Distress Signals: Phrases and behaviors common for abuse survivors

When you have talked to perhaps hundreds of survivors, you begin to see very clear patterns. Especially when I am seeing a survivor who has not yet identified her/their partner as abusive, I repeatedly hear the below phrases and behaviors. I should add that I did all of these, as well. What I hope for is that we can begin to recognize these warning signs and intervene earlier. This goes for therapists as well as the community at large. It is our business, if someone we love or are treating is being abused. While these phrases on their own might not indicate thing, if you’re seeing several of these, or noticing a pattern of denials alternating with desperate unhappiness or crisis, pay attention, and talk to that person about the support that’s available for them.

Common Phrases

  1. I’m not in an abusive relationship.
  2. He/they didn’t really mean it, they were having a bad day.
  3. He/they are only like this when they drink.
  4. Nobody’s perfect.
  5. He/they had a bad childhood.
  6. I think he/they might be bipolar.
  7. He/they needs help.
  8. He/they needs my love and support.
  9. You’re getting this wrong, I’m the problem.
  10. I just need to be more patient and loving.
  11. There must be more I can do.
  12. Things will be fine once he/they (fill in the blank–gets a better job, we move, the baby is raised, finishes school, makes more money, etc)
  13. If he/they are sick, wouldn’t it be wrong to leave?
  14. I feel sorry for him/them.
  15. I can’t just leave.
  16. 90% of our relationship is great.
  17. But I love him/them.

You might notice that the above statements seem to deny or minimize abuse, or place the blame on the survivor and circumstances instead, and you’d be right.


  1. Frequently Googling things like “how do you know you’re in an abusive relationship” or “sudden personality change” or “why is he always on his phone” or “anger problems in a relationship” or “sudden mood swings.”
  2. Withdrawing from usual social activities and family.
  3. More irritable or angry than is normal for the person.
  4. White-hot anger and defensiveness if you say anything negative about the abuser.
  5. Lack of any anger at all in response to aggressive behavior.
  6. Unexplained health problems.
  7. Frequently reaches out to friends in high distress when they’re in a fight with the abuser; later saying “everything is fine.”
  8. Frequent breakups with their partner, followed by honeymoon periods.
  9. Vastly different, overly happy representation on social media when you know the relationship is troubled.
  10. Lower self-esteem, putting themselves down in their speech, restricted activities and little emotion on their face.
  11. Over-exercising and dieting, or over-eating.
  12. Substance abuse, where this was unusual for the person before.
  13. Radical personality change and interests.

If you are noticing any of the above in yourself, please get some support as soon as possible. Be honest with friends and family about what’s happening. Those who love you won’t judge you, they’ll judge your abuser. Loving people respond protectively and empathically when they hear you are being abused.

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