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Recognizing the subtle signs of abuse & control

The attention surrounding the murder case of Gabby Petito is sparking a much-needed debate about our gut reactions to domestic disputes, and the lack of true understanding and concern for interpersonal violence (IPV). There’s criticism for how the Moab police officers responded to a dispute between Gabby and her fiancée weeks before her homicide, who didn’t believe she was in any danger. But,…

When you know what to look for, you can identify the signs.

Physical signs of abuse and control are easy to spot – a black eye, a bruised arm. It’s human nature to want to see proof that it occurred, and it’s the foundation of our legal system. But there are many proven, well-documented signs of abuse. If only law enforcement and the courts were trained to spot them.

Just ask the experts, the victims who have endured the invisible horrors of domestic abuse – a pattern of behavior of a partner using physical, psychological or sexual aggression to gain power and control over their intimate partner. With ease and conviction, they’ll describe all the painful signs – both the obvious and subtle words, actions and controlling behaviors they experienced day in and day out; the ones that didn’t leave a mark except on their psyche and soul.

In domestic abuse, there are few witnesses, except for victims who are dismissed as being unstable, petty, overly emotional or altogether lying.

So, what are the signs of abuse and control? According to the National Coalition of Domestic Abuse, some include (for the complete list, visit

· A bad temper

· Name-calling

· Extremely controlling behavior

· Possessiveness

· Unpredictability

· Controls all the finances

· Demeaning the victim privately or publicly

· Embarrassment or humiliation of the victim in front of others

Abusers like to call their partners “crazy”… as Gabby’s fiancée stated to police. And like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and as any victim would attest, the crazy-making tactic of an abuser, over time, does in fact make you question whether your mind is betraying you.

But here’s the problem – the person who doesn’t understand abuse will believe the abuser, not the victim. And when the person who doesn’t know the signs is a police officer, judge, social worker or other professional who you might assume is supposed to know the signs, bad decisions are made that at minimum can lead to turbulent lives or generational abuse, and at their worst, cost lives. Like Gabby’s and countless others.

When you know what to look for, you recognize the signs of abuse.

One study on emotional abuse puts the prevalence of IPV at an alarming 80% and points out that emotional abuse is often a precursor to physical abuse.* And our government’s own CDC National Intimate Partner & Sexual Violence Survey found that roughly HALF of Americans reported experiencing emotional abuse by a partner in their lifetime.

Most of us know the warning signs of a heart attack. Is it unreasonable to expect professionals making potentially life-altering decisions – like police officers, judges and case workers – to be well-trained in identifying signs of abuse?

Except they’re not. Instead, their decisions and actions are subject to their own assumptions, biases, prejudices and even egos. This is why training is critical for law enforcement and the court system.

When you know what to look for, you recognize the signs of abuse.

In my work as a certified high conflict divorce coach, I see good parents and good people who are scared, traumatized and confused about the abuse that they and their children have experienced and continue to endure. My clients break into tears, talk fast, withdraw, go numb, get loud, feel overwhelmed and fall into a panic. And it’s all 100% perfectly normal when you’ve been abused.

Conversely, I’ve felt the chill of speaking with abusers – toxic, disordered individuals who, during their consultations, try to convince me that their partners are crazy and abusive, and “alienating” their kids. Predictably, they use me and our time to disparage the parent of their children instead of focusing on their children. They're smooth talkers and intelligent; and eerily calm.

I know the signs firsthand and have studied them well. Through their charm I detect hostility and notice their immediate shift in tone when I politely decline their request for services…

Because when you know what to look for, you recognize the signs of abuse.


CLAUDIA LOPEZ Author, Certified High Conflict Divorce Coach, and Founder of Stomping On Eggshells, LLC

Thank you for reading my article. I realize that if you are here, you or someone you love is contemplating divorce or going through a child custody battle with a controlling, abusive partner. Because the normal rules of engagement don’t apply to a person who initiates high levels of conflict, I welcome you to visit to explore how coaching may benefit you. I’m a certified high conflict divorce coach who has walked in your shoes, and it would be an honor to provide you with the strategy, guidance and support you need to navigate your high conflict separation, divorce and custody case.

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