Am I in an Abusive Relationship?


Am I in an abusive relationship? The answer to this question is not as straightforward as you might think, and many men and women are commonly confused by what does and does not constitute abuse. There are many kinds of abuse within domestic relationships and different levels of aggression. In this module, we will help you understand those differences.

What is domestic violence?

Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behaviors that adults and adolescents use to physically, psychologically, and/or sexually control their intimate partners. This includes behaviors that frighten, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or even kill an intimate partner.

Are there different levels of aggression with domestic violence?

Yes, the severity of domestic violence in romantic relationships varies a great deal. Researchers have identified two primary levels of aggression that they label: situational couple violence (SCV) and intimate partner violence (IPV).

What is situational couple violence? Situational couple violence is usually provoked by a situation or incident when emotions get out of control and escalate; it is not an attempt at power or control over the other partner. Slapping, pushing, and kicking are examples of common SCV behaviors. Alcohol is often involved, making the behavior harder to control. SCV may be initiated by either partner, male or female, and is often reciprocal (both partners are doing it). Some research indicates that SCV is most common among younger couples and declines over the years.

SCV is by far the most common type of couple violence and is estimated to be 3-4 times as common as intimate partner violence. Although SCV typically involves relatively low levels of violence, it can still be serious and can result in serious injury or even death. Researchers estimate that 3-in-10 women experiencing situational couple violence have suffered at least one serious physical injury.

What is intimate partner violence? Intimate partner violence occurs when one partner tries to maintain power and control over an intimate partner. It is likely to escalate and get worse over time. IPV commonly occurs when a partner, typically the male, has serious personality disorders, including what psychologists call antisocial and borderline conduct disorders. Men are much more likely to commit IPV than women.

There are five primary types of intimate partner violence: sexual violence, physical violence, stalking, psychological aggression, and control of reproductive and sexual health. (These are explained in more depth below.)

Intimate partner violence victims are likely to experience greater negative effects than those who experience situational couple violence, including fear, injury, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. It is estimated that over one million women in the United States experience intimate partner violence each year, resulting in serious injury, psychological trauma, or death.

Are there different types of domestic violence?

Yes, physical abuse, psychological abuse, and sexual abuse are the most common types, but there are more.

What is physical abuse? Physical abuse is often the easiest type of domestic violence to identify. It includes, but is not limited to, a range of aggressive behaviors from being slapped, pushed, and shoved to severe acts, such as being beaten, burned, and choked. Other prevalent forms of physical abuse include being kicked, verbally threatened, threatened with a weapon, restrained by forceful holding, abandoned in a dangerous or unfamiliar place, forced to leave your home, trapped in your home, prevented from calling the police, and being scared or hurt by a partner’s physical acts. You might be a victim of physical abuse if your intimate partner has done any of these things.

What is psychological abuse? Psychological abuse is the most widespread type of domestic violence, and may accompany both physical and sexual abuse, or it may occur alone. However, there is a distinction between “negative” interactions found in nonviolent relationships and “psychologically abusive” interactions that are found in violent relationships. Like physical and sexual violence, psychological abuse seeks control over an intimate partner.

You might be a victim of psychological abuse if your partner has repeatedly tried to gain control over you using any of these six things: intimidation, coercion and threats, isolation, minimization, children, or restricting economic resources. Prevalent forms of psychological abuse include: being stalked, humiliated, punished, treated like an object or possession, constantly belittled, criticized, and called derogatory names; being isolated from friends and family, made to feel guilty about going to work or socializing, limited from access to telephones or transportation, and monitored for where you go, who you call, or who you spend time with; being coerced into illegal activity, threatened by a partner to harm him/herself if you leave the relationship, and threatened to hurt you, your children, or your pets; being blamed for all problems in your relationship and getting convinced that you are crazy; being kept from getting or keeping jobs, given small allowances that make you beg for money, and getting little or no access to cash, credit cards, or bank accounts.

What is sexual abuse? Sexual abuse is often the most severe type of domestic violence and it commonly causes long-term emotional harm to the victim. It includes, but is not limited to, rape, being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and unwanted non-contact sexual experiences. More specifically, sexual abuse includes holding you down during sex, forcing you to have unsafe or unprotected sex, demanding or tricking you into doing sexual things, treating you like a sex object, attempting to get you pregnant against your will, insulting you in sexual ways or calling you sexual names, having sex when you were asleep, unconscious, drinking, or otherwise unaware of what was happening, and demanding sex when you were sick, tired, or after beating you.

Is it common to experience more than one type of domestic violence?

Yes. Victims commonly experience more than one type of violence. Men’s physical abuse of a partner often is paired with emotional and sexual abuse. In fact, in a recent study on abuse, almost 1-in-4 study participants experienced four or more types of domestic violence within a single year. Victims who experienced multiple types of domestic violence suffered greater trauma than victims who suffered chronic incidents of a single type of violence. The combination of physical and sexual abuse had the most negative outcomes. Victims who experienced high levels of combined physical, psychological, and sexual abuse had the highest levels of depressive and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

Where can I get help for myself or someone else and learn more?

If you are in an abusive relationship (or a friend), what should you do? If the abuse that you are experiencing is minor or irregular, such as with mild situational couple violence, you and your partner might be able to work together to repair the relationship. If the abuse that you are experiencing is more severe, however, such as with intimate partner violence, then you should seek external help. Meet with a counselor, talk to a religious leader, contact a domestic violence hotline, or get other help.  Click here for a list of resources that can help you understand and deal with abuse.

Find the research support here.


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