I’m not sure if my relationship is healthy
Disagreements in relationships are normal but when they become frequent and begin to form a pattern, it might be a sign that something is wrong, and possibly abusive – a word that is hard for many people to think about or even say out loud.
Something doesn’t feel right
If something doesn’t feel right in your relationship, it probably isn’t.
An abuser may say things like ‘I didn’t mean it’, ‘I was having a bad day’, ‘It only happened once’ in order to justify or excuse their hurtful behaviour. This might make you start doubting whether your concerns about your relationship are valid. If you’ve heard any of these before, it could be a sign of an unhealthy or controlling relationship.
Another sign of an abusive relationship can be if your behaviour has changed because of how your partner treats you or your children. Perpetrators often create justifications for their actions, which they use to place blame on survivors and to take away any responsibility from themselves.
We’re here to tell you that perpetrators alone are responsible for their actions. We’re here to support you and help you to explore your options, because you deserve a kind, healthy relationship where you don’t feel trapped.
A healthy relationship should be a loving, respectful place with values like support, freedom, happiness and consent at the centre.
You can get in touch with a trained support worker to help you understand what’s happening and how we can support you through our Women’s Aid Live Chat or by email. You can also join the Survivors’ Forum which is a safe, anonymous space for women (over 18) who have been affected by domestic abuse to share their experiences and support one another.
We know talking to someone else about your personal life can be hard but getting in touch with us can be your first and most important step.
When you contact us, we promise we will:
- Never judge you or what you say
- Always have a fully trained female support worker available
- Give you space to explore your options
- Support you to make safe choices for you and your children
- Keep everything you tell us confidential
How to recognise unhealthy behaviour in a relationship
Every situation is unique, but there are some common factors in relationships that might mean they are unhealthy and even abusive. Just thinking about these red-flag behaviours is an important first step. You’ve come to the right place to begin this journey.
Look through the examples below that signal something is “off” in a relationship, in some cases, it could signal abuse. The descriptions might feel a bit overwhelming at first glance and may be painful to acknowledge, but try to read as many as you can because it’s important you know the unhealthy behaviours before they escalate further. If something doesn’t feel right in your relationship, it probably isn’t.
Physical abuse is one of the first forms of domestic abuse that people recognise because it’s the most visible. It is often a way for a perpetrator to gain control. It is illegal. Some examples of physical abuse are:
- Punching, slapping, hitting, pinching, kicking, scratching or biting
- Applying pressure to your neck or holding you down, strangling or choking you
- Pulling your hair out
- Spitting at you or near you
- Using objects as weapons to attack or hurt you
- Punching walls or breaking things
Psychological and emotional abuse can be difficult to describe or identify. It’s when a perpetrator uses words and non-physical actions to manipulate, hurt, scare or upset you. Some examples of emotional and verbal abuse are:
- Screaming and shouting at you
- Mocking you, calling you hurtful names or using derogatory words about you
- Sulking or refusing to talk or be kind until you do something they want
- Making you doubt your own sanity. This is known as gaslighting. A perpetrator may gaslight you into thinking that you are remembering things wrong or that you are misinterpreting things, later making you believe their version of events is true. This behaviour is often used to manipulate.
- Threatening that they will destroy something, hurt you or commit suicide
- Threatening to report you to the police, social services or a mental health team if you don’t do what they say
- Telling you that they’re sorry, that it isn’t abuse
- Telling you that you deserve or cause the abuse
- Threatening to kill or harm you and/or your children
Coercive control is an act or pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation, which is used to harm, punish or frighten. Some examples of coercive control are:
- Isolating you from your friends and family
- Depriving you of basic needs, such as food or care
- Monitoring how you spend your time
- Tracking what you do online or on your phone
- Controlling aspects of your everyday life, such as where you can go, who you can see, what you can wear and when you can sleep
- Stopping you from accessing support services, such as medical services or support groups
- Repeatedly putting you down, saying you are worthless
- Humiliating, degrading or dehumanising you
Financial abuse is part of coercive control, it involves a pattern of controlling, threatening and degrading behaviours relating to money and finances. The perpetrator uses money to control their partner’s freedom. This can include using credit or debit cards without permission or building up debts in their partner’s name. Economic abuse is a broader term, as it also includes restricting access to essential resources and services, such as food, clothing or transport, and refusing to allow someone to improve their economic status through employment, education or training. Some examples of economic abuse are:
- Controlling all of the household income and keeping financial information a secret
- Taking out debts in your name, sometimes without you knowing
- Stopping you from being in work, education or training
- Making you do a certain amount of hours at work, not contributing to any bills
- Having control over spending, checking receipts, having everything in their name
If you are experiencing financial abuse, Surviving Economic Abuse can support you.
Sexual abuse and violence can take place within relationships or between family members and can often be a part of domestic abuse. If you consent to something because you are afraid or you have been pressured into it, it is not consent. Some examples of sexual abuse are:
- Rape or sexual assault. This can be any sexual act you did not consent to. It can include forced kissing, touching or penetration. If you have experienced this recently, find advice on getting treatment and support here.
- Having sex with you when you are unable to consent, for example if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol which may affect your ability to consent.
- Using force, threats, guilt, manipulation or intimidation to make you perform sexual acts.
- Forcing you to have sex with other people or to become a sex worker.
- Forcing you to have sex or watch pornography in front of children.
- Degrading you during sex, such as calling you names, spitting, biting, punching or hurting you.
If you are experiencing sexual abuse, Rape Crisis can support you. In an emergency, always call 999.
Tech abuse is when someone uses technology as a tool to abuse. As our homes become smarter, this type of abuse is becoming more common. Abusers may use smart home devices to monitor and control. This could include connecting to thermostats to change the temperature, turning lights or speakers on and off from an app or watching you on security cameras. It can also include cyberstalking;, when someone repeatedly sends harassing messages.
Some examples of tech abuse are:
- Monitoring your social media
- Having access to your phone, email account and/or social media accounts. You have a right to privacy.
- Having access to your online banking
- Not allowing you to have access to technology, such as a phone, or internet access
- Sharing intimate photos of you online. If you have experienced this type of abuse, the Revenge Porn Helpline can support you.
- Using cameras or spyware to watch you or listen to your conversations
- Using GPS locators or tracking apps on your phone to locate you
- Constantly contacting you through text, calls, email and/or social media
- Using smart home devices to harass you
Our support services are here for you. When you reach out to us, our staff can support you to access help, accommodation and ongoing support and signpost you to specialist services, to help you make the first steps for a safe future, free from abuse.
Women’s Aid refuges, our members, are managed independently and provide a range of support and services. Some organisations offer specialist support for trans and non-binary survivors, including refuge space, outreach services or support.
You can also reach out to specialist services:
Galop’s helpline is run by LGBT+, for LGBT+ people who have or are experiencing domestic abuse. It’s also for people supporting a survivor of domestic abuse; friends, families and those working with a survivor. It’s free and accessible through phone, webchat and chatbot.
Switchboard LGBT+ Helpline provides a safe space for anyone to discuss anything, including sexuality, gender identity, sexual health and emotional well-being. They support people to explore the right options for themselves and aspire to a society where all LGBT+ people are informed and empowered.
For some communities, ‘honour’ is important and central to social standing and the position of families within the community. There can be severe consequences if perceived dishonour or shame is bought upon a family or community. Some actions that may be considered ‘dishonourable’ or ‘shameful’ are:
- Having a relationship with someone outside your community or that your family doesn’t approve of
- Separating or getting a divorce
- Having sex or getting pregnant before marriage
- Doing things that may be considered inappropriate by family or the community, such as dressing in a different way, talking to certain people, and challenging what is expected of you
- Using drugs or alcohol
- Disagreeing with the religion of your family or community
Honour-based abuse is a when a crime is committed to protect or defend the ‘honour’ of a family or community. Some examples of honour-based abuse are:
- Any form of domestic abuse or sexual violence
- Forced marriage or forced abortion
- Pressure to move abroad or to visit friends and family abroad
- Not being allowed any freedom, including using the phone, internet or having access to your passport
- Isolating you from your friends and members of your family
Although, the concept of ‘honour’ can often be viewed as part of ‘traditional’ or cultural practices, this does not mean that any forms of honour-based abuse or harmful practices are acceptable. Any forms of honour-based abuse or harmful practices are illegal, including forced marriage and female genital mutilation. ‘Crimes of honour’ should be treated as a violation of human rights and not as a religious or cultural practice. There are specialist organisations led by women in the community who have a cultural understanding of the complexities of honour and shame.
For further support:
- Karma Nirvana is a national organisation which provides support for women who are at risk of or who are experiencing honour-based abuse or forced marriage. You can call the Honour-Based Abuse Helpline if you need help or advice for free on 0800 5999 247.
- IKWRO provide advice, support, advocacy in Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, and English to women and girls facing forced marriage, child marriage, female genital mutilation, and ‘honour’-based violence. If you need help or advice, please call: 0207 920 6460.
A forced marriage is where one or both people do not (or in cases of people with reduced capacity, cannot) consent to the marriage as they are pressurised, or abuse is used to force the marriage to take place. It can happen either in the UK or abroad. The pressure used to marry against their will may be physical – for example, threats, physical violence, or sexual violence – or emotional and psychological – for example, making someone feel like they are bringing ‘shame’ on their family. You might not feel ‘forced’ or ‘pressured,’ but you may have a feeling that you could not say no, and that there may have been consequences if you resisted getting married. The threats and pressure may be coming from relatives, friends, or members of a community.
Forced marriage is different to arranged marriage, where a family member or designated person are involved in choosing a partner. Arranged marriages take place with the consent of both people, while forced marriage is against the will of one or both people.
It’s important to remember that consenting to marriage because you were afraid or under pressure does not mean that you really consented to it.
Forced marriage can take place within lots of different communities across the world and in the UK, and is a criminal offence in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This includes:
- Taking someone overseas to force them to marry, whether the marriage takes place or not
- Marrying someone who cannot consent
If you are worried that you are going to be forced into marriage when you are abroad, contact Karma Nirvana’s helpline on 0800 5999 247. They will be able to give you up-to-date advice.
If you are trying to stop a forced marriage or need help leaving a marriage you have been forced into, the Forced Marriage Unit can support you. You can also contact the Forced Marriage Helpline for information and options if you are being forced or pressured into sponsoring a spouse visa. They are contactable on [email protected], Telephone: 020 7008 0151. From overseas: +44 (0)20 7008 0151 Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, Out of hours: 020 7008 5000. The FMU has also produced a Forced marriage survivor’s handbook.
It is a criminal offence to perform or assist in performing FGM in the UK, or to take a woman or girl abroad for the procedure. It is also illegal to help or pressure a girl to carry out FGM on herself, and to fail to protect a girl from risk of FGM. There are also laws about FGM taking place abroad. You can find more information about FGM on the NHS website.
IKWRO provide advice, support, advocacy in Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, and English to women and girls facing forced marriage, child marriage, female genital mutilation, and ‘honour’-based violence. If you need help or advice please call: 0207 920 6460.
If you have a disability or chronic health condition, an abuser may use this as part of the abuse. However, abuse is never your fault. Only the abuser is responsible for their actions. Domestic abuse can happen in any relationship, including those in which someone is a caregiver or assists you with something personal or intimate. If someone takes advantage of the power they have as a caregiver, this could be abuse. Women’s Aid is here for you and support is available to you. Some of the ways disabled women experience abuse can include:
- Withholding, hiding, destroying or manipulating medical equipment and/or tools, such as a walking stick, cane, hearing aid or wheelchair
- Refusing to help with attending important meetings, such as hospital appointments or benefit assessments
- Refusing to interpret what people are saying around you, for example if you are Deaf and use sign language
- Theft of state benefits or any other financial income
- Sexual touching while assisting you with personal care, such as dressing or bathing
- Demanding sex in exchange for caregiving
- Forced marriage or repeated sexual violence against women who cannot consent due to disability
- Prevention of access to medication or pain relief
- Overmedicating or under medicating, or changing a medication without telling you
- Doing things to exacerbate or take advantage of a disability or health condition, such as smoking indoors, leaving unreachable windows open in winter, or refusing to allow you to go to the toilet
- Refusing to assist you with caregiving responsibilities, including providing adequate meals and nutrition, dressing, bathing, access to transport and cleaning duties
- Isolating you from friends, family, support workers and support groups
- Saying that you are ugly or useless because of your disability, or calling you stupid because you don’t understand
The Learning Disability Helpline, run by Mencap, provides free help and advice for people with a learning disability, their family and carers. They are not a domestic abuse service but they can help give advice about lots of topics, including social care, benefits, housing and bullying. Their phone number is 0808 808 1111, or you can email them at [email protected].
The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) works to support blind people living in the UK. If you are blind or have vision loss, you may find it useful to call their helpline on 0303 123 9999, or email [email protected]. They have access to interpreters.
Scope is a national charity which supports and advocates for disabled people and their families. Their free helpline is available if you need free, impartial advice on a wide range of topics, including accessible housing, benefits and work. The phone number is 0808 800 3333, or email [email protected]. You can call using a BSL interpreter or multilingual interpreter.
SignHealth provides domestic abuse support and advocacy to Deaf people across the UK. You can find videos in BSL relating to domestic abuse on their website. You can contact SignHealth by texting 07800 003421, or by emailing [email protected].
Deaf Blind UK can provide information and advice line for people who have combined sight and hearing loss, their carers and professionals. The helpline is able to provide advice and information on equipment, communication methods and local services. They are available on 0800 132 320 (voice), 0790 3572 885 (text).
Disability Rights UK are led by, run by, and working for disabled people. They work with disabled people’s organisations and government across the UK to influence regional and national change for better rights, benefits, quality of life and economic opportunities for disabled people.
The emergency SMS service lets deaf, hard of hearing and speech-impaired people in the UK send an SMS text message to the UK 999 service where it will be passed to the police, ambulance, fire rescue, or coastguard. This is also useful for a woman experiencing domestic violence but unable to make a phone call. Simply by sending an SMS message to 999 you can call for help and the emergency services will be able to reply to you. You will need to register your mobile phone before using the emergency SMS service.
999 BSL allows deaf people to make emergency calls using an app or website, connecting callers with a BSL interpreter. It is free to use and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The new sign language-based service does not require registration, meaning callers can use it as long as the app or webpage is open. To make a call with 999 BSL, users need to open the app or webpage, then press a red button that will connect them to an interpreter.
At first, I was in denial and didn’t want to think about the fact I was being abused – but people were looking out for me all along and never gave up on me.
For instance, my previous employer really cared about me and kept reaching out even though I kept making excuses for the abuse. At the time, I wasn’t in the right state of mind to fully accept the help or acknowledge what was happening to me. I was pushing away reality as a way of coping and defending myself against the pain and trauma.
Then one day someone left me alone in an office with the contact details for Women’s Aid and encouraged me to get in touch. It was a relief to finally start accessing support but also very painful because I was in the process of finally acknowledging that I was being abused. I felt a huge sense of shame and guilt.
I was at the start of a long journey, beginning to acknowledge that I was being treated badly in my relationship. For the first time, I began to think about the word “abuse” internally, but could still not say it out loud.
During that period, I left my relationship for a second time but soon went back. There was nothing anyone could do at the time to get me out – but I still felt their support and valued it deeply.
One friend tried to call out my ex on some of his behaviour, but he didn’t even need to react because I was soon jumping to his defence while he just deflected it all back on her, saying she was bad news. But still she supported me, gently encouraging me to focus on how I felt about myself irrespective of the relationship. That was the start of coming back to myself and gaining consciousness. It was massive.
My ex always found ways of isolating me so my friend and I didn’t have much time together but when she did get me alone, she would simply ask: “How are you feeling? How are you treating yourself?”.
She had an anti-anxiety book and we did one of the exercises together which involved her writing down some of my favourite experiences of the year and helping me to vocalise what they meant; spelling out to me the positives that were evidenced by these experiences. I carried that note around with me for a long time. My friend still feels she did not do enough to help me but this alone was so fundamentally important.
The truth is I was just not ready to leave for a long time. It takes so much to leave and it took a long time after my first contact with Women’s Aid and a year after writing that note with my friend that I finally broke free.
In the end my body took over and decided for me. I became ill and couldn’t work due to surgery. I was trying to recover at home and the truth suddenly came to me as a simple, unemotional fact: “If nothing about my situation changes, my body will give up and I will die.” I could feel myself slipping away. My body had helped me to survive for a long time but now it was just not bothering to keep going.
It was a purely physical feeling, there was no rational thinking or emotion involved. My body was trying to escape, to leave the situation by blacking out or just sleeping. At the same time it was telling me something much more loudly than in the past because I had not been listening. My brain was numb, so my body was trying to talk to me instead.
I had been forced to turn off my feelings for so long because if you allow yourself to feel too much sadness or desperation, you can’t survive. And so with the wisdom of my body and the support of my friends on my side, I left during the pandemic, having only just recovered from the coronavirus and my surgery.
Leaving for good was the hardest thing I have ever done. However, I knew as I walked out the door that this time it was finally over.
Now that I am free from abuse there are sometimes difficult feelings which overwhelm me because I am finally in a safe place to acknowledge them. It’s hard to cope when that happens but with the right support I can now work through those emotions and finally let them go. And as I go through this process, those moments occur less and less.
The journey to acknowledging abuse is a long and personal one (and there will be many setbacks) but hopefully stories like mine will help other women to realise that – with one step at a time – it is possible to reach a place of peace and safety.