A guide to understanding what constitutes domestic violence and abuse

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Am I being abused?” while desperately trying to convince yourself the answer is “no,” you’re not alone. Most survivors of domestic violence will say that it was difficult to accept that they were being abused by a partner or family member. Many can’t admit they are survivors of abuse until after they’ve escaped the abuser and some time has passed.

It’s devastating to realize that a person you once trusted would manipulate, control or harm you, not once, but over and over again. But it’s also a necessary step to ending that abuse.

Below, we’ll explain the various types of abuse and help you identify whether or not what’s happening to you is domestic violence.

5 Types of Domestic Violence

There are typically five main types of domestic violence, though they can overlap (an abuser can use more than one type at the same time) and meld together (psychological abuse can also be spiritual abuse), making it confusing for a victim to understand exactly what’s happening.

  • An abuser may use the following types of abuse to control a victim:
  • Physical Abuse (hitting, pushing, strangulation, using a weapon)
  • Psychological/Emotional/Verbal Abuse (name-calling, degradation, stalking, threats of violence, isolation)
  • Sexual Abuse (forced sexual contact)
  • Financial Abuse (controlling money, preventing a survivor from having a job)
  • Spiritual Abuse (preventing or forcing religious beliefs)

Is Arguing Considered Abuse?

Couples argue, but couples in healthy, safe relationships also listen to one another and attempt to resolve arguments. When abuse is present, it can look like arguing but feel far different. If your partner is regularly putting you down, making you feel scared or intimidated, and never apologizes for their actions, you may be experiencing verbal abuse.

Ask yourself these questions to identify verbal abuse:

Does it come out of nowhere? Verbal abuse can occur when everything else is seemingly fine in the relationship.

Are verbal outbursts or insults beginning to happen in public and not just behind closed doors? This may be a sign of escalation.

Is your partner tearing you down when you’re visible happy?

Are the insults starting to feel familiar?

Is your partner putting down your interests?
Does your partner avoid talking about his or her harmful actions after the fact?

Between incidents, does everything feel like it goes back to normal?

Do you feel isolated from friends and family?

Is your partner defining things differently from how you see them? As in, you remember your partner exploding in anger while they describe you as the one who intentionally started the fight (this may be gaslighting).

Is your partner using verbally abusive language toward you, aka, “You’re so stupid,” “You’d better do what I said,” or “Talk back and you’ll be sorry you did”?

Hands Are Not for Hitting … or Strangling

Abuse is often a show of power and control, and that can come in the form of physical assault from a partner. It may look like:

  • Hitting or punching
  • Pushing or shoving
  • Slapping
  • Suffocating or strangulation
  • Restraining
  • Using a weapon against you
  • Nonphysical abuse often escalates to physical abuse. There are red flags that can warn of this escalation—an abuser who doesn’t show remorse for previous abusive tactics like yelling or name-calling, or who continues to not respect your boundaries, or who blames the survivor for their actions, are just a few examples of escalation.

An abuser will use physical assaults to intimidate, threaten, degrade, embarrass, coerce or force a survivor to do what they want. Physical abuse, as with all types of abuse, is never a survivor’s fault. Even if the survivor protects themselves from an abuser by using physical force in return, this is not abuse; it’s self-defense.

When Abuse Isn’t Physical

Abuse is easier to recognize when it’s physical. There’s a clear line that’s crossed when an abuser uses physical violence—like shoving, hitting, kicking or strangulation—against a partner. In fact, some survivors of nonphysical abuse say they were just waiting for their abusive partner to use physical violence against them “to be sure” they were victims of abuse.

Truth be told, nonphysical abuse, specifically psychological, emotional or verbal abuse, can be just as damaging as being hit. Being worn down through degradation, insults, isolation and fear can leave invisible scars that stay with a victim for a lifetime. It’s best to recognize the warning signs of this type of abuse as soon as possible in order to get out before things get worse.

Ask yourself these questions to determine if you are experiencing emotional or psychological abuse.

Does your partner …

… put you down, embarrass or shame you?

… call you names?

… ignore you?

… demand to know where you are every minute?

… treat you as inferior?

… purposefully embarrass you, oftentimes in front of others?

… not allow you to make decisions?

… rarely validate your opinions?

… threaten you?

… accuse you of being “crazy”?

… belittle your accomplishments, aspirations or plans?

… forbid you from talking to or seeing your friends or family, or going to work?

… keep you from sleeping?

… accuse you of cheating or is possessively jealous?

… cheat on you and then blame you for their behavior?

… tell you that you will never find anyone better?

… repeatedly point out your mistakes?

… attempt to control what you wear?

… threaten to hurt you, or your children, family or pets?

Sexual Abuse is More Than Rape

Believe it or not, there was a time not too long ago in history when it wasn’t technically illegal to rape your wife. Luckily, that began changing with laws in the 1970s criminalizing marital rape, which is now illegal in all 50 states.

Yet, some partners still think sex is something their partner is owed, and an abuser can exploit this. Sexual abuse also goes beyond rape. For the record, spouses and dating partners cannot force a victim into any sexual activity that person has not consented to.

Sexual abuse can look like many different things:

A complete sexual act, or intercourse.

An incomplete sexual act where sex is attempted but unsuccessful.

Abusive sexual contact which involves touching or hurting sexual or other private areas

Sexual abuse without contact. This includes intentional and unwanted exposure to obnoxious sights (such as someone exposing themselves to a victim or forcing a victim to watch pornography), verbal sexual assaults.

Forbidding a victim from taking or using birth control, often with the intent to conceive, or forcing a partner to end a pregnancy. This can also be referred to as reproductive abuse or reproductive coercion.

Distributing sexually graphic images of a partner without their consent (even if there was consent when the image was taken). This is referred to as revenge porn.

Coercing a partner to perform sex acts in front of or involving children, which is also a form of incest.

Taking advantage of a partner sexually when they’re on drugs, inebriated, sleeping or unconscious.

My Partner Is Controlling in Other Ways

Whether on their own or in conjunction with physical, verbal, emotional or sexual abuse, there are two other types of abuse tactics you may recognize in your partner.

Financial Abuse: This is where an abuser controls money matters in a relationship, which may look like:

Restricting a victim’s access to bank accounts or credit cards

Only allowing their partner a small allowance

Making their partner show receipts for every purchase

Sabotaging employment opportunities for the victim

Forbidding the victim from working

Forcing a victim to file fraudulent tax returns

Intentionally ruining a victim’s credit as a way to keep them financially dependent

Spiritual or Religious Abuse: This is when an abuser uses religion or scripture to control, dominate, ridicule or intimidate a victim. The abuser may:

Prevent the victim from practicing their religion

Ridicule a victim’s beliefs in order to make the victim give up on religion

Use religion to tear down a victim (berating a victim for not living properly by the scripture)

Use religion to manipulate a victim (for example, the abuser uses religious scripture to convince a victim they must be subservient to the abuser)

Force children to be raised in a faith the victim doesn’t believe in

Abuse Almost Always Gets Worse

Abuse almost always escalates. Escalation is a choice abusers make when they feel like they’re losing control of the survivor or when they want to send a very clear message—they hold the power in the relationship. The longer the relationship continues the more dangerous it becomes for the victim or children.

Escalation can look like:

An increase in control (the abuser telling their victim where they can and can’t go in no uncertain terms).

The introduction of violence in threats (from “If you do that again, we have to end it” to “If you do that again, I’m going to slap you.”).

Actual violence, aka, the first time an abuser shoves a victim

Not respecting a survivor’s boundaries.

Blaming the survivor for the abuse and not taking responsibility for his or her choices.Isolating the survivor from friends and family.

Threatening to harm or take away a survivor’s children.

Threatening to harm pets.

Acquiring a weapon as a means of intimidation.

Displaying excessive jealousy or paranoia.

The Pattern of Abuse

Abusers often, but not always, follow a pattern with victims. There is nothing a victim does to cause abuse and, likewise, nothing a victim can do to stop abuse besides separating from an abuser. The abuse is never the victim’s fault and always the choice of the abuser, even if the abuser tries to blame it on things like drugs, alcohol, mental illness or past trauma.

Certain tools have been made to illustrate this pattern—one is called the Cycle of Violence or Cycle of Abuse, created in 1979 by psychologist Lenore E. Walker, claims abusers will often cycle through four steps:

Tensions Build: Any typical life stressor can build tensions, from finances to children, but the victim will feel the need to reduce this by becoming compliant and nurturing in order to prevent abuse or, in some cases, may provoke the abuser knowing abuse is inevitable.

Incident: Where the abuser attempts to dominate the victim through outbursts of violence (though this can also include nonphysical incidents like verbal and emotional abuse).

Reconciliation: Sometimes called the “honeymoon stage.” The abuser may shower the victim with affection, apology or gifts, sometimes in an effort to convince the victim to not report abuse, and ultimately, to keep the victim from leaving. This may also include threats of suicide from an abuser if the victim is thinking of leaving or reporting the abuse.

Calm: A period of peace where a survivor may consider things “back to normal.”

While some advocates argue the cycle has become outdated since its inception and doesn’t illustrate the complexities of abuse adequately, yet many survivors have recognized a pattern like this to some degree with an abusive partner.

There is also a second visual aid called the Power and Control Wheel, developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in 1984. While it outlines violence perpetrated by a male abuser against a female victim, it can apply to all sexes and those in same-sex relationships.

The wheel shows that abusers may cycle between any of eight of the most common types of abusive tactics. They include:

Using emotional abuse (put-downs, mind games, guilt trips)

Using isolation (controlling where a victim goes, limiting their time with friends and family)

Using coercion and threats (making threats in order to control a victim, making a victim drop charges)

Using economic abuse (preventing a victim from getting a job, concealing shared finances)

Using male privilege (being in charge of defining men’s and women’s roles)

Using children (making the victim feel guilty about the children, threatening to take them away)

Minimizing, denying and blaming (gaslighting tactics that minimize or deny the abuse)

Ready for Help?

Sometimes, all it takes to escape an abuser is a strongly worded break-up speech. But more often than not, abusers aren’t that willing to release control and things can get dangerous for a survivor.

When you’re ready to leave an abuser, reach out to an advocate at a hotline to talk about your options, such as an order of protection, formulate a safety plan and decide how it’s safest to leave.

You can learn how others have handled abuse in the past by reading survivor stories.