How To Spot Abusive Text Messages & Get Help

Photographed by Natalia Mantini.
There's a huge difference between someone blowing up their partner's phone with texts because they love them, and someone sending abusive text messages to exert power over their partner. Abuse can occur in many forms — and that includes text messaging — so it's not always easy to spot, and that's part of why it can be so dangerous in the first place.
Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviors that one partner uses to maintain power and control over a partner in an intimate relationship, and it's not always physical, says Cameka Crawford, chief communications officer at the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Abuse can be physical, emotional, mental, or digital, but it always involves a struggle of power and control, Crawford says. "Technology is a good thing, because it keeps people connected, but abusive partners have found new and different ways to control their partners," she says.
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An abusive partner could use texts, Snapchat, Instagram, email, or pretty much any other digital communication tool to contact and harass their partner, says Jasmine Uribe, leadership and engagement manager at Break the Cycle, a nonprofit that provides dating abuse services to teens and young adults. But just because these messages are oftentimes lighthearted or normal-seeming, that doesn't mean they can't be dangerous.
Ahead are some common patterns or phrases that experts say could fall under the umbrella of abuse. Of course, in the context of a healthy, balanced relationship, these texts might not be harmful, but it's important to know what to look for.
If you think you might be receiving abusive text messages from anyone, take screenshots of the texts and save them in case you decide to build a case. And if you think this is happening to a friend, express that you're concerned and offer to help them find support or develop a safety plan, says Jimmy Meagher, Director of the DOVE Initiative at Safe Horizon. "Survivors are experts in their own safety, and they know what has been working or what will work," Meagher says.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support. You can also text "loveis" to 22522 for confidential support from Break The Cycle.
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Who are you with right now? What are you doing?

Lots of questions

Sending tons of questions can become abusive, Uribe says. "At first, they can happen at a slow pace," she says. Someone might ask where you are, what you're doing, or who you're with. Logistically, that might make sense if you're trying to make plans, but an abusive partner will ask incessant questions about your whereabouts, she says. "It's more accusation than general interest," she says. "They're figuring out what you're doing and why, because they want you to feel guilty — which is unhealthy and abusive."
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You're going to be in trouble if you don't answer me now.

Threats

An abusive person will try to control their partner constantly, so they might expect their partner to have their phone on them at all times, Crawford says. Texting your partner a lot is okay if it's mutual, but if you fear that there will be a punishment if you don't answer, that could be digital abuse, she says. "Their barrage of texting will make you feel like you can't be away from your phone or there will be a repercussion," she says. There might even be "implicit punishment" if you don't answer right away, Meagher says, like, "If you don't answer, I'm going to come find you."
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Why are you with Johnny? What's going on with you two?

Jealous comments

Texts might be "fueled with jealousy," and someone may ask why you're with another person instead of them, Uribe says. This can be particularly complicated, because people often confuse jealousy with a sign of love — but jealousy comes from insecurity, not love, Uribe says. "Not everyone who's jealous will be abusive, but it's what we do with that information [that makes it abusive]," she says. "Using jealousy to send harassing text messages is not okay."
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Send a pin with your location.

Asking for your exact location

The thing about digital abuse is that it doesn't always begin and end with someone's phone, Uribe says. In fact, 52% of teens who are digitally abused are also physically abused, according to the Urban Institute. Someone might demand that you send them a GPS pin with your location, so that they know where you are and can really keep tabs on you, Uribe says. That can be a "coded threat," or something that may not be a clear sign of abuse to a parent or friend who might come across the messages, Uribe says.
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WHY AREN'T YOU ANSWERING ME?! 😡😫😤🔥

Getting excessively mad

Oftentimes, tone can be misconstrued in text messages, but an abusive partner might make their mood very apparent by using all caps, angry emojis, or just tons of exclamation points, Uribe says. Someone might use different graphics or text settings (like all caps) in order to be menacing, Meager says.
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I love you so much, I didn't mean what I said before ❤️💕💋

Being overly loving

If someone sends an angry or abusive text message, and then does a 180 and tries to backtrack by sending loving emojis, that can be a subtle warning sign, Uribe says. "That's another way of them controlling and manipulating the situation," she says. When the "love" messages are excessive or used after someone had a lot of anger, that's a mood swing, which can be indicative of an abusive relationship, she says.
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If you're really just at home, send a photo of yourself to prove it.

Demanding photographic evidence

Last month, a woman shared screenshots of text messages from her abusive ex-husband, detailing how he spoke to her. In one instance, he asked her to send a photo holding three fingers in a place where he could tell it was her mother's house, where she claimed to be at the time. In addition to asking questions or checking a GPS pin, someone might also ask for you to take a photo of yourself in the place where you claim to be, Meagher says. "It's a real-time threat, where you can't lie about it," he says.
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Here's a photo of what you're missing.

Sending explicit photos

An abusive partner might send someone unwanted explicit photos via text, or insist that they do the same, Crawford says. For all of these scenarios, it's important to understand that just because you're in a relationship, that doesn't mean you're required to do things you don't want to, and that goes for texting and sexting, Crawford says. "You have the right to turn off your phone, and spend time with it away without your partner getting angry," she says.
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