Abuse exists on a spectrum, from relatively mild and infrequent to severe, often, and potentially life threatening. The most severe abuse does not have to be physical, although abuse may escalate to physical violence and more severe forms.
Abusive relationships erode the victim’s sense of self and well-being and may even convince them that they deserve or can control the abuse. This can make it more difficult to leave. If the couple has children or becomes financially intertwined, this can make it even harder to exit.
Most organizations advocating for domestic violence survivors emphasize that leaving can be the most dangerous time in a relationship. The person engaged in abuse feels that they are losing control and may panic and escalate their abuse, such as by stalking or threatening to kill the victim. This may further complicate the leaving process.
This article explains the different types of abuse that can occur in a relationship and where to find support.
There are many ways to categorize abuse, including by its frequency and severity. Some examples of types of abuse in a relationship include:
- physical abuse
- abuse of people the victim cares about, such as their children
- sexual abuse
- emotional or psychological abuse
- financial abuse
- technological abuse or cyberbullying
- narcissistic abuse, which can include gaslighting, criticism, and humiliation
- cultural or identity-based abuse, such as racism or sexism
- exploitation, such as forcing a person to do all of the domestic labor
- abandonment of a vulnerable adult, such as an elder with dementia
Abuse in a relationship is a pattern of behaviors that one person uses against another, usually to try to have control or manipulate them for their own gain.
Physical abuse means acts of physical violence that either target or directly affect the victim. Some examples include:
- breaking objects near the victim
- threatening to hurt the victim
- waving a weapon at the victim
- hitting, slapping, or punching
- using weapons to hurt a person
- breaking the victim’s possessions
- threatening people the person loves with violence or engaging in violence against them
Emotional abuse endeavors to emotionally injure a person by making them feel unloved, afraid, or inadequate. Some examples of emotional abuse
- culture and identity-based abuse, such as calling a person racial slurs
- calling a person mean or hurtful names
- weaponizing someone’s fears, such as by threatening to tell third parties certain information
- refusing to offer someone support or love when they need it
Sexual abuse or coercion weaponizes a person’s sexuality as a tool for harm. It usually involves nonconsensual or harmful sexual activity. Some examples include:
- reproductive coercion, which is coercing someone to be pregnant when they do not want to be, such as by poking holes in a condom
- rape and sexual assault
- using threats to get a person to engage in sexual activity they do not want to engage in
- revenge porn, which is the act of sharing explicit images with third parties without consent
- sex trafficking
- nonconsensual sexual violence
- pushing an individual to do more sexual activities than they are comfortable with, such as by getting consent only for vaginal intercourse and then forcing them to have anal intercourse
Psychological abuse is substantially similar to emotional abuse, such that an example of one is usually an example of the other, too. But while emotional abuse aims to make a person feel bad, psychological abuse endeavors to disrupt their thinking, perhaps even altering their sense of reality. Some examples include:
- trying to convince someone that their concerns are due to their own shortcomings, such as by telling them they want better treatment because of their “hormones”
- gaslighting, which is the act of trying to make someone question their understanding of their own reality
- denying that abuse ever occurred
- insisting that the victim is actually the abuser
Financial abuse financially exploits a person or their labor. It can make them financially dependent on their abuser. Some examples include:
- forcing someone to work for free
- stealing a person’s money
- not sharing family assets with another person
- encouraging an individual to become a stay-at-home parent, then using this to exploit them financially
- using financial dependence to prevent a person from leaving a relationship
Technological abuse uses technology as a weapon of abuse and, as such, usually includes emotional abuse or threats of physical violence. Some examples include:
- using technology to stalk a person, such as by installing a GPS device on their car
- cyberbullying, which is the act of abusing a person remotely, often by recruiting others
- threatening someone online
- revenge porn, which involves sharing pornography with third parties online without consent
Stalking involves ongoing unwanted contact with a person in a way that makes them feel unsafe or anxious. Emotional distress is the goal of stalking, but the distress does not have to be deliberate for the behavior to be stalking. Some examples of stalking include:
- repeatedly showing up at someone’s home without their consent
- following a person when they are driving
- covertly spying on an individual, such as by hacking into their email
- repeatedly calling a person
- showing up at someone’s job without their permission
No single factor explains every case of abuse. Victims do not cause abuse, and no amount of harmful behavior can cause a person to become abusive. Abuse is a choice, though various psychological factors may make it more difficult for someone not to be abusive.
Some risk factors for abuse
- harmful cultural beliefs, such as the notion that one gender is inferior or must submit to their partner
- anger management difficulties
- growing up in an abusive home
- substance misuse
- low self-esteem in the perpetrator
- certain personality disorders such as narcissistic personality or antisocial personality
Therapy will not stop abuse and can actually empower an abuser, allowing them to weaponize the abuse. However, individual therapy may help a person gain the ability to leave their abuser.
Abuse can happen to anyone, and often, by the time they recognize it, it is very difficult to leave the relationship. Mental health professionals can help a person explore whether their relationship is abusive, and hotlines may help an individual leave. In some cases, the legal system may help, such as by arresting someone who is physically violent.
No one deserves abuse, and people who abuse their partners may have a pattern of abusing several partners. Those who observe that their partner’s behavior fits the patterns outlined in this article should develop a plan to escape.