Abuse comes in many forms and manifestations: You may think of a man who drinks too much and beats his wife, or you may picture someone verbally threatening their partner when they try to end the relationship. Both of these cases are snapshots in the spectrum of abuse in a relationship. This spectrum, though extensive and often overlapping, is anchored by four common forms of abuse: physical, sexual, emotional/verbal and digital.
Although it can be difficult to recognize an abusive relationship, each form of abuse can be identified by specific actions and situations. By educating yourself to recognize these actions and the warning signs that often precede them, you are learning how to identify abusive relationships and take action against them.
Acts of physical abuse can range from something seemingly minor, such as blocking an exit or grabbing someone’s face to direct their attention, to life-threatening situations that involve punching, cutting or sexual assault.
Loveisrespect, a national organization dedicated to ending abuse, defines physical abuse as any “intentional and unwanted contact with you or something to close to your body.” Although each case of physical abuse is unique, it’s important to note that while some forms may leave visible signs that are easy to recognize, others can be hard to identify as they don’t leave physical marks.
Extreme forms of physical abuse might take center stage, but subtler forms of physical abuse can be just as serious. Any form of grabbing, blocking or physical intimidation should serve as a warning sign that the abuse could escalate.
High-profile examples of sexual abuse have grabbed attention in the media lately, from Kesha’s claims of sexual assault at the hands of her musical producer to a recent flood of accusations against Bill Cosby.
There are many variations of sexual abuse, but the American Psychological Association defines it generally as “unwanted sexual activity” involving the perpetrator “using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.” The APA even considers verbal threats or insults, when sexual in nature, as sexual abuse.
Rape and attempted rape, rough or unwanted sexual contact, and preventing someone from using contraception are all forms of sexual abuse, and might warrant legal action.
Emotional or verbal abuse can be one of the hardest abuse forms to define, largely because they leave no visible marks. But they’re no less important to identify.
This form of abuse, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health defines as “attempts to scare, isolate, or control you,” can be identified by direct verbal threats or insults, subtle mind games, and attempts to isolate, monitor or control.
Since emotional and verbal abuse often center around attacking a person’s confidence, it can be difficult to determine what is abusive. There are a wide variety of actions that qualify as emotional and verbal abuse, but some people may not recognize them as dangerous.
Remember: If your partner says or does anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, attacked or unsafe, it is a form of abuse.
As social media (Twitter, Instagram), phone apps (Snapchat, Tinder) and digital communication (texting, online messaging) increase in popularity, so does the frequency of digital abuse. As the National Domestic Violence Hotline describes, digital abuse is “the use of technologies…to bully, harass, stalk or intimidate a partner.” This includes threats sent through online messages, stalking through social media or pressure to engage in sexting.
Situations that involve controlling a partner’s technology use, monitoring their activity online, taking a person’s phone or laptop or stealing their passwords also qualify as digital abuse.
This form of abuse can be the hardest to handle because of how easily it can be committed and how difficult it can be to track. Online and digital abuse can easily be controlled, or even deleted. But it’s important to remember you have control over your technology and online activity. No one has the right to take your possessions or violate your privacy, even in a digital setting.
Don’t engage in any online behavior that makes you feel uncomfortable, and don’t be afraid to shut down or delete any digital platforms that you feel may provide an opportunity for digital abuse to occur or escalate.
The right healthy relationships will enrich our lives: They will brighten our moods, liven up our days, and make us feel, safe, happy and supported. But an unhealthy relationship can affect us in countless negative ways: It can ruin our self-confidence, isolate us from the things and the people we love, and threaten our safety.
While each relationship begins and grows in a unique way, and no relationship is entirely perfect, it’s important to understand and learn to recognize the warning signs of a potentially abusive relationship before you find yourself in a dangerous situation.
If you or someone you know experiences these signs of abuse, get help! Our listing of local and national resources might help.
For quick help, reach the loveisrespect hotline by chatting online, calling 866.331.9474, or texting “LOVEIS” to 22522.