Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior used to gain or keep power and control over another person in a relationship. If you’re experiencing abuse, you have options for getting help.
In the United States, domestic violence affects an estimated
But domestic violence can take many forms, and it’s not always easy to recognize. In fact, other terms for domestic violence, such as “relationship abuse” and “intimate partner abuse,” help emphasize that abuse doesn’t always involve physical violence. You can also experience relationship abuse if you live in different households.
If you think you’ve experienced relationship abuse, you’re not alone — and you have options for getting support.
Here’s how to recognize the signs and effects of relationship abuse plus some guidance on getting help in any situation.
Examples of relationship abuse include:
When someone says things to intentionally scare you, degrade you, or otherwise damage your self-worth, that’s considered verbal abuse. Examples include:
- regularly yelling and screaming at you
- humiliating you in front of other people
- calling you names, swearing at you, or using other foul language
- putting down your physical appearance, job, interests, or anything else about you
- threatening to harm you, your loved ones, or your pets
- threatening to take your children away or keep you from spending time with them
This type of abuse involves any unwanted physical contact or touch intended to hurt or intimidate you such as:
- holding you down
- shoving or pushing you
- pulling your hair
- choking you
- throwing objects at you
- grabbing your face to force you to look at them
- blocking a doorway to prevent you from leaving
Any behavior meant to control or manipulate you, or undermine your sense of individuality and independence, counts as emotional abuse. For example:
- guilt-tripping you
- gaslighting you to deny your experiences or past events
- giving you the silent treatment to punish you
- controlling who you spend time with
- isolating you from loved ones
- making threats to get you to act a certain way
- starting rumors about you
- trivializing your feelings, boundaries, or accomplishments
- blaming you for all problems in the relationship
- spying on your devices
Pressuring or outright forcing you to engage in any unwanted sexual acts, or doing anything to control your sexual experience, also counts as abuse. Some common signs of sexual abuse include:
- unwanted touching or kissing
- refusing to use a condom or other barrier methods
- “stealthing,” or removing a condom or barrier without telling you
- restricting your access to birth control
- unwanted rough sexual activity
- sexual coercion, or pressuring you into performing sexual acts
- forcing you to take sexual photos or sharing explicit photos of you without consent
- pressuring you to send them nude or sexual photos
- forcing you to watch sexually explicit material
- performing sexual acts with you when you’re unable to say no — for instance, because you’re asleep or intoxicated
It’s also abusive if your partner controls your access to money or prevents you from earning an income.
Examples of financial abuse include:
- telling you to quit your job or calling your boss and quitting on your behalf
- hiding your car or office keys so you can’t go to work
- showing up at your work repeatedly and causing problems so you lose your job
- preventing you from accessing your bank account
- taking your money, debit and credit cards, or your wallet
- insisting on taking control of your finances and giving you a set “allowance” each week or month
- using a joint account or your account to make purchases without your consent
- selling your assets or property without your consent
- opening credit cards in your name or insisting you open credit cards for them to use
- refusing to pay child support
- telling you to get a second job so they can quit their job
- making you show them your receipts for every purchase you make
- telling you what you can and can’t purchase with money you earn
- making financial decisions that affect you without getting your consent
Abuse of any kind is never your fault — no matter what anyone says to suggest otherwise.
People who abuse others do so in an effort to keep power and control, says Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho, a licensed social worker and certified clinical trauma professional in New Jersey and Clinical Director of Absolute Awakenings. They might do this for any number of reasons.
For example, some people who abuse others may have grown up in a chaotic environment where they felt they had very little control over their lives.
Abusive behavior often stems from a history of trauma, according to Steve Carleton, a licensed clinical social worker and Executive Clinical Director at Gallus Detox. People who abuse others may have experienced or witnessed abusive behavior during childhood from parents, caregivers, or older siblings. They may have also learned it from friends or pop culture.
Other factors that may contribute to or escalate aggressive behavior in relationships may include:
- drinking alcohol or using other substances
- social isolation
- jealousy and possessiveness
- low self-esteem
- emotional dependence on others
- general hostility, especially toward the opposite gender
- certain personality disorders, including antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder
That said, it’s important to keep in mind that these factors don’t directly cause abuse or automatically mean someone will become abusive. People who abuse others do so by choice.
Intimate partner abuse can have long-term negative effects on your overall well-being.
- sprained or broken bones
- traumatic brain injuries
- sexual dysfunction, which might include loss of interest in sex or difficulty enjoying sex
- chronic fatigue
- high blood pressure
- chronic pain
- gastrointestinal problems such as stomach ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- heart disease and heart attack
Abuse can also affect your mental health.
According to a 2021 review, women who experienced intimate partner violence report increased symptoms of:
A 2021 study involving married women found that all types of intimate partner violence are linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition marked by severe anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, and unwanted thoughts relating to distressing events.
Need help now?
If you’re having thoughts of hurting yourself or ending your life, you’re not alone.
Trained crisis counselors can offer judgment-free compassionate support, guidance on finding coping strategies for painful or overwhelming emotions, and additional resources to get local support.
Other options include calling a doctor, healthcare professional, therapist, or a close friend or loved one. If you’re in physical danger, you can also call 911 or local emergency services to get emergency support.
When you’re ready to reach out for help, know that you have plenty of options available.
First things first: If you’re in immediate danger, call — or text — 911 or local emergency services.
Otherwise, a good first step involves reaching out to a local domestic violence program. These programs offer the opportunity to talk with a trained professional who can provide helpful resources, including:
- information on key signs of abuse to pay attention to
- strategies for safety planning if you decide to leave the relationship
- legal options to be aware of
You can visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline online or call 800-799-7233 for free, confidential support at any time.
Staff at the Hotline can help you find a local program and offer more guidance on recognizing signs of abuse.
Not sure if you’re experiencing relationship abuse? Carleton recommends talking with a therapist or counselor, trusted friend, or family member. You can also connect with a domestic violence advocate for more support.
It’s always worth reaching out, even if you don’t recognize common signs of abuse but things just don’t feel right in your relationship.
“Hearing another perspective can help you to see the situation more clearly and make decisions about what to do next,” Carleton says.
Supporting someone else
If you think someone you know is experiencing abuse but they don’t agree, Carleton suggests starting a nonjudgmental conversation and expressing concern about some of the red flags you’ve noticed.
Let your loved one know you’re there to support them if and when they need it, regardless of how they decide to move forward in the relationship. You can also suggest resources such as domestic violence hotlines, shelters, and legal services.
“Make sure to check in on their safety regularly but also respect their wishes and boundaries,” Carleton says.
“Ultimately, it’s important to remember that the person has the right to make their own decisions, and you can’t force them to do anything. But your support and care can be an invaluable source of strength and empowerment,” Carleton says.
In search of support for yourself or someone else? These resources can help:
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 800-799-7233 or text “START” to 88788.
- The National Sexual Assault Hotline: Call 800-656-4673 (HOPE).
- The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (for LGBTQ & HIV-affected violence survivors): Call 212-714-1141
- VictimConnect Hotline: Call or text 855-484-2846.
- The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
- The National Network to End Domestic Violence
- Love Is Respect Hotline: Call 866-331-9474 or text “LOVEIS” to 22522.
- Safe Horizon
- The National Center for Victims of Crime
All types of domestic violence, or relationship abuse, can have long lasting negative effects on your health and well-being.
If you’ve experienced abuse, remember: It’s not your fault, and you deserve to be treated with kindness, compassion, and respect.
No matter what kind of abuse you’re experiencing or what stage you’re at in the process of getting help, remember you’re not alone in navigating this situation, and you always have options for support.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.