The main forms of relationship abuse are emotional, financial, physical, and sexual. Abuse involves tactics of manipulation, coercion, intimidation, or harassment, used to gain and maintain power and control over another. Incidents and instances of relationship abuse can occur between current or former dating and domestic partners, family members, caretakers, or even roommates. The behaviors listed in each category, below, were written specifically about relationships that are, or were, intimate and/or romantic in nature.
Ultimately, for a variety of reasons, it would be impossible to create a comprehensive list of abusive behaviors. New technologies constantly introduce opportunities to track, torment, or control someone, that didn’t previously exist. Given the level of knowledge people in long-term, committed relationships often have about one another, tactics are sometimes very personalized, unique, and relationship specific.
Forms of Relationship Abuse
Emotional abuse is a pattern of mistreatment which erodes self-esteem, sense of identity, and feelings of worth. Victims of these types of mistreatment start to feel like they’re “walking on eggshells”. Those who experience this form of relationship abuse report that the wounds left behind are every bit as deep, and lasting, as those left when one is physically attacked.
Emotionally abusive behaviors include:
- application of double standards
- belittling, demeaning, insulting
- betrayal of trust, violation of relationship agreements (ex: cheating, infidelity)
- blaming, externalization of blame, falsely accusing
- causing confusion, gaslighting
- chastising, imitating, mimicking, mocking
- criticizing, judgment of a partner’s appearance (ex: body shape or size)
- cursing at, yelling at, name-calling
- demanding constant attention
- demeaning, insulting, berating
- excluding, ignoring, isolating
- expecting partner to mind-read to anticipate needs
- giving a partner the silent treatment, stonewalling
- humiliating, intimidating
- invasion of privacy, monitoring, tracking (in person or digitally)
- lying, misleading through omission, denying
- playing the victim, minimizing, or rationalizing to avoid accountability for manipulative or harmful actions
- purposeful, planned manipulation
- rationalizing incidents of unacceptable behavior
- setting imposible, or constantly shifting, expectations
- triangulation, pitting a partner against others
Unfortunately, victims of abuse, once they’re cut off from their social networks, and become increasingly immersed in the narrative of their abuser, will begin to internalize the messages conveyed through emotional abuse. Their self-confidence erodes, they begin to feel ashamed and worthless. Eventually, they might buy into the idea that they’re not good enough, or don’t deserve to be treated better.
Economic abuse is used to create actual, or perceived, dependence, which is one of the main barriers to leaving relationships. Financial abuse allows one partner to control and/or deplete shared resources, or to stifle a partner’s attempts to increase their financial stability.
Economic, or financial abuse, includes:
- belittling a partner’s college major, GPA
- blaming you for their finances, grades, career choice
- blocking or restricting training or professional development opportunities
- controlling a partner’s finances or financial decisions
- damaging a partner’s professional reputation
- demanding you work, or take classes, together
- denying access to joint financial resources
- destroying, or irrevocably damaging, property or other valuable resources
- forcing a partner to take out or cosign for a loan, apply for credit
- forbidding workshop or conference attendance
- forging their partner’s signature on financial documents
- harassing a significant other at work or school
- hiding or stealing money or resources
- identity theft in order to obtain or deplete financial resources
- identity theft in order to destroy a partner’s credit or professional credibility
- insisting on being the sole owner, on paper, of joint resources
- interfering with a partner’s ability to attend classes, study, or complete course assignments on time
- making fun of someone’s college major, career choice, salary, or current financial situation
- monitoring, or restricting, a partner’s spending
- preventing a partner from going to work or applying for work
- preventing the obtaining of certifications, licensures, and other credentials
- refusing to work or contribute financially
- requesting a partner quit a job or degree program
- unilaterally deciding and/or making joint financial decisions (ex: refinancing a home)
If a person is interfering with a partner’s current financial stability, or their ability to be financially stable in the future, that is economic abuse. Economically abusive behaviors are accomplished in a variety of ways, some more direct or malicious than others. For example, someone may prevent a partner from going to work by physically blocking the door to restrain and restrict their movement. The same result might be accomplished by turning off an alarm clock. Others may beg a partner to “play hookie” because they claim to need emotional support, assistance with tasks, or for romantic, intimate reasons.
Physical abusers use displays of aggression, endangerment, or assault in order to render victims helpless, leaving them impaired, injured, or traumatized. Of the forms of relationship abuse, this is the one most likely to lead to serious long-term health consequences. Children who witness physical abuse, while growing up, exhibit some of the same behaviors, and struggle with some of the same psychological issues, as children who experience violence firsthand.
Physically abusive behaviors include:
- abandoning a partner in a dangerous area or situation
- abducting a partner, holding a partner hostage
- causing a partner to fear for their safety (ex: driving recklessly, holding their head underwater)
- cruelty towards a partner’s pet(s)
- demanding partner play dangerous games (ex: “chicken“, Russian roulette)
- destruction of partner’s personal property
- displaying aggression, brandishing anger
- force-feeding, forced to stand or contort (sometimes through the night)
- forcing a partner into acts that will likely cause them injury or harm
- interfering with a partner’s ability to eat or sleep
- kicking, hitting, biting, cutting
- manipulation through self-harm, threats of suicide, suicide attempts
- pressuring, or demanding, a partner to use alcohol or other drugs
- punching holes in walls
- purposefully compromising safety
- pretending to, or starting to, push a partner off of a building, balcony, bridge
- restraining physically (ex: tying up, pinning down)
- restricting a partner’s movement, blocking an exit, locking in or out
- shaking, shoving, slapping, scratching
- spitting on, or at, a partner
- strangulation, suffocation, poisoning
- taking the wheel from, or forcing a partner off the road
- threatening, or attacking, a partner with a weapon
- throwing objects
- withholding food, water, medication
Having one’s air supply cut off through suffocation or strangulation (often mistakenly referred to as choking, which happens as a result of internal blockages) is one of the factors used to predict, and take action to prevent, domestic homicide. Someone’s risk of being killed by a partner, who has strangled or suffocated them, is ten times higher than that of others in abusive relationships.
Sexual assault, exploitation, and manipulation within a relationship constitutes sexual abuse. Victims of this form of relationship abuse often fear potential consequences for refusing sexual contact.
Sexually abusive behaviors include:
- calling someone names that are sexually derogatory
- claiming sex is a “right”, a partner’s duty
- controlling how revealing a partner’s clothing is (or isn’t)
- criticism or ridicule of a partner’s sexual history, sexual orientation, or sexual preferences
- demanding, forcing, or coercing a partner into sexual acts
- exposing a partner to unsafe sex, failing to reveal known sexually transmitted infections
- forcing a partner into painful, violent, or humiliating sexual acts
- forcing a partner to have sex with other people
- making fun of the number of sexual partner’s a person has had (or hasn’t had)
- pressuring a partner to engage in sexual activity or sexual role play
- pressuring a partner to have sex immediately following an incident of emotional or physical abuse
- refusing to use birth control, sabotaging birth control (ex: stealthing)
- sexual contact with a partner who is drugged, drunk, heavily medicated, delirious, in an altered state of mind
- sexual contact with a partner who is unconscious, semi-conscious, or otherwise unable to give consent
- sharing photos or videos of a partner (or former partner) with others (potentially publicly) without consent
- taking photos or videos of a partner without their consent
- threatening, bribing, or extorting a partner into sexual activity
- unwanted exposure to nudity, pornography, or live sex acts
- withholding sex in order to manipulate or control a partner
Even sexual behavior that might otherwise be considered healthy, or acceptable, may be harmful in abusive relationships because a victim of abuse is not fully, and freely, choosing those behaviors. Victims of abuse typically feel an ever present, ongoing concern for saying and doing “the right thing”, in order to avoid the next abusive incident or explosion. One cannot say “Yes” wholeheartedly, if they fear the reaction or response that saying “No” might elicit.
The Forms of Relationship Abuse Overlap and Intersect
There’s some overlap, and ambiguity between, the forms of relationship abuse. One behavior may fall into multiple categories. Depriving someone of sleep, who has an interview in the morning, constitutes both financial and physical abuse.
One could further subdivide these four forms of relationship abuse into more specific types, such as verbal, spiritual, or cultural, to shed light on nuanced commonalities within the larger categories. I chose to stick to a basic typology because my purpose is to open people’s eyes to the breath of behaviors used to control intimate partners, provide a way for someone in a relationship to assess its level of toxicity, and arm victims of abuse with vocabulary related to their situation.
Terminology and Vocabulary Helps Reveal Relationship Patterns and Problems
Among the benefits of having terminology for behaviors, and categories to sort them into, are that it gives victims the ability to see patterns and to share their struggles. Victims in abusive relationships often feel that they’re with someone who is nice most of the time, but loses their temper, or is disrespectful, now and then. Seeing the range of abusive behaviors present in a relationship can shift a victim’s perspective, causing a redefinition of the situation.
It can be difficult to explain what’s occurring “behind closed doors” to people who aren’t present, particularly if the abusive partner is (as is typical) charismatic and charming when in public. Being able to discuss the forms of relationship abuse being experienced can open the door to important dialogs with family members, friends, and colleagues.
Knowledge of the Forms of Relationship Abuse Can Empower
Although individual behaviors may vary greatly from one abusive relationship to the next, chances are good the underlying patterns and motivations do not. Learning the forms that relationship abuse may take, understanding how manipulative tactics create specific dynamics that help one partner gain (and maintain) power and control over another, and grasping the cyclical nature of abusive relationships, may help people avoid entanglements with abusive partners.
Hopefully, if someone is in a toxic relationship, having this knowledge will spark a realization, encouraging them to seek support while leaving, and also when recovering, from their abuse.