February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness month, but dating violence can happen across all age groups. The way dating violence is often portrayed in the media suggests acts of physical and sexual violence. That’s one part of dating violence—but in dating and intimate partner relationships, sexual violence is often an escalated act that follows other acts of emotional or physical abuse. Identifying these early signs of abuse may provide a chance for a person at risk to exit a relationship safely before further harm occurs.
“Dating violence doesn’t have an age restriction. It isn’t defined by gender identity. And it doesn’t look the same for every relationship,” said Brian Pinero, RAINN’s vice president of Victim Services. “The answer to the question, ‘What does dating violence look like?’ isn’t so straightforward—and that’s what can make it difficult to spot.”
The warning signs for dating violence can be similar to warning signs for sexual assault and abuse. With dating violence, early warning signs often begin with behaviors that are not physically violent. These behaviors may violate a person’s boundaries, be emotionally abusive, or otherwise controlling. “Small controlling behaviors might not seem like a big deal at the time, but they can escalate and eventually put someone at risk,” added Pinero. “For example, demanding to know where someone is at all times, touching or pinching parts of someone's body in public when they’ve made it clear it’s unwanted, or controlling what type of clothes someone wears—these are all abusive behaviors that violate someone’s boundaries.”
The laws about sexual violence and dating violence vary by state and situation. The following information is not a legal guide or an exhaustive list—rather it’s a general list of early warning signs for behaviors that are, or could become, violent.
Early warning signs of an abusive partner
For teens and those new to dating and relationships, it’s can be difficult to identify controlling behaviors from caring behaviors. Consider this list of warning signs to identify unhealthy or abusive behaviors.
It’s not OK for a partner to:
Demand details about how you spend your time. While it’s normal for a partner to express interest in your day, it’s not okay for a partner to demand to know where you are and who is spending time with you every minute of the day—or to limit with whom you spend time.
Restrict contact with family or friends. Sometimes abusive partners will force someone to cut ties with family or friends who don’t approve of the relationship. Remember that who you trust and spend time with is your choice.
Criticize you or what’s important to you. Partners who put you down or belittle your beliefs are not respectful partners. While it’s healthy to have challenging conversations about ideas, it’s not OK to tell someone that their thoughts, opinions, or bodies are not important.
Control what you wear or what you look like. Partners should not place restrictions on your clothes, makeup, hair, or other aspects of your physical body. This includes forcing you to eat a certain way to engage in certain exercise routines.
Touch you in public without permission. If a partner grabs or pinches you in front of friends or family when you’ve asked them not to, or insists on public displays of affection that you’re not comfortable with, this is a sign of ignoring your boundaries.
Coerce or pressure you into physical activity. Coercion can include using phrases such as “If you really loved me, you would sleep with me.” In the LGBTQ community, pressuring someone to “prove” their sexuality is also a form of coercion.
Ignore or violate your physical boundaries. Setting clear boundaries about physical intimacy is part of a healthy relationship. If pumping the breaks or asking to stop an activity is seen as “silly” or “lame,” these might be warning signs that a partner won’t respect your boundaries down the road.
Control your reproductive choices. Refusing to use a condom, lying about using forms of birth control, or forcing someone to take a hormonal birth control—these are all signs that a partner does not respect the choices you are making for your body and your future.
Support for unhealthy relationships
It can be unsettling to recognize abusive behaviors in a relationship. Know that you are not alone, and there are people you can talk to.
If you are in immediate danger, call 911 or practice a prepared safety plan.
If you are a teen or young adult, you can learn more about healthy relationships by visiting Love Is Respect or using their confidential hotline services.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline also has a hotline for anyone experiencing domestic violence, seeking resources or information, or questioning unhealthy aspects of their relationship.
If you have experienced sexual assault and need to talk, RAINN is here for you. You can talk to someone from the National Sexual Assault Hotline online in English or Spanish, or over the phone at 800.656.HOPE (4673)