By: Sarah Zucker, Psy.D.

Recognizing Abuse in Relationships - Relationship Counseling San DiegoRomantic relationships can be very rewarding, but they can also be quite challenging at times. Sometimes when we’re in the midst of an argument, it’s hard to know what differentiates normal, healthy discord from abusive behavior. According to one survey, one in three teens has been the victim of some form of dating violence. What’s worrisome is that many may not label their partner’s behavior as abusive. If you’re concerned you or a loved one is in an abusive relationship, or is experiencing intimate partner violence, it’s important to seek help. Abuse typically escalates and abusive behaviors do not subside on their own. Regardless of what you feel your role is, it’s important to know if patterns of abuse are taking shape in your relationship. According to LoveIsRespect.org, there are healthy relationships, abusive relationships, and relationships that fall somewhere in between. Therefore, labeling a partnership as “abusive” may not be an all-or-nothing thing. LoveIsRespect.org lists the various kinds of abuse that frequently occur in romantic relationships. Here are some of the most common forms of abuse from their website, with commentary to help explain what they mean:

1. Verbal/Emotional Abuse. This abuse is commonly mislabeled as typical fighting and arguing, but abuse goes beyond that. Verbal and emotional abuse include name-calling, insults, humiliation, gas-lighting, threats, and excessive monitoring. If you get into an argument and your partner belittles you and calls you names, they are being emotionally and verbally abusive. Emotional abuse is different than verbal abuse because it is any behavior that results in psychological damage or harm; it does not need to be verbal.

2. Stalking. Stalking is being continually harassed, followed, or monitored in any medium. Social media is not an exception to this. Harassing and surveilling someone online is stalking.

3. Financial Abuse. This is when one partner withholds, threatens to withhold, or keeps tight control on cash and accounts in order to control their partner. When one person in a partnership has access to the resources and the other does not, there is a power imbalance that can be problematic. In many cases, if funds and money are held over a partner’s head in order to get them to comply or act a certain way, financial abuse is occurring.

4. Physical Abuse. Physical abuse is any intentional and unwanted physical contact. This includes pushing, throwing things, choking, grabbing hair or clothing, digging nails into skin, blocking exits, slapping, punching, kicking, biting, and the forcing of any action. These behaviors are not acceptable from one partner to another regardless of the sex or gender of either partner. A common misconception is that men do not experience physical abuse at the hands of their female partners, but this is absolutely not true. Whether it causes damage or not, if an action is intentional and unwanted, it is unhealthy.

5. Sexual Abuse. Sexual abuse is any behavior that pressures, forces, or coerces someone to do something sexually that they do not want to do. Just because a sex act has happened between consenting partners in the past does not mean that renewed consent is not required each time it happens again. (Don’t forget, marital rape was not considered a crime in all fifty states until 1993.) Now, thankfully, nobody is entitled to force anything upon anyone else sexually, regardless of their history together. Also, if someone cannot consent for any reason (intoxication is a well-known example), this is also a form of sexual abuse. We often have the misconception that sexual abuse is something that happens to children with adults as perpetrators, but anyone of any age can be sexually abused.

These are just some examples of various kinds of intimate partner violence. Each category of abuse is not mutually exclusive, which means certain abusive actions may constitute several forms of abuse. Visit LoveIsRespect.org for more information that is especially helpful to teens.

If you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one, seek help from someone you trust. As long as immediate safety is not a concern (if it is you should involve law enforcement and protect yourself first), a therapist can help. Therapy with a psychologist can provide a safe and confidential space to discuss your relationship and voice your concerns. Therapy can help you to sort out your thoughts without forcing you to do anything you are not ready to do. A helpful therapist will approach the issue in a way that makes you feel supported and not judged. If you have concerns, don’t wait until things get worse.