Spotting the Signs of Domestic Abuse in a Marriage

A couple arguing in a living room.

Domino Stone / Getty Images

Domestic abuse comes in many forms: Regular physical abuse is evident once bruises appear, while psychological, or emotional abuse instead warps one's sense of reality without leaving visible marks. But both are types of domestic abuse (aka domestic violence) and acts of aggression that convince victims that they're only worthy of love whenever they're appeasing their abusers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refer to domestic abuse as Intimate Partner Violence, which it defines as, "physical, sexual, stalking, or psychological/emotional harm (including coercive tactics) by a current or former intimate partner or spouse," which includes threats of physical or sexual violence to control a person’s actions.

Now, let's be clear: Accidents in which someone gets physically hurt are not abuse—and being bad at apologizing doesn't necessarily make someone guilty of regular abuse, either. Making a case for domestic abuse really comes down to how one partner's words and actions affect the other. Obviously, though, there's a very real difference between domestic abuse and arguing as the result of healthy marital conflict. Here are the main differences between the two.

Healthy Marital Conflict

Marriage is both a challenge and an opportunity; there will be times during any marriage when maintaining an intimate bond is difficult. Couples who are able to meet and overcome marital strife can become better partners, lovers, and companions. Marriages face all sorts of tough challenges, but these are some of the more common sources of discord:

  • Conflicting methods of child-rearing 
  • Dissimilar approaches to handling finances 
  • Divergent sex drives 
  • Health issues 
  • Equal division of household chores 
  • Lack of communication 
  • Distrust 

When couples choose to handle issues without resorting to hitting, screaming, blaming, and belittling one another, they're engaging in healthy marital conflict. Partners need to possess a willingness to work through conflict as it arises: Avoidance only leads to bigger problems, with psychological implications that can often morph into abuse.

If your S.O. enforces a budget, they aren't abusing you; they're looking for a solution to your financial problems. If your partner tells you that you've hurt their feelings, they're not belittling or abusing you, but simply attempting to be heard.

Domestic Abuse

If you feel as though you're stuck inside a constant battle for your marriage, then step back and take stock: You may come to realize that you're in an abusive situation. Some examples of emotional and physical domestic abuse include, but aren't limited to, the following:

  • Hitting, punching, and kicking 
  • Screaming and yelling
  • Name-calling, threats, intimidation, gaslighting, and shaming
  • Controlling a partner's social life and/or time with friends and family
  • Restricting and/or controlling money 
  • Pressuring for sex and/or engaging in sexual acts that cause mental and/or physical pain
  • Withholding sex
  • Ridiculing a partner's beliefs, religion, race, class, and/or sexual preferences

Abuse Versus Marital Discord

Abuse and accusations of abuse should always be taken seriously. Just as a company's human resources department is required to investigate every such complaint, regardless of the circumstances, the same due diligence should hold true in marriage.

Bottom line: If someone thinks they're being abused, there's definitely something that's going wrong in the relationship. While certain transgressions may not fall under the strict definitions of domestic abuse as laid out by the CDC or a healthcare professional (such as passive-aggressiveness, for example), they'll still need to be addressed. Anytime you feel uncomfortable about how your partner is treating you, your immediate step should always be to try engaging in a calm conversation to identify and explain your discomfort. If you and your S.O. cannot do so, and the problem persists, seek the help of a professional couples counselor or therapist; they'll help guide you both toward a healthier place.

Although every couple in a relationship deserves to be strong and happy, couples always need to put in the work to make it so. Getting married and expecting to have zero conflicts is not only shortsighted but could also be damaging to the relationship. Continually feeling as though you have to compromise, while never grounds for abuse, can create a host of uncomfortable, unwanted feelings that can manifest in many different ways.

As with anything, a healthy relationship means something different depending on who you ask: Some couples have ostensibly healthy arguments that include verbal jabs while others can even have strange, albeit problematic ways of physically engaging with their partners to resolve issues that aren't necessarily considered domestic abuse. But however you and your partner are living your lives together and maintaining the relationship, never ignore your discomfort: Face it head-on.

If you feel that you are being abused, please seek help immediately and get in touch with the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Related Stories