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Abuse and domestic violence: How to recognize it and get help

Reviewed by Mary T. Johnson

A woman in despair from how her partner is treating her.

What Is Abuse?

Abuse is the harm or mistreatment of another, often for the purpose of exerting power or control. Abuse in a relationship may be an intentional pattern of behavior or an unintentionally developed coping strategy. Regardless of intent, abuse is dangerous and can result in serious consequences for one’s physical, mental, and emotional health. 

Abuse can occur in any relationship, including but not limited to:

  • Parent-child relationships
  • Romantic relationships
  • Sexual relationships
  • Workplace relationships
  • School relationships (e.g., bullying)
  • Caregiving relationships (e.g., caregiver and a person with a disability)
  • Friendships
  • Spiritual relationships (e.g., pastor and a congregant)

What Is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, is abuse in the context of a romantic and/or sexual relationship. Domestic violence can occur in any type of intimate relationship, from a one-time encounter to a decades-long marriage. 

As the lives of the abuser and victim become more tightly entwined—through marriage, joint bank accounts, homeownership, children, etc.—domestic violence becomes more difficult to escape. However, it is never too late to get help. If you are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Abuse Hotline1: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Domestic Abuse Statistics

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV)2, domestic abuse is unfortunately common in the United States:

  • 25% of women and 10% of men experience domestic violence in their lifetime. 
  • About 20% of female victims and 5% of male victims of domestic violence require medical care.
  • Instances of domestic violence increased 42% from 2016 to 2018.
  • Intimate partner violence accounted for 1 in 5 violent crimes in 2018.
  • Being a victim of domestic violence has been correlated with a higher risk of depression and suicide.

Domestic violence is unacceptable and often criminal. No one ever deserves to be abused. 

Recognizing Abuse

What Is Considered Domestic Violence or Abuse?

When people think about domestic violence, they often think of physical abuse or sexual assault. While it’s true that these are forms of domestic violence, they are not the only types of abuse. Other kinds of abuse, such as emotional or verbal abuse, can be just as harmful and can rise to the level of what would be considered domestic violence.

Types of Abuse

Abuse and domestic violence can take many forms, including:

  • Physical abuse: Hitting, punching, pulling, using weapons, preventing or withholding basic care (sleeping, eating, washing, etc.)
  • Sexual abuse: Sexual assault, exploitation, coercion, revenge porn, reproductive abuse (nonconsensual condom removal, withholding birth control, forcing pregnancy or abortion, etc.)
  • Verbal abuse: Yelling, threatening violence, shaming, encouraging suicidal ideation
  • Mental or emotional abuse: Manipulating, gaslighting, criticizing, humiliating, isolating, threatening suicide 
  • Neglect or abandonment: Failing to ensure basic needs are met for a person whom one is legally or financially responsible for
  • Child abuse: Harming, mistreating, or neglecting a child
  • Elder abuse: Harming, mistreating, or neglecting an elderly person who is unable to care for themselves (often financially)
  • Financial abuse: Stealing, controlling, tracking, restricting, misusing, or withholding finances, or preventing financial independence by sabotaging jobs and other opportunities
  • Spiritual abuse: Preventing or restricting religious practices, forcing a specific faith on someone without their consent, using faith or religion to justify other abusive behavior
  • Digital abuse: Disrespecting someone’s right to privacy, tracking their activity, hacking password-protected accounts
  • Harassment/stalking: Watching, following, tracking, or repeatedly contacting someone

Causes of Domestic Violence

Abusers cause domestic violence. Victims are never at fault for being abused. 

There are many reasons why a person may choose to abuse another. However, it’s important to note that these contributing factors do not absolve abusers of their decision to harm another person.

Power and Control

At the root of all abuse is a desire to exercise power and control over others. Abusers turn to violence and force as a way to fulfill this desire. Many abusers lack or struggle with attributes that would strengthen their bonds with others, such as empathy, care, remorse, morality, and vulnerability. These are viewed as threats to control and power.

The Cycle of Abuse

Many people refer to abuse and domestic violence as a cycle. There are many ways in which abuse and violence become self-perpetuating:

  • Personally: Once a person chooses to abuse another, it reinforces itself as a method of gaining power and control. Abuse becomes a learned, deliberate strategy. This can make it difficult for a person with a history of abusive behavior to make a different choice (although accountability, justice, rehabilitation, and re-integration may be possible). 
  • Relationally: Abuse also tends to follow a cycle within the context of relationships. Tension builds, and the abuser lashes out with harm or violence. Then, they make efforts to reconcile, re-establishing calm—until tensions begin to build again.
  • Generationally: Abusive behavior can be passed on as “normal” to people, especially children, who observe or experience the cycle. It can also be reinforced by cultures that accept and normalize abusive behavior. Thus, the cycle of abuse starts fresh with a new person in new relationships.

Are Abusers Mentally Ill?

Not necessarily. Abusive behavior is a choice. It may be informed or exacerbated by mental illness, but mental illness does not inherently cause a person to be abusive. In fact, multiple studies have shown3 that people with mental illness are actually more likely to be victims of abuse or violence than perpetrators of it.

Warning Signs of an Abusive Relationship

You may be in an abusive relationship if your partner has ever:

  • Used their body to physically harm or restrain you (even in circumstances that may seem “small” or “no big deal”)
  • Insisted on having sex, even without your consent
  • Used threats of physical violence or other kinds of harm to win an argument
  • Knowingly put your health and safety at risk
  • Yelled at you as a way of demeaning and belittling you
  • Denied your memory or experience of an event
  • Implied that you’re lucky they stick with you because no one would ever want you
  • Demanded access to parts of your life you’d prefer to keep private, such as personal finances or social media accounts
  • Prevented you from being alone with other people, such as your parents, siblings, friends, or coworkers
  • Used your faith, religion, or moral framework to tell you what to do
  • Insisted that your desire for privacy or autonomy hurts them 
  • Believed you are incapable of making your own decisions
  • Sabotaged your ability to get hired or earn a promotion or raise
  • Threatened suicide or encouraged you to consider self-harm or suicide

Effects of Abuse

Abuse is a form of trauma. It affects a person’s physical, mental, and emotional health. Victims of abuse are more likely to struggle with:

How to Get Help

Get Help Now

If you are a victim of domestic abuse, contact the National Domestic Abuse Hotline4: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) to get help now. If you know a child or elderly person who has experienced abuse, please contact your state’s child or elder abuse hotline. 

Healing After Abuse

It can be difficult to heal after experiencing the trauma of abuse. Domestic violence and abuse can have lasting consequences for your mental health. However, there are certain therapies that have proven to be effective for survivors of abuse, such as:

Browse our directory to find a therapist near you today.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.