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Behind Closed Doors: How to spot the signs of an abuser

Last Updated Mar 21, 2021 at 10:27 am EDT

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CityNews and OMNI News have launched a new investigative series “Behind Closed Doors” detailing the epidemic of family violence plaguing our communities. If you or someone you know is a victim of abuse, please visit our dedicated resource page.

WARNING: This story contains graphic content related to violence and abuse, and may be disturbing to some readers.

The names and identities of the victims in our stories have been changed to protect them.

Their stories and circumstances aren’t unique. Thousands more are being silenced as their trauma continues daily behind closed doors. These are just some of their first-hand accounts.

All week we’ve been sharing stories of survivors and victims of family and intimate partner violence, who have spoken out about their abusers.

More often than not, we are taught to watch for the signs of abuse in victims to help protect them.

But experts say it’s just as important to keep an eye out for the abusers.

Amber Wardell, resource coordinator with the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses says most of the signs to look out for may have to do with imbalance in power between partners or among family members.

“When you talk about addiction, for example, that’s something that is sometimes called a contributing factor but it’s not the root. The root is power over people.”

“Does it seem like, in that relationship, one person has more power than the other person has? So that would be an indicator.”

Wardell also notes that abusers and offenders may often be successful, well-integrated community members that draw a lot of respect on the outside, while their victims may be more withdrawn or isolated, thus harder to keep an eye on.

According to the American organization National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), some red flags and warning signs of an abuser include but are not limited to:

  • Extreme jealousy or possessiveness
  • Controlling behaviour
  • Volatile temper or unpredictability
  • Verbal abuse and threats
  • Outdated notions about the roles of women and men in households
  • Forced sex or disregarding partner’s level of willingness to have sex
  • Sabotage or refusal to honour birth control methods
  • Sabotaging, obstructing or harassing the victim at work or school
  • Taking full control of finances or what the victim wears or how they act
  • Cruelty or abuse towards other family members, children or pets
  • Baseless accusations of cheating when speaking with others
  • Demeaning, embarrassing, or humiliating the victim either privately or publicly


Common traits

There is no one typical personality that can identify an abuser, but many display some common characteristics:

  • An abuser often denies the existence or minimizes the seriousness of the violence and its effect on the victim and other family members;
  • An abuser objectifies the victim as property or sexual objects;
  • An abuser has low self-esteem and feels powerless and inadequate despite success;
  • An abuser externalizes the causes of their violence, blaming it on stress, their partner’s behavior, a “bad day,” alcohol, drugs, or other factors;
  • An abuser may be pleasant and charming between periods of violence and is often seen as a “nice person” to others outside the relationship.