Abuse doesn’t look like abuse

There’s a very helpful article making its rounds, called Drowning Does Not Look like Drowning. I’ve never seen someone on the verge of drowning — or at least I don’t think I have! I searched for a video of what the article describes, and found this:

The video quality is a bit rough, and I can’t quite see what’s going on with the person in trouble here. The thing that startles me is how many people are so near him and don’t even notice!

Now that you’ve seen what drowning looks like, do you know what abuse looks like? From Helpguide.org:

People who are being abused may:

  • Seem afraid or anxious to please their partner
  • Go along with everything their partner says and does
  • Check in often with their partner to report where they are and what they’re doing
  • Receive frequent, harassing phone calls from their partner
  • Talk about their partner’s temper, jealousy, or possessiveness
  • Have frequent injuries, with the excuse of “accidents”
  • Frequently miss work, school, or social occasions, without explanation
  • Dress in clothing designed to hide bruises or scars (e.g. wearing long sleeves in the summer or sunglasses indoors)
  • [my addition] Get “sick” a lot
  • Be restricted from seeing family and friends
  • Rarely go out in public without their partner
  • Have limited access to money, credit cards, or the car
  • Have very low self-esteem, even if they used to be confident
  • Show major personality changes (e.g. an outgoing person becomes withdrawn)
  • Be depressed, anxious, or suicidal

Of course that’s not to say everyone doing any of these things is being abused, but many of these are at least a good sign they are in distress of some kind and need help. Start by just being their friend — even if they seem distant. Even if you don’t know them that well. The people they know well probably haven’t noticed, or may be too close to the abuser to believe there’s an issue. You can also hook them up with some resources. Just don’t judge or blame them for getting into or being stuck in a relationship like that. Believe it or not, it’s not as easy as it looks :-p

“One of the obstacles to recognizing chronic mistreatment in relationships is that most abusive men simply don’t seem like abusers. They have many good qualities, including times of kindness, warmth, and humor, especially in the early period of a relationship. An abuser’s friends may think the world of him. He may have a successful work life and have no problems with drugs or alcohol. He may simply not fit anyone’s image of a cruel or intimidating person. So when a woman feels her relationship spinning out of control, it is unlikely to occur to her that her partner is an abuser.

The symptoms of abuse are there, and the woman usually sees them: the escalating frequency of put-downs. Early generosity turning more and more to selfishness. Verbal explosions when he is irritated or when he doesn’t get his way. Her grievances constantly turned around on her, so that everything is her own fault. His growing attitude that he knows what is good for her better than she does. And, in many relationships, a mounting sense of fear or intimidation. But the woman also sees that her partner is a human being who can be caring and affectionate at times, and she loves him. She wants to figure out why he gets so upset, so that she can help him break his pattern of ups and downs. She gets drawn into the complexities of his inner world, trying to uncover clues, moving pieces around in an attempt to solve an elaborate puzzle.” from Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

I write this because I see the signs in people I know and care about. Maybe even in you.


  1. nobodyputsbabyinacorner

    so important. i like that you included how many good qualities abusers can have, not just be superficially charming (although many are that), but also be or seem like genuinely good people. that’s why (in part) their partners love them and stick with them, seeing their good qualities, hoping they’ll change. i certainly think abused partners should get out of the relationship, but sometimes i think we fall into a rhetoric of ‘dumb woman doesn’t know better than to leave him/is too psychologically sick to know what’s good for her’, etc. the feelings of love and affection are real, which is precisely why abuse is so poisonous, and giving respect to those feelings while still encouraging healthy, self-protecting behavior seems important to me. at least if we want women to listen, and not feel condescended to.


    1. Velda

      Exactly. I went through this for a long time because my ex was not, and is still not, a monster. He’s a guy who is stuck in some bad beliefs and terrible relational habits. I wanted to help him, too, but it was destroying me over time, and becoming increasingly dangerous. I had to learn this was not help I could give him any more than I could run on a treadmill to make someone else lose weight. I had to learn it’s OK to leave a human being, too, not just a monster.


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