Abuse is a complex concept, one that is easily defined and yet very difficult to understand and identify. Many who have experienced abuse in any form for long periods of time or from a number of people in their lives have difficulty distinguishing unhealthy relationship patterns and the dangers of prolonged abuse. The term “abuse” covers a broad spectrum of behaviors and actions thus making it difficult to define a specific number of types. The following examples are the most commonly recognized forms of abuse in a partnership, marriage, or long-term relationship.
Emotional abuse is perhaps the vaguest type of abuse to which an individual can be exposed. Emotional pain and hurt are not uncommon in relationships – it is human to feel negative emotions in response to arguments or unpleasant events in a relationship. While it is natural to feel emotional responses, it is not healthy or natural to feel as if your thoughts, feelings, and emotions are regularly threatened by your loved one. Emotional abuse is a consistent denial of your right to express your feelings. It is a violation or ridicule of your most important values and beliefs. Some warning signs that you may be experiencing this type of abuse are:
- Withholding of approval or support as a form of punishment,
- Criticism, belittling, name calling, and yelling,
- Regular threats to leave or being told to leave,
- Invasions of privacy, and
- Elimination of support by preventing contact with friends and family.
Psychological abuse is also difficult to define as it encompasses a spectrum of abuse that offers no obvious physical evidence. Psychological abuse can be included as an element of emotional or verbal abuse, making it difficult to define it as a distinctly different form. Many experience this kind of abuse in the form of restriction, belittlement, unrealistic demands, or threats. It can also include things such as withholding affection/information in order to extract certain behavior from the individual being abused. Many of the signs of this type of abuse are similar to those of emotional abuse. Examples include:
- Refusal to socialize with the victim,
- Taking car or house keys from the victim to prevent escape or safety,
- Threatening to take the children,
- Playing mind games, and
- Ignoring or minimizing the victim’s feelings.
Verbal abuse is often the mildest form of abuse with overt and obvious evidence. While some verbal abuse is practiced in secret or when no one is around, many verbal abusers become comfortable with making statements around friends, family, and in public settings. Behavior can range from small, repetitive comments to loud, angry shouting meant to belittle the one on the receiving end of the comments. As with the two previous forms of abuse, verbal abuse shares similar characteristics and warning signs.
Physical abuse is the most common and obvious form of abuse. Visible markings; cuts, bruises, contusions, and other long-lasting forms of evidence can be present. However, some overt forms of evidence are not present for extended periods of time. Many people experiencing physical abuse are exposed to pushing, shoving, slapping, biting, kicking, strangling, punching, or abandonment. An abuser may subject the victim to being locked out of the house, deprived of food, medicine, or sleep, or refusal to help if the victim is sick or injured. Physical abuse can include harm that is intentional or harm that is inflicted without the intent of hurting the individual. Repeated abuse can lead to a myriad of physical and mental health issues including brain injury, heart conditions, respiratory issues, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. Neglect, a form of physical abuse, is the withdrawal of or refusal to support the victim. Like some other forms of abuse, it is often difficult to assess and diagnose properly.
Sexual abuse, a very complex form of abuse, is not necessarily a category alone but rather is a combination of physical, psychological, and emotional abuse, particularly in long-term relationships. It may present in the following ways:
- Anger or jealousy,
- Criticism sexually,
- Withholding sex or affect to hurt or punish someone,
- Publicly showing interest in others,
- Forcing unwanted sexual acts or forcing sex after beating, or
- Forcing any part of sex using guilt, coercion, or manipulation.
What can you do?
If you are experiencing characteristics of unhealthy relationships, do not be afraid to ask for help. Be sure to have a trusted friend or family member on whom you can rely. It is not weak or embarrassing to ask for help when you need it. And trust your instincts! If you feel uneasy about going home or fearful of your spouse or partner, take steps to ensure your safety. This could include having a friend with you upon returning home so you are not alone, or, in severe circumstances, going to the home of a loved one or to a domestic violence shelter rather than going home. Above all else, know you are not alone! If you are experiencing the characteristics of abuse, there are those who can help and support you. While reaching out can seem like an impossible and perhaps dangerous task, know there is help ready and waiting for you.