More than noticing bruises: Recognizing signs of domestic abuse

Domestic abuse can take many forms, and a D.C.-area counselor wants you to recognize when it’s happening so you can get help, or offer help to someone else.

“Oftentimes, we think ‘just physical abuse’ or those overt acts of aggression,” psychologist Donitra Ross said. “It includes emotional, sexual and/or physical abuse and also threats of abuse.” Abuse can involve partners of either sex.

Ross is a consultant for the Diversity and Social Justice and Inclusion Committee of the D.C. Psychological Association, and she works in a community outpatient practice in Prince George’s County, Maryland, that provides services regionwide.

“We’ve seen a need for more couples counseling; smacks and hits — those types of things are happening,” Ross said.

There’s also concern about victims of sexual abuse being isolated at home and not having access to people who otherwise might be able to detect problems or help.

People experiencing abuse might notice their partner becoming less patient, using more hurtful words or making attempts to intimidate them.

“It kind of starts out that way,” Ross said. “We’re seeing more of those kinds of things; I know for myself personally.”

Signs signaling dangerous developments in your partner can include:

  • They become mean or intimidating.
  • They become jealous easily when you’re out.
  • They dominate your time.
  • They don’t want you to spend time with family.
  • They try to control money.
  • They’re easily angered.
  • They make threats of violence or abuse.

“I think threats are very important,” Ross said. “Because oftentimes, we may not take it seriously; we just think, ‘Oh, they’re just mad.'”

Abuse warning signs that might be observed by a friend, family member or colleague include someone isolating behaviorally, becoming more private, withdrawn or distant. There may be new or increasing substance use; a change in sleeping patterns; they’re anxious, fearful, show low self-esteem or seem overly apologetic.

For someone you know well, Ross recommends approaching him or her to say you’re concerned. Ask if they’re OK and how you might be able to help.

If you suspect domestic abuse is happening to someone you don’t know well, Ross advises asking them directly: “Are you OK? How can I help you?”

Listen without judgment. Be supportive.

Offers of help should be made privately.

“There’s a level of shame and guilt,” Ross said. “People have an idea about who they think is abused, but abuse happens to any person from any walk of life.”

Ross’s recommendations for someone experiencing abuse or for someone offering help include:

  • Make a safety plan for where to go if there’s a problem.
  • Know where local shelters are.
  • Come up with a code word to alert friends or family you’re in trouble or need help.
  • Prepare a list of available resources for where to get help.

Free confidential help, information and live chats are available 24/7 from the National Domestic Abuse Hotline and by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Help specifically aimed at teen and young adult relationships can be found online or by texting LOVEIS to 22522.

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