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The signs of physical abuse in a relationship

For a lot of people, when they hear ‘domestic abuse’ their first thought is of physical abuse. This is because physical abuse is the most visible type of abuse. That’s not to say it’s the most damaging to victims, but it certainly can be in some cases in terms of short and long term effects. Physical abuse is also not a stand-alone form of abuse, and often perpetrators use it along with other types such as emotional and verbal abuse to control their victims.signs of physical abuse in a relationship

Definition of physical abuse

The government’s generic definition of physical abuse is “physical force or mistreatment of one person by another which might or might not cause physical injury”. UK charity Living Without Abuse goes further in detailing physical abuse as a form of domestic abuse, stating that “is the most visible form of domestic abuse” with which “the perpetrator’s aim is to intimidate and cause fear”. This second part is vital to understand about physical abuse in domestic settings or relationships; although important to be aware of, physical abuse is not just about the physical hurt, but also how victims are psychologically and emotionally impacted.

Physical abuse examples

There are many, many examples of physical abuse that we have seen women be subjected to over the years. These include, but are certainly not limited to the perpetrator taking the following actions:

  • Pushing, shoving, tripping, strangling, choking
  • Punching, kicking, biting, slapping, scratching
  • Burning, scalding, ‘branding’
  • Throwing or kicking objects
  • Stabbing, shooting or other forms of attacking with a weapon
  • Force-feeding or starving
  • Poisoning
  • Exposure to extreme heat or cold
  • Denying access to essential treatment or medication for ailments or injuries

As we have discussed above, many perpetrators will use these actions a) as a way to control their partner, and b) along with other forms of abuse. For example, verbal, psychological and emotional abuse are frequently inflicted upon victims along with physical abuse.

So, what are the signs of physical abuse?

There are many signs of physical abuse, including visible signs such as scars, burn marks, cuts and bruises. It is important to be aware of these signs, but also to understand that perpetrators make their victims feel shame and guilt, and so the latter may hide physical signs.

As well as physical signs, there are also many behavioural and emotional signs that a victim of physical abuse may display. It’s as important to be aware of these as it is visible signs on the body.

These signs might include:

  • Flinching or protesting when physically touched
  • Disordered eating
  • Disordered sleeping – they could begin to suffer from insomnia or be sleeping a lot more than usual
  • Expressions of fear of their partner e.g. saying things like “I wouldn’t do that because he’ll be angry with me”
  • Symptoms of depression (feeling low, sleeping a lot, feeling worthless etc), anxiety (restlessness, sense of dread, irritability) and/or PTSD (experiencing nightmares & flashbacks, feeling isolated)

Physical abuse in a relationship

Unfortunately as we know all too well, physical abuse can take place in a relationship. It’s unlikely that a perpetrator will be physically abusive to their partner from the start of the relationship, so the abuse will likely get more frequent – and often more severe – over time. This is never the victim’s fault – we know that no-one wants to be physically abused. The responsibility for physical abuse in a relationship always lies with the abuser.

As we mentioned above, physical abuse is often inflicted upon a person alongside other forms of abuse as a means of control. Perpetrators will often blame the abuse on “lashing out” or “losing it” due to anger at their partner, however we know that this is rarely (if ever) the case. By putting the blame on their partner, they aim to make them feel guilty for “making them angry” or shameful for “pushing them to the limit”. Perpetrators may also become upset or extremely apologetic after an incident of physical abuse, which is a tactic used to make their partner feel sympathetic and guilty – again, another way of controlling them.

Psychological effects of physical abuse

Understandably, experiencing physical abuse from a partner or spouse is very confusing for victims. In a relationship setting these feelings of confusion can become even more complex due to something called trauma bonding, which is “a psychological response to abuse…where a victim feels responsible for their abuser’s emotions and actions”.

Within an intimate partner relationship, it could mean the victim:

  • Can’t see what is happening/has happened to them as abuse
  • Justify their partner’s abusive behaviour to friends and family
  • Genuinely thinks that they themselves are to blame and ‘deserve’ what is happening/has happened to them
  • Doesn’t recognise if/when they are in a dangerous situation

Trauma bonding – whether caused by physical abuse or other forms – can have long-term psychological effects on victims, causing outcomes such as PTSD, depression, anxiety and agoraphobia later down the line. It is also incredibly complex to support someone who is trauma bonded with their abuser, however it is possible for the victim to be supported through their trauma and recover and thrive in life.

We are here to help

At Women’s Aid we understand that physical abuse is rarely the only form of abuse a woman is experiencing, and are able to support them in the way that suits them best. We understand the complexities of physical abuse and can help women and children through the difficulties they experience due to it.

We are here to help. Contact us today.

Phone – 028 9066 6049

Email – admin@belfastwomensaid.org.uk

Webchat – click the ‘we are here’ button on the right hand side of this page

Find your local Women’s Aid group.

We also know that women are not the only people who experience physical abuse – see below for contact information for other information that support victims and survivors.

Men’s Advisory Project: Belfast – 028 9024 1929 / Foyle – 028 7116 0001

The Rainbow Project: 028 9031 9030

The Domestic & Sexual Abuse Helpline: 0808 802 1414

You are never alone. Please reach out to us or one of the organisations above for help and support. We can help you.

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