8 Warning Signs of Dating Abuse

I have talked to dozens of abused women, and as we unravel their story, most say something like this, “He was nothing like this until we got married.” Some will even share vivid accounts of how a switch flips on their honeymoon and everything changes. For others, the abuse develops over time and grows in intensity. But all are left wondering, How did I miss it?

Abuse does not start out looking like abuse. In fact, it usually takes the shape of an ideal romance. A showering of attention when the relationship starts. Romantic cards, lavish gifts, and unexpected visits. There is an intensity that is continually asking, “Will you be mine?” But it is really saying. “You will become mine!”

Is It Devotion or Domination?

In the early phases of a relationship, who does not want to be pursued? It feels wonderful when someone wants to see you constantly. Sometimes we can get so caught up in this stage of the relationship that we don’t recognize that the other person is jealous and maybe even possessive of your time. These things, however, can signal something more than intensity; they can be signs of low-level control.

Madison was filled with excitement. Tim shared most of her interests, and he was always eager to hang out. He would leave her gifts and notes at work. Everyone would comment on how sweet he was. 

One weekend, an old friend was coming into town, and Madison wanted to meet her for dinner, but Tim was disappointed that he could not see her that day. He was sullen, then apologetic. That night she got eight texts while she was out, but she was too busy to send a message back. The next day Tim made her feel guilty for enjoying her friend’s visit to the point that she “forgot all about him.” Madison felt terrible for hurting his heart and became vigilant about returning Tim’s texts.

By using guilt, Tim was able to control how and when Madison returned his messages. Eventually, Tim subtly demanded more and more of Madison’s time, which required her to choose him over her friends. Slowly, Tim became her entire world. At the time it did not feel bad; Madison really enjoyed Tim. When they were together, it was always fun. However, if Tim really wanted what was best for Madison, he would have supported her other godly relationships. But Tim was about Tim, and what he wanted was Madison’s adoration (Gal. 5:16–26).

God’s Intention for Intimacy

God created marriage to be a way that husband and wife help each other become the person God designed them to be (Gen. 1:27–28). But there’s more. Our covenants with our spouses are intended to gloriously reflect Christ’s covenant with the Church, His Bride (Eph. 5:25–33).

To understand how God calls spouses to relate to one another, we must look at how Christ loves the Church. His love for His Church is self-sacrificial, faithful, purifying, honest, and sanctifying (Eph. 5:1–2). He treats her with honor and has served her at a high personal cost (Eph. 5:25–27). Christ’s love is characterized by humility and service (Phil. 2:5–11). We want to encourage relationships where these characteristics are present and flourishing, while being very cautious of relationships where selfish demands are increasing.

8 Warning Signs of Dating Abuse

Unhealthy relationships may begin with subtle behaviors that at the root are about power and control. An abuser ultimately wants their partner devoted to them and their needs. In a very corrupt way, they seek to usurp God’s position, wanting others to worship and obey them.1

To detect the presence of abuse, look for selfish and coercive tendencies. Identifying these patterns in the early phase of the relationship allows for more objectivity. Once a person’s heart becomes enmeshed and guilt and manipulation take root, it is harder to step back and evaluate the relationship. 

Here are eight signs that signal potential abuse. 

(While it is possible for men to be victims of dating abuse, the focus of this article is for women, so the following questions are geared toward female sufferers. The same questions could be reworded and used with men.)

1. Intensity

Did the relationship get too deep too fast? A man might overwhelm you with his feelings for you or his desire to always want to be with you. Is he proclaiming undying love and bombarding you with over-the-top gestures of love (like letters and gifts)? Does that make you feel obligated to him (1 Cor. 13:4)?

2. Jealousy

Is he upset when you spend time with other people? Does he accuse you of cheating? Does he show up unexpectedly at work (to let others know you are dating him)? Or monitor you or your phone, or follow you? Is he irrational about your other relationships? What does he do when he is jealous (James 3:16)?

3. Manipulation

Does he try to influence your decisions and actions (how you dress, eat, or spend money)? Does he work to convince you to do things you don’t want to do? Does he pressure you sexually by saying he can’t help himself or he needs your help to fight pornography (Eph. 5:3–5)? Are you nervous that you will do something to make him angry or upset?

4. Isolation

Does he insist that you spend all your free time with him? Are you able to keep up your other relationships with phone calls and visits? Is he trying to create a wedge between you and your family? Do you fight about spending time with your family and friends (Eccl. 4:12)?

5. Sabotage

Does he need you when you have to devote your time to work or school? Or does he have meltdowns at moments when you should be doing something else? Has he tried to ruin your reputation or criticize you and your achievements (Phil. 2:1–4)? Has he made you believe you were crazy by hiding your phone, money, or keys?

6. Criticism

Does he call you names or make fun of you (Prov. 12:18)? Does he comment on your appearance in a way that makes you feel self-conscious? Does he mock your intelligence?

7. Guilting 

Does he treat you as if everything is your fault? Does he threaten to hurt himself if you don’t do what he wants? Does he overreact to minor disagreements and make you feel bad for thinking differently than him?

8. Blame-Shifting

Does he blame you for his failings? Does he excuse his behavior by saying it was “just the alcohol”? Does he attribute his choices to his mother or past girlfriends? 

How to Unearth Abusive Thinking

These categories are not easy to assess. In a dating relationship, there are fewer times for conflict to arise, so even if only two or three of these signs appear, they should be explored and taken seriously.

Here are questions to ask that can further unearth some of the above tendencies: What happens when . . . 

  • You give your boyfriend negative feedback?
  • You express your needs? 
  • You have a different preference than him?
  • He is disappointed? Does he punish you?
  • There is conflict? How is it resolved?
  • He interacts with his family? Is he respectful?
  • He talks about ex-girlfriends? Does he vilify them?
  • When there is physical intimacy? Does he push or respect boundaries?

Assessing Attitudes

We are all sinners. We all need grace and forgiveness. Both partners can contribute to relational conflict. But, I have heard women misapply teachings on commitment, respect, and love in situations where they needed to be more attentive to the other person’s sin against them. Abusers take advantage of tender repentant hearts, looking to further ensnare their victims.

When evaluating a dating relationship, encourage women to look at their own hearts, but also to assess their boyfriend’s character and relationship style. It is not enough to look at a person’s potential, you must consider their real-time behaviors (Matt. 7:16–17). Help them ask: 

  • Does this man love me and others sacrificially or selfishly? 
  • Does he want me to worship God better? 
  • Or, does he require me to worship him? 

Think of other ways you can help singles identify problematic behaviors. Teach them that some sins and behaviors should be relationship deal-breakers (2 Peter 2:20).

Helping a Friend

If you are concerned about a friend, ask them these questions, but also screen for other overt abuses. Dating abuse can escalate to the point of physical and sexual abuse.

Abuse of any kind should never be tolerated, but love, fear of breaking up, or alarm over their boyfriend’s anger might keep someone in a relationship. Keep in mind that you might need to help them get out safely. The myPlan App has excellent tools for this.

God wants the best for His daughters. He promises to guide and keep careful watch over them, as He pledges, 

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you (Ps. 32:8). 

What a privilege to be a part of His care for His people.

For more on this topic, explore these suggested resources:

1 To understand the oppressor’s mentality, see Darby A. Strickland, Domestic Abuse: Recognize, Respond, Rescue (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2018).

About the Author

Darby Strickland

Darby Strickland is a counselor and faculty member for the Christian Counseling & Education Foundation. She is the author of Is It Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims, and is a contributor to the free web-based training for leaders who minister to abuse victims, Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused. Darby and her husband, John, have three chilren.