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Domestic Abuse: How To Identify The Signs

The ends of millions of needles stabbing my vulnerable brains from my abdomen to my heart to my brain. Small bumps raising on my ivory, sometimes purple, sometimes blue, skin due to the chill of the stucco wall of my closet against my back. Domestic abuse at its finest.

A full loss of sense of control as I try to rapidly text my parents with my custom cast and shaky fingers. Shame for having to contact them, so I struggle to erase the message with my left hand. My heart aggressively pulsing in my wrist, in that one sensitive section where he tore apart the tendons that connect the thumb and forefinger. 

His voice. Desperate, harsh, murderous as it screams profanities at me through the locked plywood door.

His fist. Contentious, destructive, threatening as it clashes the plywood with a thunderous boom. 

Hunger pains and side effects of the chemo doubling me over. The fresh, familiar smell of peach and sandalwood undertones with a heady swirl of amber and jasmine on the soft silk dresses trying to wipe off my acidic tears. 

Trapped. Defenseless. Powerless. 

He even took my right hand, my writing hand, my everything.

If reading the above about my domestic abuse experience made you uncomfortable, it should. The abusive period in my life is not one I would ever revisit, leaving its brokenness, fear and unfathomable inhumanity in a midwest city.

After all, it was years ago, and I am now in a healthy, happy marriage, and we are just starting our family. We both have our dream careers and are building our ideal home. Why should I write of a time that I am so disconnected from? Why does it matter?

But it’s what I felt the moment I saw Gaby Petito’s smiling face flash across our news period. I was transported back to a terrified newlywed hiding in her closet. Surrounded by love, grace, and happiness– I still was effortlessly brought back to the emotions that swirled around me during my first abusive marriage.

Why? Because I was one sip of coffee away from being Gabby Petito.

He was going to kill me. There are no ifs, and, or buts. Seeing the savage rage replace love in his body sparked me to begin my escape process.

I clearly recognized that either I was going to leave, or I was going to be dead before Christmas. And when his lethal angst intensified after I wouldn’t drink the coffee he made me the day I left because it tasted funny, I knew there was an immediate need for me to go– like right away. Domestic abuse was not going to be the end of my story.

So I did.

And just like Gabby, many of my relatives and friends had no idea I was experiencing domestic abuse. The coworker that became my angel and helped arrange my quick escape first asked me if I was sure. He had just seen us the night before and thought we looked happy, and he told me to take a deep breath and really think about whether or not I wanted to leave.

I told him I had been thinking and planning for months and it was time and he needed to trust me.

So he did.

When I met with this God-sent angel visiting NYC a few years later, he apologized for asking me if I was sure. As more came out about my bruises, why I was really wearing a cast on my right arm, he felt guilty that he did not see the signs of domestic abuse sooner.

But he shouldn’t– just like anyone who has felt completely blindsided by domestic violence in a friend or family member’s relationship.

We, as in those being abused (I don’t use the word “victim” because I am not a “victim”…I am a “victor,” and that positive thinking helped me leave), have a cunning way of ensuring our partner looks like Romeo in public.

There’s nothing you can do about abusers you haven’t caught in time. But there are things you can do right now to get educated on signs of abuse that shine through, even if the person being abused is crafty at hiding all signs. One of the most important reminders is that abusive behavior is physical abuse AND emotional abuse. The domestic abuse definition does not only include physical touch but also behavior that is controlling and demeaning.

Here are a few signs to look for as you interact with your friends and family:

  • Changes in communication
    • Normal: It’s natural for a friend/family member to communicate with you less as they enter a new relationship.
    • Abusive: It is not natural if the person stops communicating altogether and rarely comes to things you invite them to.
    • My experience: The friends that didn’t judge whether I stayed or left were the ones I trusted the most. This doesn’t mean that they encouraged the relationship. Instead, they gave me helpful advice on concrete ways to leave if I wanted to and offered up homes, money, rides if I ever needed them to go.
    • What you can do: Encourage your friend to have a conversation with you. You mustn’t begin the conversation by placing your friend as the victim and their partner as an abuser. If your friend is in the throws of abuse, they will immediately feel the need to protect their abuser. Provide solutions, resources, and support so your friend can leave at the moment if needed.
  • Weight loss
    • Normal: If your friend has slight weight loss, this could come from anything, and you do not want to judge quickly.
    • Abusive: If your friend has lost more than five pounds in a short period, something is not sitting right emotionally with them.
    • My experience: I lost 14 pounds and had literal black eyes daily, thanks to malnutrition.
    • What you can do: Mention to your friend that you’ve noticed the weight loss and are genuinely worried about them. Ask them if anything is going on that they would like to talk about.
  • Changes in wardrobe
    • Normal: If your friend constantly changes their style, this is probably normal, but it still might be worth a conversation.
    • Abusive: If your friend starts dressing ultra-conservative, stops wearing makeup, and stops doing their hair– watch out.
    • My experience: When I was in my first marriage, he was threatened by me continuing to be stylish. A dress I wore on a date with him became the devil when we got married. He no longer wanted me to wear it because it was “too sexy.” While I fought back on the style piece, I was one month away from caving to changing my entire wardrobe over to sweatshirts and no makeup from my usual upkeep.
    • What you can do: Comment on your friend’s changed style and ask about why they decided to change it. Do not come across as judgmental, but rather supportive and curious about the changes.
  • Bruising and/or injuries
    • Normal: If your friend has bruises on their shins/knees– this can be pretty common, but you still might want to have a conversation.
    • Abusive: If your friend breaks their arm, leg, has bruising on arms or face–this is something to investigate.
    • My experience: You would be stunned by how elegantly someone being abused can convince you their injuries are from “accidents.” It’s not like the movies where someone gives some outrageous see-through explanation and then everyone knows they are experiencing domestic abuse. No, it is way more subtle than that and something you need to look closely for. When he tore my tendons, I realized I had given coworkers three different stories on how it happened, but no one ever put that together, and my stories were believable.
    • What you can do: If someone had sat down privately with me and asked me about the injury, I would have broken down crying, confessing everything. That’s how badly I needed someone to recognize what was happening at that moment.
  • Abandonment
    • Normal: If your friend calls you and needs a ride home from work because their partner has a meeting at the same time that night and needs the car.
    • Abusive: If your friend is left in a public place when she is with her partner.
    • My experience: I was left, sicker than a dog, in a city hours from where we lived when his temper blew up. I had to find a hotel room for myself that night and figure out my next steps. The fortunate part of that experience is that I met a wonderful woman who took me under her wing and is still one of my most incredible friends and support systems in the world. She knew immediately by looking at my starved body and sunken face that I was being abused.
    • What you can do: If you find out that your friend was left somewhere, they most likely will brush it off with humor to protect their abuser. Enforce the seriousness of the situation and reinforce it does not happen, not even anything close to it, in healthy relationships. Abandoning a partner IS domestic abuse.
  • Interference with medical care
    • Normal: If your friend is a hypochondriac and even you tell them to wait a day before they go to the hospital, then maybe they are good to go. I still would take all medical issues seriously.
    • Abusive: If your friend has been sick for a while and will not go to the doctor, and/or if your friend has injuries that look worse than they are making them out to be, and should seek medical attention.
    • My experience: I had to drive myself to work the day after my arm was injured because I was threatened and told I could not go to any hospitals in the area. I didn’t get attention until my whole right hand went numb, and I couldn’t type at work. On the opposite end, when I did seek medical attention for other things, he was sure he was right by my side when the nurse asked me if I was safe at home– so I was always scared to answer truthfully.
    • What you can do: Offer to take your friend to get medical attention. Make seeking out medical attention seem normal by talking about your recent doctor appointments, etc. Start by asking your friend if they would come with you to a doctor’s appointment, and then they could gain the courage to go to one of their own or open up during yours.
  • Control of keys and phone
    • Normal: If your friend happened to leave her phone and keys at home, it might be a normal thing.
    • Abusive: If your friend says their partner has their cellphone, or they couldn’t answer your call/text because they didn’t have their cell at a normal time, they usually would. Another red flag is if your friend needs to stay with you for a bit because they “misplaced” their keys.
    • My experience: My keys would often get “misplaced.” My cell would often get taken by him. He’d lock himself away with it, or I would have to lock myself in the bathroom and forget my cell. Beyond that, all calls, texts, Facebook messages were closely monitored by him.
    • What you can do: Dig deep with your friend on why she suddenly doesn’t have her keys/phone and why she is delayed in answering text she usually would answer more quickly. This provides an opportunity for her to open up. Again, make sure you are not judgemental or angry about it, or she will become defensive and protect their abuser.
  • Accidents, oddities 
    • Normal: Your friend rear-ended someone, or she happened to drink too much one night.
    • Abusive: Something off happens with your friend’s car that was not a “natural” accident, she cannot recall a night or a day after having one drink, fluke things keep happening that injure your friend
    • My experience: I had a wheel effortlessly fall off of my car just before I entered traffic from our parking garage, and my coffee started tasting “funny,” so I threw the coffee he made out and started to make my own.
    • What you can do: Enforce to your friend that these things are NOT normal and something odd is happening. Please encourage them to investigate the situation rather than brush it off. To avoid your friend shutting you out and becoming defensive, come at the situation with other people who could have done it. You can start by saying maybe it’s a stranger messing around with her, maybe her partner doesn’t know how to make coffee…say anything that will help you get them started thinking about it.

domestic abuse gabby petito, marji j. sherman domestic abuse definition

Abuse is real, and it happens behind many closed doors that we know nothing about. Look at Gabby in her last photos, and she looks far from an abused girl. Look at the picture of me, taken the same day a colossal abuse episode happened between him and me in public– one of the first, rare public incidents. I don’t look like I am living in complete terror.

After being physically and emotionally beaten down to a very small core of myself, leaving an abusive marriage was an unfathomable thought.

But I did, and that’s something to be proud of. It’s something to look back on and say, “I did that. I found the strength within God and myself to pick up and leave an apartment that became a coffin, and I began again within six hours.”

That moment in my life shaped a lot of who I am today. Having to orchestrate an escape in the middle of a frightening cold December with very few friends in a very foreign town was a gift in so many ways.

I became an actual adult the moment I laid my head down on a fresh pillowcase at my friend’s parent’s house– my safe space for the night until I could get out of town the next day. I escaped domestic abuse. I gained compassion, empathy, a stronger relationship with God. While I never did regain full control of my right hand, making handwriting excruciatingly painful, I did lose the cast and most of the scar.

I was a stranger’s discarded trash in the apartment that had become a coffin. The man I married no longer lived behind his ravenous eyes. Malnourished, blamed for his unhappiness, he constantly told me that my family nor my friends loved me– they hated me and thought I was a manipulative, awful person. They were just too nice to say it—bruises on my wrist that clearly outlined four fingers, with a thumbprint bruise on the other side.

And locked in my car, fearing for my life, I still could not bring myself to call the police. After all, I was a stranger’s discarded trash. Why would they care? And wouldn’t he for sure kill me if a police incident ended his promising career?

Brian Laundrie and Gabby Petito remind me of that girl and all of the shame and guilt she felt at that moment. When human remains were found in Grand Teton National Park, my heart broke for Gabby and it broke for what could have been me in the flash of a second.

I was just one decision away from death. I could have been Gabby, but I am not. And there is no answer for why she died and I didn’t. I actually felt compelled to explore that very question on my other blog, Almost Everything.



Don't blame the police. Don't blame yourself. Don't blame your friend. Only blame the broken mind of the abuser. #DomesticAbuse Click To Tweet



If you see a friend and/or family illustrate any of the signs above, SPEAK UP. No matter what you do, SPEAK UP.

More law enforcement, teachers, bosses, organizations need to embrace training to understand domestic abuse. They need to recognize the sneaky, conniving way domestic abuse can project itself as a charming, kind person who happens to be dating their “emotional” friend/coworker.

Abusers don’t show up breaking down your friend in front of you. They show up as charming, regular, normal, sweet people who are trying so hard to stay with your “unstable, emotional” friend.

Just as the devil does not come to you with his red face and horns, he comes to you disguised as everything you have ever wanted.

Let’s all open our eyes and see the abusers in this world. Let’s start putting on a spotlight on the conniving charmers and exposing who they are. Let’s stop domestic abuse in its tracks so it doesn’t keep happening once, twice, three times…and more.

If you are reading this and currently experiencing abuse, please reach out to the Domestic Abuse Hotline at 800.799.SAFE (7233) and start working on a safety plan.

And please know that there is hope on the other side, I swear. You are giving up your entire world for one person who is destroying you. It is not worth it.

Leaving my domestic abuse situation in six hours in the dead of winter was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, but it is also one of my proudest moments because it freed me to live the life I’ve always dreamt of and to learn what a healthy love and marriage look like. I am forever grateful for that moment and know that God had a lot to do with it.

I pray that all those currently being abused have their lightbulb moment of strength where they can leave their situation ASAP. I hope you will pray for them too.

– Marji J. Sherman




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