcissistic

This word has been tossed around a lot in the last few years. Dictionary.com defines it as “a person who is overly self-involved, and often vain and selfish. 2. a person who suffers from deriving erotic gratification from admiration of his or her own physical or mental attributes.”  Short version: “It’s all about me.” 

The whole world must revolve around this man and his needs, real or perceived.  No one else matters, and they become enraged when someone attempts to switch the focus. A particularly destructive trait that accompanies a narcissist is that he is delighted when his victim “walks on eggshells.” This is the epitome of his egocentricity. 

“You know I’m watching the game, why can’t you keep those kids quiet?” “I worked hard all day while you sit on your rear at a hospital, doing nothing except flirt with the doctors. Why can’t you have a decent meal on the table?”  “Have you been on the phone with your sister again? Because your attitude is disgusting.” The abuser loves it when those around him live in fear of his next outburst. 

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Khosrork

man rejecting his woman pride arrogance anger

7. Inconsistent

Mood swings are a common trait for an abuser. One minute he is happy and sweet, the next he is throwing a tantrum. Today, this guy is often quickly mislabeled as bipolar. Some of these people are bipolar and need medication, but many are not. They are merely abusers who label themselves with a medical diagnosis which provides an easy excuse. This is much more simple than addressing the real problem.   

Yesterday, serving him goulash for dinner was great. Today, the same meal provokes a rant that you are accusing him of not making enough money. Yesterday, he sweetly said, “Go get your nails done.” Today, after new the manicure, he accuses you of spending all of his hard-earned cash. Yesterday, your son was a genius. Today, he says to him, “If you had a brain you’d be dangerous.” Yesterday, your daughter looked “Sweet 16.” Today, in the same type of outfit, he screams at her, “You dress like a tramp, just like your mother.” It never ends.  

Many of the people at the gym or restaurant he frequents would label your abuser as a “loveable, funny, good hearted” kind of guy.  They would never believe that he could be anything but delightful, because he has the ability to wear a tight mask in front of those he wants to impress. 

Once it’s no longer necessary for his intentions, the mask comes off.  A true bipolar person needs medication to control those thoughts and mood swings. He or she often can’t function normally without them; the abuser, however, chooses inconsistencies.  

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Prostock-Studio

husband and wife fighting, manipulative people

8. Critical

Verbally assaulting others is a way of life for the abuser, and his need to condescend the people in his life is unrestrained. Underneath all the condemnation typically resides a fear which chants, “I’m going to get you before you get me.” For this abuser, cutting people down is what lifts him up. 

“If you had the brains to get a better education, you could be something by now. You will never amount to anything,” “I should have listened to my mother and married someone else,” “You can’t do anything right.”   

This person encounters life with their dukes up and their tongue sharp. It’s not uncommon for an abuser to have been belittled, molested, abandoned, beaten, or severely criticized in their youth. They learned how to survive by demeaning others.  Condescending, mocking, and shaming are defense mechanisms.

Although we can have compassion regarding the reasons why they have become so critical, it’s not an excuse. As an adult, they must learn to form new methods of coping with life. If they have surrendered to Jesus, the Holy Spirit is more than willing to assist.  

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes

woman working looking bored and depleted, what is the sin of acedia

9. Disconnected

Isolation from family and friends is a key goal for the abuser because it forces the victim into total submission. He knows that he can get you under his control. Your family will likely point out the way he treats you and your kids; therefore, removing you from their influence is his goal. He wants the victim to think that others are the problem -- not him. He’s the one that really loves you, knows you, and cares. They have an ulterior motive. 

 “Your family causes too much trouble for us. I don’t want you seeing them anymore,” and “How could you take their side after all I’ve done for you? You know I’m the only one who really loves you,” are the most commonly used phrases. 

If he can create a wall between his victim and the rest of the world, his prey feels trapped. The abuser is her sole provider, and she begins to believe she truly can’t survive without him. There are many stories of women who have been abused to the point of being within an inch of death, and they still won’t tell anyone.

Typically, the children are also kept in isolation. He wants them homeschooled if possible, and if they do attend public school, they are not allowed to bring friends home. Fear, loneliness, and seclusion work their magic to keep the woman and her family under his control. 

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/fizkes

Upset couple arguing

10. Hypersensitive

 The slightest offense sends the abuser into a rage. Others are always “out to get him.”  This trait allows him to remain the sufferer. He always wants people to come to his aid and see everything from his perspective. No matter how wrong he is, or how badly he has acted, it is always someone else’s fault. 

“My boss had it in for me from the beginning; he never liked me;” “I bend over backwards trying to please that witch of a boss, but I still got fired,” “You know the cops have a quota to meet. They are always looking for someone to blame, and that’s the reason I’m in jail,” “Yes, I had an affair, but it’s her fault. She always wears those low-cut blouses. She started it and I just couldn’t help it.” 

There are many people who are hypersensitive, but aren’t abusers. One of the common traits of an abuser is to be thin-skinned. Sometimes they are depressed, which causes a sense of vulnerability. What sets the abuser apart is that he is intentionally manipulating a situation so that his actions don’t have consequences. He is entitled to be treated a positive manner, even though he sees no reason to extend that courtesy to others. 

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/gorodenkoff
11. Vicious and Cruel

11. Vicious and Cruel

A significant number of abusers inflict physical harm on children and animals, as well as a partner. When abuse escalates into brutality, it fuels his power to dominate the victim. This is when domestic violence enters the scene. 

“If I can’t have you, no one will,” “If you leave, I’ll take the kids from you and kill them,” “I’m a nice guy. I don’t want to hit you, but you make me do it,” “If you would just do what I ask, this wouldn’t happen.”  

Rage now rules the home. The dog scurries under the bed, the kids sneak into the closet, and the spouse tries to calm him down. 

His verbal hostility morphs into bloodshed. He is so enraged by his entitlement that words can no longer do enough damage to the one he views as his enemy. Now the victim must be controlled by the fear of the fist, and beaten into submission. 

It is crucial to note that when verbal abuse is tolerated by the victim, it frequently escalates into punching walls, throwing objects, and eventually physical abuse. Ignoring verbal abuse isn’t love; It’s dangerous and toxic.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes

happy couple embracing in hug, marriage restoration

12. Insincerely Repentant

Once he calms down, an abuser will swear on the Bible that he will never behave the same way again. It’s rarely true; he didn’t learn this way of coping with life overnight. 

“I promise I’ll never hit you again,” “I don’t know what came over me, I just saw red. I can’t control it,” “You know I love you. I know I promised last time, but this time I really mean it,” “I’ll go to that support group you always mention. This time, I really will,” “I’m just a horrible person. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. You should leave me,” “You deserve so much better, I wouldn’t blame you if you left.” 

The wounds and instability that caused him to behave in an abusive manner are deeply imbedded. Unfortunately, the root issues don’t disappear just because he says he is sorry, even if he is sincere. 

Admission of the problem and serious steps must be taken to eradicate abusive behavior. A willingness to get therapy, attend support groups, and discover the why beneath the abusive traits is critical for overcoming and healing. Unless an abuser receives professional help, it’s unlikely the abuse will disappear.   

A person becomes an abuser for many reasons, the most likely being that they were raised in abuse themselves. 

I have deep sorrow for abusers and what they may have endured in the past. But as an adult, they must seek help to reverse the pattern. 

They are now accountable to God for those they abuse. 

Laura Petherbridge is an international author and speaker who serves couples and single adults with topics on relationships, divorce prevention, divorce recovery, and stepfamilies. She is the author of, When ‘I Do’ Becomes ‘I Don’t’, The Smart Stepmom, co-authored with Ron Deal, 101 Tips for The Smart Stepmom, and Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul. Laura’s website is www.TheSmartStepmom.com.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes

Originally published Friday, 26 February 2021.