6 Types of Abuse in a Relationship

How to know if you’re in an abusive relationship?
on June 29, 2023
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

People often assume that physical or sexual violence is the only indicator of an abusive relationship but this is not the case. 

Abusive tactics come in many different forms and can have a huge impact on the victim's well-being and mental health. No matter how your abuser is making you feel — remember that no one deserves this kind of treatment and you should never tolerate any kind of abuse from your romantic partner. 

It’s important to know how to spot any warning signs in your relationship — so that you can protect yourself from becoming a victim of abuse. 

Before we proceed, we would like to acknowledge that this article deals with sensitive subject matter. Even if you are familiar with the signs of abuse, there may be situations where you find yourself in an abusive relationship that is beyond your control and may feel trapped. 

We have provided resources at the end of this article in case you need additional support.

What is abuse in a relationship? 

Abuse in a relationship refers to any pattern of behaviors or actions used by one partner to control, manipulate, intimidate, or harm the other partner.

It can include the misuse of power and control dynamics, or violating the rights, autonomy, and well-being of the victim. There are many different types of abuse to be aware of, some of which are harder to identify than others. 

When you’re in an abusive relationship, a lot of the tactics used make you question your own intellect and emotions — this is why it can be harder to have the kind of perspective needed to leave these toxic relationships

6 Different Types of Abuse in Relationships

1. Physical abuse 

Physical abuse in a relationship refers to any form of physical violence or harm inflicted upon one partner by the other. If you have an abusive partner, they may use different forms of physical abuse to assert their control over you. 

It involves any use of force, aggression, or physical actions to control, intimidate or manipulate their partner. 

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner violence. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are victims of physical abuse by an intimate partner in the United States. 

Physical violence is a violation of your basic human rights. If you or your loved ones are experiencing physical abuse in any form (which includes hitting, strangling, or any form of harassment), it’s important to get help.*

2. Emotional and verbal abuse

Emotional abuse in a relationship relies on verbal behaviors to control, manipulate and belittle the partner psychologically. This form of abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse as it can have a long-lasting impact on your mental health and self-esteem. 

Examples of emotional or verbal abuse include name-calling, humiliation in front of others, or other derogatory behaviors which intend to belittle or cause harm. 

This psychological abuse often appears as gaslighting, which involves manipulating the victim’s perception of reality so they develop a dependency on their abuser. 

3. Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse in a relationship refers to any non-consensual sexual activity or behavior imposed by one partner on the other. It involves using force, coercion, manipulation, or intimidation to engage in sexual acts against the will of the victim.

In an abusive relationship, your partner may use manipulative or shaming tactics to get what they want. Research shows that 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual violence or harassment in their lifetime.

Sexual abuse is most common within intimate relationships, with 51% of violence against women carried out by a romantic partner compared to 40% by a stranger or acquaintance. 

4. Intellectual abuse 

Intellectual abuse, also known as cognitive manipulation, is another form of psychological abuse that may occur in a relationship. 

This form of abuse involves the undermining of your intellect or opinions, whereby your partner may make you feel stupid for having certain views or beliefs. This form of domestic abuse may be harder to identify but can have a significant impact on your autonomy and well-being.  

5. Financial abuse 

Financial abuse occurs in relationships whereby one partner uses finances as a means to assert control and power over the other. 

This form of abuse using revolves around making the victim financially dependent on the abuser — so they feel like they can’t live without them. For example, your partner may limit your access to your bank account or prevent you from earning your own income — making it impossible for you to make your own financial decisions. 

Financial abuse can make the victim feel trapped, with potentially long-lasting effects on their financial ability if not identified and prevented. Studies show that 99% of domestic violence victims experience economic abuse during an abusive relationship — with finances cited as one of the biggest barriers to leaving an abusive partner. 

6. Digital abuse 

Digital abuse refers to the use of technology or cyber tools to exert control over their romantic partner. This kind of abuse can be one of the first signs of an abusive personality, with these tendencies commonly emerging in the early stages of dating. 

For example, digital platforms such as social media may be used to harass or stalk the victim. Or the abuser may insist on looking at your online activities, phone calls, or messages — preventing the victim from having any privacy. 

Additionally, revenge porn is when a partner shares sexual photos and videos without your consent publicly. Like other forms of abuse, it’s incredibly challenging for the survivor to get this removed or have any consequences for the abuser.   

How do you know if your relationship is unhealthy? 

When you’re in an abusive or toxic relationship, it can be very hard to see things from an outside perspective — making it hard to tell if your relationship is unhealthy. 

“It’s important to note that there is a broad spectrum of what qualifies as “unhealthy” behavior in relationships,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.

“Sometimes, both partners may bring in patterns of behavior that they consider normal, but are actually harmful.” 

Healthy relationships rely on both partners working together to amend and improve these behaviors. However, in unhealthy relationships, it’s often family members or friends who identify toxic patterns and are relied upon to give an outside perspective or point of view.

How do you spot signs that your relationship is unhealthy or abusive? 

According to Seeger DeGeare, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to help figure out if abuse is present in the relationship. 

  • Have you lost respect for your partner and yourself?
  • Do you have a deep resentment that you feel like you will not move past?
  • Do you have a power dynamic that you do not desire and your partner is not willing to work on shifting it or talking about it?
  • Does your partner make space for your negative feelings and adjust behaviors if and when hurt is caused?
  • Is physical violence consistent?
  • Do you consistently feel embarrassed and disrespected, especially if it’s done intentionally?
  • Is lying pervasive and consistent in your relationship?

How to deal with abuse in a relationship 

These questions could raise some red flags in your relationship — but how do you deal with these revelations? 

“Depending on how safe you would feel talking to your partner about it, you could bring it up and see if they are aware of the situation,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“Many people have learned unhealthy behavior that they might not be aware of. It’s not your job to help fix or heal that unhealthy behavior. The crucial factor is whether both parties are willing to recognize and correct unhealthy or abusive behavior in order to build a healthy relationship.”

Couples therapy could help provide a safe place for you to openly discuss these behaviors in your relationship and work towards a healthy resolution. Additionally, it’s important to note that couples therapy can only be effective if both partners want to work on the relationship. The limitation of couples therapy is how much each partner craves to build a healthier relationship. 

“In a relationship, giving honest feedback can help move you towards a connection that is more safe and satisfying for you both,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

However, if you feel intimidated by your partner, raising your concerns could lead to more abusive behaviors and only serve to make things worse. In these cases, it’s important to seek help from family members or licensed professionals to ensure your own safety. 

“If giving feedback would cause further harm to you, think about that and how you might want to exit the relationship and what would be the safest way to do so.”

*National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)

If you are in immediate danger, call 911 and ask for the police.

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