Abuse exists on a continuum, with many different definitions and types. A person who worries they are in an abusive relationship does not have to prove they are experiencing abuse to leave.

Abuse aims to maintain power and control over a partner and can use cruel treatment interspersed with kindness to gain that control. It does not have to be physical and does not have to be constant. Additionally, abusive relationships may include a “honeymoon period” of kindness.

For this reason, many therapists and advocates now speak about abuse more broadly as coercive control. Coercive control and abuse may include physical, emotional, sexual, or financial control and exploitation. Abuse often escalates with time, and one form of abuse, such as emotional abuse, may predict another type of abuse, such as physical violence. Overall, a person has the right to end any relationship that makes them unhappy or unsafe.

This article explains the signs of an abusive relationship, alongside the different types of abuse that may occur.

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A relationship may be abusive if a person:

  • fears what their partner might do in anger
  • feels unable to make any decisions on their own
  • feels trapped in their relationship

Abusive relationships may follow a specific pattern:

  1. Tension builds: An abusive partner may seem more and more distant, or a problem may more heavily dominate the relationship. An abuse survivor may sense tension or may have a problem they fear addressing because of the potential consequences.
  2. There is an explosion: This might be an act of physical violence or breaking objects, a torrent of name-calling, a sexual assault, or some other act of abuse.
  3. The abuser begins a honeymoon period: They may apologize and promise never to do it again. Sometimes, they attempt to pretend the abuse did not happen. The relationship becomes happier and kinder until tension begins building again.

Conflict, and even occasional mean behavior, is typical in relationships. Intentional harm, especially when one side engages in more cruel behavior than the other side, is not.

Some forms of abusive relationships include:

Financial abuse

  • preventing a person from accessing family resources
  • using money to control another person, such as by only giving them money if they engage in specific behavior
  • using money and financial control to prevent a person from leaving a physically violent relationship
  • forcing someone to work without pay
  • stealing another person’s possessions or inheritance
  • selling another’s possessions without their consent
  • making it impossible for someone to work or attain financial independence

Emotional abuse

  • calling a person mean or abusive names
  • using gender, racial, or other slurs in arguments
  • refusing to provide emotional support, such as by ignoring someone when they cry or seek help
  • deriding a person for having emotions, such as by mocking them when they cry
  • chronically undermining the other individual, such as by badmouthing them to friends and family or attempting to cause them to fail at work

Learn more about emotional abuse.

Sexual abuse

  • raping a person
  • threatening someone into sexual acts, such as by threatening divorce or withdrawal of financial support
  • engaging in any sexual act without consent
  • attempting to impregnate someone without their consent, such as tampering with contraception
  • forcing a person to have an abortion or preventing them from ending a pregnancy

Learn more about sexual coercion.

Physical abuse

  • using the threat of physical violence to intimidate a person, such as by waving a fist in their face
  • using weapons to threaten or intimidate someone
  • hitting, slapping, pinching, or punching a person
  • choking a person
  • putting someone in physical danger, such as by deliberately driving dangerously
  • breaking objects to intimidate an individual
  • destroying another person’s property

This list is not exhaustive. The fact that something is not on the list does not mean that it is abusive. Abuse is a pattern of behavior to harm and control — not a single act or behavior.

Learn more about early signs of abuse.

Sometimes, perpetrators attempt to convince the people they have abused that the abuse has occurred for a reason and is, therefore, the other person’s fault.

They might accuse the person they have abused of infidelity, being a bad parent, or being insufficiently supportive. They may also claim a myriad of other allegations. They might say that calling the relationship abusive is itself an act of abuse.

The reality is that nothing causes or justifies abuse in a relationship, and no amount of bad behavior by one party justifies abuse by another.

Some reasons abusers may feel a need to control their partners include:

  • learning domestic violence from their own family
  • cultural or social norms about the subjugation of a partner
  • anger management difficulties
  • jealousy
  • feeling inferior
  • substance misuse
  • having a personality disorder

However, nothing makes abuse inevitable or excuses it — abusing a partner is a choice.

Learn more about coercive control.

Leaving a relationship can be difficult, and leaving an abusive relationship can be dangerous. A person may love the person who has abused them or hope that they will change. However, abuse typically gets worse over time, not better.

Some places to seek help include:

Abuse in relationships takes many forms, and one type of abuse accompanies or precedes another. An emotionally abusive person, for example, may eventually become violent, and violent individuals can become more violent with time. Financial abuse may keep a person with someone who is physically or emotionally abusive.

Leaving an abusive relationship can be challenging. A person may question their decision or wonder whether the relationship is salvageable.

However, no one deserves abuse, and abuse does not typically improve. Legal, financial, and emotional support can help a person leave.