Signs That Indicate a Relationship Could Turn Violent

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Most relationships don't start off abusive or violent, and many intimate relationships never become abusive. Unfortunately, some do. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about one in four women and one in ten men experience intimate partner physical violence during their lifetime. 

In the United States, nearly 20 people per minute experience physical abuse by an intimate partner, and intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crimes. This crime rate does not include cases of emotional abuse or unreported physical abuse.

This article explores some of the risk factors that play a role in relationship violence as well as some of the warning signs that a relationship might become violent. It also discusses some of the effects of domestic violence and factors that may play a protective role.

Risk Factors for Violence in Relationships

A number of different risk factors have been implicated in intimate partner violence. Some of these are individual risk factors, while others relate to aspects of the relationship itself. Societal and community influences can also play a part.

Individual Risk Factors

According to the CDC, the following individual risk factors play a role in a person becoming a perpetrator of intimate partner violence:

  • Aggressive behavior as a child or teen
  • Antisocial personality traits
  • Being insecure and emotionally dependent
  • History of depression or past suicide attempts
  • Belief in rigid gender roles and hostility toward women
  • Desire for control or power in relationships
  • Economic stress, low educational attainment, and poor economic status (However, intimate partner violence is not limited to these populations and it affects people of all economic statuses and education levels.)
  • Lack of friends and social isolation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor behavioral control, impulsivity, and poor problem-solving skills

People who become violent toward their romantic partners also often have a history of physical and emotional abuse as children.

Relationship Risk Factors

There are also aspects of the relationship itself that can contribute to an increased risk for domestic violence. Relationships marked with jealousy, separation, divorce, or attempts to dominate the relationship are more likely to be affected by violence.

People who witnessed relationship violence as children are also more likely to either become victims or perpetrators of domestic violence as adults. 

Community and Societal Factors

The CDC also notes that a number of factors at the community and societal levels also increase the risk of domestic violence. At the community level, poverty, high unemployment rates, high crime rates, easy access to drugs, and low community involvement all contribute to an increased risk for relationship violence.

At the societal level, cultural norms, toxic masculinity, and gender expectations that suggest that men should be dominant and in charge of providing financial support and that women should be submissive and not enter the workforce also play part in relationship violence. Though these problematic binary gender roles can contribute to violence in heterosexual relationships, that certainly doesn't preclude LGBTQ+ relationships from intimate partner violence.

Relationship Violence Warning Signs

It can be very challenging at the outset of a relationship to know if someone will become abusive or violent. While risk factors may be present, intimate partner violence can affect people from all walks of life. It is important not to blame the victim.

While you can never know with certainty, there are some signs to watch out for that may foretell whether a relationship that starts off seemingly happy and healthy is likely to become abusive. Some of these red flags include:

  • Accusing you of flirting or having an affair with others without evidence or reason
  • Alcohol or substance misuse
  • Attempts to isolate you from your family and friends
  • Blaming external forces for problems, mood swings, and behaviors
  • Controlling all of the household finances or financial abuse
  • Extreme jealousy and possessiveness
  • Extreme sensitivity to any type of emotional distress
  • Mood swings and episodes of intense anger
  • Talking about you in a demeaning way to other people
  • Verbal abuse and threats of violence
  • Very intense and quick involvement at the start of a relationship

Engaging in a type of behavior known as love-bombing can also be a sign that a relationship might turn violent. Love-bombing is defined as an attempt to manipulate and control someone by showering them with an abundance of affection and attention.

In these cases, love-bombing often follows an argument or even an episode of verbal abuse or physical violence. The goal of the behavior is to make the recipient of the affection feel dependent and obliged to stay in the relationship.

Protective Factors Against Relationship Violence

There are a number of factors that may help protect people against intimate partner violence. Having positive relationships with other people and a strong social support network can help. 

The CDC also suggests that a number of community factors can help reduce domestic violence. Community involvement, safe and stable housing, access to medical and mental health services, and community economic resources may all play a protective role.

A 2018 systematic review found that among older adults, the three main protective factors against abuse were social support, help-seeking behavior, and the availability of community resources to address abuse.

One key is to be aware of anything that makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable and to address those issues with your partner early on, even in an otherwise positive relationship. This practice may help ward off a situation that could progress toward domestic violence. It's encouraging if your partner is receptive to your concerns, but less so if they are overly dismissive or defensive.

If there are warning signs or behaviors that make you feel unsafe and your partner refuses to acknowledge them, explore them, or stay open to taking steps to address them, it is important to consider your safety and consider ending the relationship. Seek support from friends and family and call a domestic violence hotline if you need support or help to make a plan to leave the relationship.

Recap

Community resources and social support can play an important role in the prevention of relationship violence. If you spot signs that your relationship might become violent, make sure you have support from family and friends and turn to resources in your community for help.

Effects of Relationship Violence

Relationship violence has a wide range of negative effects on people who experience abuse. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that the health consequences of relationship violence include:

Children who grow up in households where relationship violence occurs are also more likely to experience a range of emotional and behavioral problems. 

Unfortunately, relationship violence may escalate to homicide in some cases. In many cases, the most dangerous time for those involved in abusive relationships is when they try to leave. A review by the Colorado Attorney General's office found that 70% of the people killed in a domestic violence attack in 2018 in Colorado had told a friend or acquaintance about the abuse.

Research also suggests that 20% of people killed as a result of intimate partner violence were not the abuse victims themselves, but were instead people who knew the victim such as family members, friends, police officers, and new romantic partners.

It is important not to minimize the seriousness of intimate partner violence, but it is also essential to acknowledge the difficulty in addressing it. Reaching out to people who are knowledgeable and trained to deal with domestic violence can be an important step.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

If you are in a violent relationship, it is important to carefully develop a safe plan to leave, rather than simply leaving on impulse or in the heat of an incident. Get help from experienced professionals who can guide you in creating a safe escape plan. Learn all you can about the dangers of trying to leave and how to develop a safety plan.

If you know someone who is in an abusive relationship, be careful about giving them advice, such as, "You need to get out of there immediately!" Learn all you can about domestic violence, how to recognize the signs of abuse, how to help someone who is being abused, and the need for a carefully planned and safe escape.

14 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  10. World Health Organization. Violence against women.

  11. U.S. Department of Justice. Extent, nature, and consequences of intimate partner violence.

  12. State of Colorado Attorney General. Colorado Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board.

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  14. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Personalized safety plan.

Additional Reading

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.