Abusive girlfriend


Please help me. My girlfriend hits me all the time and I don't know what to do. Shall I break up with her????

Dear Reader,

It takes courage to recognize when you are being mistreated, and it takes even more courage to reach out for help. By asking for help, it seems like you’ve taken the first step of identifying your girlfriend’s behavior as a problem. The next step is to figure out what feels comfortable for you in addressing the problem. It sounds like you're considering breaking up with her, and that you may be seeking to protect your physical and emotional well-being. To help you figure out what next steps feel right for you, it may be helpful to first understand the signs of an abusive relationship, patterns of violence, and strategies you may try out to help you decide whether to break things off.

There are various types of abusive relationship—the most commonly recognized types are physical and emotional abuse. However, other types of relationship abuse exist as well, including financial, psychological, legal, spiritual, or digital to name a few. Being aware of the different types of abuse may help you better understand your situation. Here are some signs to consider:

  • You mentioned that your girlfriend is physically violent with you. Have there been other signs of use of force, or threats to do so? Even if portrayed as "fun," unwanted use of force in sex or pressure to have sex are also signs of abuse, as are verbal threats of violence.
  • Thinking back to the beginning of your relationship, how did it begin? Perpetrators often seem very loving and devoted at first, eager for quick commitment from their partner in the early stages of dating.
  • Have there been moments in the relationship when your girlfriend seems very compassionate, then quickly has a change in mood and begins to hurt you? These drastic mood swings or changes in emotional patterns are common behaviors of abusive individuals.
  • What have your relationships been like with people aside from your partner? Are you able to spend time with your loved ones and meet responsibilities at work or school? Some perpetrators expect their partner to meet all of their needs and give them their undivided attention always. This may result in attempts to isolate their partner.
  • Does your partner consistently try to make decisions for you? Perpetrators may frequently ask for updates on their partner’s whereabouts, dictate who they can talk to, or even how they can dress. Some may do this out of jealousy or are seeking to control their partner's behavior.
  • How does your girlfriend react when she comes across a problem, or when things don't go her way? Abusive individuals tend to blame others for their problems, or can be hypersensitive and take everything very personally.

Next, it might help to understand patterns of violence in relationships. In the research, violence in relationships has sometimes been found to occur in a cycle. For example, you and your girlfriend might feel happy and calm, then small things start to happen—she seems to be easily angered or controlling, or you feel more on edge around her. People who work with survivors of violence generally call this the tension-building phase, which often escalates into violence. Following the violence (i.e., hitting, kicking, biting, throwing objects, hair pulling, yelling, etc.), there is often a honeymoon period, where the abuser feels guilty and tries desperately to gain their partner's forgiveness with promises that "it will never happen again," "this time things will be different," or "please give me one more chance. I was just under a lot of pressure with work (or school, or family pressures)." This cycle can repeat anywhere from a few times a year to several times a week.

Violence doesn't discriminate. People of all genders, races, classes, ages, religions, nationalities, socioeconomic groups, and ability may become involved in a violent relationship. It can happen between partners in a casual romantic relationship, same gender relationship, or a marriage of 50 years. Being able to recognize signs of abuse and identify a pattern of violence may help you better understand your situation and decide about if continuing with the relationship is something you feel safe doing.

There are a variety of strategies that may help you figure out a plan of action and what is right for one person isn't always right for another. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide what feels most appropriate for your situation.

If you decide to leave the relationship, you'll want to make sure that you have a number of safety mechanisms in place that will facilitate you being able to do so. This includes having a bag of your belongings gathered and ready to go that includes money, necessities, and all of your important documents. You may also find it useful to have the contact information of emergency locations and contacts memorized so that you can turn to them when you need them. This will allow you to leave when you are ready. 

This strategy seems straightforward, but making the decision to leave the relationship can still be quite challenging. There are numerous reasons why you may decide that leaving the relationship isn't an option for you: it can be difficult to break the cycle of violence; leaving your girlfriend may mean uprooting much of your life (for example, if you have a child, live together, or share finances); it may be dangerous for you to leave your partner; or you may be facing outside pressure to make the relationship work to maintain a certain image. 

If you decide to stay in the relationship, here are some coping mechanisms to consider:

  • A counselor or local program that specializes in domestic violence or sexual assault may provide emotional support, connections to other resources, or emergency housing, among other services.
  • Although this may be difficult if your partner is restrictive of your relationships with other people, building a support network or being involved in activities without your partner may provide invaluable emotional support.
  • Practicing self-compassion may help combat negative feelings you may feel towards yourself caused by your girlfriend's mistreatment of you. This could include exercises such as positive self-talk or using affirmations.

Whether you decide to leave your girlfriend or stay with her, you may also find it helpful to set up additional privacy protections for yourself. If you have the means, getting an additional phone or using a friend or family member's phone and being mindful of any types of surveillance (tracking devices, etc.) can help you keep your dealings private. This way, your girlfriend won't know any plans that you may be creating or ways that you're trying to protect yourself that may make her angry. 

There are many resources that may help you explore your feelings about your relationship and guide you in making a decision that is right for you:

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to break up with your girlfriend is up to you. Don't be afraid to lean on others for support. Turning to family, friends, counselors, local resources, or anyone else you trust could be helpful. Remember, you're not alone and there is help available for you. 


Last updated Dec 23, 2022
Originally published Mar 27, 1998

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