What Signs Indicate a Relationship Could Turn Violent?

Factors and Behaviors That Predict Domestic Violence

Man and woman in argument
Vegterfoto/Stocksy United

Most relationships do not start off abusive or violent, and most intimate relationships never become abusive at all, but unfortunately many do.

Is there a way to tell early in the relationship if it might some day turn violent? Are there signs that can foretell if a relationship that starts off seemingly happy and healthy turns out to be violent and dangerous?

Over the years, researchers have tried to determine what factors and behaviors exhibited early in a relationship may have been signals of trouble in the future.

Various studies have identified some aspects of interpersonal relationships that appear to predict future abuse or violence.

And yes, it turns out, alcohol and substance abuse can play a role in whether a relationship turns abusive or not.

Alcohol and Marital Violence

One early study, known as The Buffalo Newlywed Study, focused on the relationships between husband violence, marital conflict, and the couple's drinking patterns in the first three years of marriage.

Led by Dr. Brian M. Quigley of the Research Institute on Addictions, the study examined 414 newlywed couples at the time of marriage and were interviewed regarding alcohol use and experience with violence before marriage, one year after marriage, and three years after marriage.

"We wanted to see if drinking at early stages predicts violence later on. We know that drinking is used as a way to cope with emotions or depression associated with violence, but that's not the whole story," Quigley said.

Couples Who Argue During the First Year

Couples who argue a lot during their first year of marriage are more likely to have violence erupt in later years if the husband is a heavy drinker and the wife is not, the researchers concluded.

"As it turned out, the couples in which the husband was a heavy drinker and the wife not were most at risk for experiencing violence," said Quigley.

"That could be a result of arguments over the amount consumed, money spent on alcohol, legal problems, or lack of intimacy," he said.

The researchers found that violence in the first year of marriage predicted whether more violence would take place in the next two years.

Arguing About Drinking

Even when no violence occurred in the first year, how much the couple argued predicted the extent of violence in future years. Violence was also more likely to happen over the course of the marriage when couples argued a lot.

How much the husband drank before marriage also affected whether violence would occur in the first year of marriage, but the amount both the husband and wife drank during the first year predicted violence in the second and third year.

Conflicts in the Relationship

"It is probable that these inappropriate drinking patterns lead to conflict in the marriage. The conflict may be over the drinking itself or over problems associated with the drinking, for example, hangovers, loss of jobs, legal problems," Quigley said.

But couples who rarely argued or had verbal conflict in the first year of marriage, were much less likely to have violence in later years, whether the husband was drinking or not.

The investigators pointed out that females can be the aggressors in violent relationships too and that alcohol does not "cause" the violence because there are many perpetrators of domestic violence who are completely sober.

Mate Retention Behaviors

A series of three studies at Florida Atlantic University focused on tactics used by men to continue and protect their relationships, acts called "mate retention behaviors."

The investigators examined 1,461 men who reported their use of mate retention behaviors, 560 women who reported their partners’ mate retention behaviors, and 214 individuals forming 107 couples who each reported mate retention and violent behavior.

The studies, led by Todd K. Shackelford, found that some of those behaviors could be a harbinger of danger and signal a possibility of future violence.

Over-Vigilant, Manipulative, and Threatening

The study found that behavior which could lead to future violence included:

  • Vigilance over the partner's whereabouts
  • Emotional manipulation
  • Dropping by unexpectedly to check up on the partner
  • Calling to make sure the partner is where she said she would be
  • Monopolization of the partner's time
  • Threatening retaliation for infidelity

Specific Danger Signs

"Mate retention behaviors are designed to solve several adaptive problems, such as deterring a partner's infidelity and preventing defection from the mating relationship," Shackelford wrote. "Vigilance over a partner's whereabouts was the highest-ranking tactic predicting violence," he said.

"At a practical level, results of these studies can potentially be used to inform women and men, friends and relatives, of danger signs—the specific acts and tactics of mate retention that portend the possibility of future violence in relationships in order to prevent it before it has been enacted," Shackelford said.

Relationships That Turn Deadly

Unfortunately, when a relationship turns violent, that violence can escalate, becoming more and more dangerous. As the relationship becomes more violent, the more likely the victim of the violence is likely to try to escape the relationship, and that is when the situation becomes the most dangerous.

That's when it can become deadly.

In a small study of 32 domestic violence-related deaths in Hamilton County, Ohio, conducted by the University of Cincinnati's School of Social Work, researchers led by Gary Dick found that 83 percent of the cases the victim was either separated or about to terminate the relationship.

The Cincinnati study was one of the first to give a scientific basis for the long-held belief that the most dangerous time for those involved in abusive relationships is when they try to leave.

Protection Orders Aren't Guarantees Against Violence

Of those 32 domestic-violence-related fatalities:

  • 91 percent who died were female
  • 16 percent had a protection order
  • 36 had children present

Predictors of Death

In 96 percent of the cases, researchers say there were deadly warning signs present in the relationships. The major findings of the study identified the following risk factors (predictors of death):

  • Separated – 83 percent
  • Substance abuse – 68 percent
  • Escalating abuse – 56 percent
  • Stalking behaviors – 50 percent
  • Criminal history – 46 percent
  • Threats to kill – 43 percent
  • Prior domestic violence-related charge – 36 percent
  • Child abuse – 33 percent
  • Threats of suicide – 33 percent
  • Perpetrator mental illness – 31 percent
  • Perpetrator brought a weapon – 29 percent
  • Strangulation – 29 percent
  • Threats with weapons – 25 percent
  • Property damage – 23 percent
  • Violated a protection order – 23 percent
  • Previous serious injury – 23 percent
  • Sexual assault – 21 percent
  • Animal abuse – 8 percent

Again we see that alcohol and substance abuse may not be the primary cause of domestic violence and abuse but it is a factor. If you have recently separated from a partner who is drinking or using drugs after a history of escalating abuse, you could be in great danger.

Plan a Safe Escape

If you are in an escalating violent relationship, it is important to carefully develop and safe plan to leave, rather than simply leaving on impulse or in the heat of an incident. Learn all you can about the dangers of trying to leave and how to develop a safety plan.

If you know someone who is in an abusive relationship, be careful about giving them advice, such as, "You need to get out of there immediately!" Learn all you can about domestic violence, how to recognize the signs of abuse, how to help someone who is being abused, and the need for a carefully planned and safe escape.


Dick G, et al. Deadly Warning Signs Linking Domestic Violence Victims. International Conference on Family Violence. 2005.

Keiley MK, et al. Effects of physical and verbal aggression, depression, and anxiety on drinking behavior of married partners: a prospective and retrospective longitudinal examinationAggressive Behavior. 2009.

Quigley BM, et al. Alcohol and the Continuation of Early Marital AggressionAlcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 2000.

Shackelford TK, et al. When we hurt the ones we love: Predicting violence against women from men's mate retentionPersonal Relationships. 2005.

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