You can’t make decisions for others, but you can make sure they have your support.

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Intimate partner violence, a more inclusive term than domestic violence, is a form of abuse aimed at gaining power or control over another. It can include physical, sexual, emotional, or financial abuse, or a combination of all the above.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 in 4 women in the United States have experienced physical intimate partner violence.

UN Women has referred to violence against women during COVID-19 as the “shadow pandemic” lurking in the background as healthcare systems are drained and shelters are at capacity.

During a period when everyone is struggling to adjust to the rapid changes due to COVID-19, it’s critical that we learn more about intimate partner violence, its red flags, and how to support survivors.


If you’re concerned about a loved one, watch for several important signs that could indicate they’re in an abusive relationship and need help. These include:

  • withdrawing from others and making excuses not to see friends or family or do activities they once enjoyed (this can be something the abuser is controlling)
  • seeming anxious around their partner or afraid of their partner
  • having frequent bruises or injuries they lie about or can’t explain
  • having limited access to money, credit cards, or a car
  • showing an extreme change in personality
  • getting frequent calls from a significant other, especially calls that require them to check in or that make them seem anxious
  • having a partner who has a temper, is easily jealous, or very possessive
  • clothing that could be hiding bruises, like long-sleeved shirts in the summer

For more information, see our Domestic Violence Resource Guide or reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Physical abuse is the most easily understood form of intimate partner violence, and it’s often thought to occur between people in romantic or sexual relationships.

Intimate partner violence can take many other forms. It can involve children and older adults. It can be verbal, sexual, emotional, or financial.

Violence disproportionately affects marginalized people.

While difficult circumstances aren’t the cause of intimate partner violence, hardship can increase tension and reduce access to resources.

COVID-19 has resulted in an increase in intimate partner violence due to lockdowns and curfews. This is on top of the stress of worsening socioeconomic conditions.

Due to restrictions on movement, it’s more difficult for people to escape and easier for loved ones to miss the signs that something is wrong.

Isolation tactics can go unnoticed due to physical distancing becoming a norm, however temporary.

It’s critical for people to be able to identify red flags in their relationships and for others to know the signs of intimate partner violence.

A frequently missed red flag is a series of increasing attempts of one person to control another.

In many cases, it appears to be kindness or concern. An early attempt could be meeting the partner at work to take public transportation home together or showing up unexpectedly to an event they weren’t invited to attend.

These acts can be read as positive. They seem to indicate the partner wants to spend more time with their significant other, but they set a norm within the relationship wherein boundaries are repeatedly crossed and freedom of choice is restricted.

These actions indirectly communicate that the partner can show up at any time, giving the sense that they’re omnipresent.

This can have the effect of making the person subjected to the abuse self-police, behaving as though their partner is there at all times. They may limit their communication and behavior as a result.

Interest isn’t the same as surveillance. Abusive partners may start to monitor activities and interactions under the guise of interest or protection.

It’s easy to accept that a person may want to check out new apps, read the joke in the group chat, or accompany their partner to a party, but excessive insertion into social spaces isn’t healthy.

Checking emails, answering cellphone calls, and listening to private conversations are signs of control and distrust. These actions can lead the person being abused to choose isolation to avoid embarrassment or negative attention from their partner.

Abusive people do what they can to isolate the one being abused. They try to cut them off from loved ones, both to make it more difficult for people to realize something is wrong, and to make the person reluctant to reach out for help.

If a person’s partner insists that family members, friends, and co-workers are all threats to their relationship, not good enough to receive attention, or need to be kept at a distance for any other reason, it’s a red flag.

By stripping away other relationships, the abusive partner makes the person dependent on them, leaving them without a support system.

Not all abusers present as dominant or demanding. While some are aggressive and blame their partner for their wrongdoing, others manipulate in different ways.

Some may behave as though they’re sad and insecure, in need of copious amounts of attention. They guilt their partners into attending to them to the exclusion of everyone else.

Some may see this person as pathetic or pitiful and miss the manipulation taking place.

Abusers often try to control money, making it difficult for their partners to leave. They may insist on one shared bank account, monitoring all transactions.

An abuser may also discourage their partner from working, making them completely dependent on the abuser’s income and willingness to support them.

These situations limit the partner’s freedom and ensure that the abuser is aware of most of their activities.

There are usually signs that a person is experiencing intimate partner violence. They don’t always have an obvious correlation with relationships, so it can be difficult to recognize without knowing the signs.

Due to controlling behavior, people experiencing intimate partner violence often stop participating in activities they used to enjoy. They may show less interest in hobbies and stop attending events they used to love. They may check their phone more often while away from their partner.

It’s not uncommon for people subjected to intimate partner violence to make an excuse to leave an event after receiving a call or message.

Marked changes in behavior are warnings. If you see them, pay attention, ask questions, and make sure your loved one knows you’re willing to listen.

Some people undergo years of abuse and emotional breakdown. This means it’s not only a matter of getting physical affairs in order.

What keeps people in the situation is the near-total mind control.

“Just leave” isn’t helpful advice. To leave, a person needs a window of opportunity, a safe place to go, money to sustain themselves and any dependents, and safety protocol in place.

Sometimes they need mental health support as well. There are a number of resources available, from finding the right therapist to support groups and inpatient care.

In the case of financial manipulation, it can be difficult and take a long time to save enough money to leave on your own.

In many cases, people subjected to intimate partner violence need to pretend that everything is normal in the household. That requires tremendous determination and focus, because they fear the retribution of violence.

Mental health support

If you or someone you know is in crisis and considering suicide or self-harm, please seek support:

Resources for finding a therapist

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Before leaving, a survivor of intimate partner violence needs a safe place to go.

Check with state-operated facilities and NGO-managed options. Be clear about age and gender as well as those of any dependents. Some shelters and safe houses only accept specific age groups and genders.

If you’re helping a loved one leave, take the guesswork out of the process for them by telling them exactly when and where they can go to be safe. If you take care of logistics for them, they can be ready to act when the moment comes.

Ask for help from people you trust. They can be family members, friends, employers, club members, or mentors. Let them know what’s happening and that you and your loved one need support. Memorize their phone numbers.

Offer a safe place for your loved one to keep some money and an overnight bag. They may need to add to it bit by bit to avoid detection.

The experience of intimate partner violence can be traumatizing, demoralizing, and exhausting. To support a loved one, it’s important to understand that they may change their mind a few times.

Let them know that you’re always willing to listen and to help.

Do whatever you can to keep in contact with your loved one. Sometimes that means resisting the urge to pressure them to leave.

Developing a safety plan takes time and research. Lay the groundwork ahead of time by:

  • finding housing and shelter options
  • looking for job opportunities
  • securing a new cellphone and SIM card
  • making a list of items for the overnight bag
  • learning the process for reporting intimate partner violence and requesting an order of protection
  • keeping any savings safe and hidden
  • establishing a schedule for safety checks and code words
  • connecting your loved one to mental health support

Where to go for help

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Intimate partner violence is a pervasive issue that needs more attention. It’s difficult for survivors to talk about, so it’s important for loved ones to notice the small signs.

While you can’t make decisions for anyone else, you can make sure they know they have your support.

It’s easier for people to leave the abuse when there’s a community ready to care for them.

Alicia A. Wallace is a queer Black feminist, women’s human rights defender, and writer. She’s passionate about social justice and community building. She enjoys cooking, baking, gardening, traveling, and talking to everyone and no one at the same time on Twitter.