Relationship abuse is a pattern of abusive and coercive behaviors used to maintain power and control over a former or current intimate partner. Abuse can be emotional, financial, sexual, or physical and can include threats, isolation, and intimidation.*
How do I know if I’m in an abusive relationship?
It is important to remember that abuse in relationships often starts out fairly mild and then escalates over time. People often think that an occasional slap or shove or low levels of emotional abuse are not important and won’t get worse, or will just go away. Although this does sometimes happen, in many cases the abuse will only continue to get worse, and may escalate to violence. However, even if the abuse does not escalate, it is important to remember that no one has the right to hit you or hurt you in any way. If you find yourself in a relationship where such behaviors are occurring, this may be a warning signal to you that your partner is, or may become, dangerous to you.
Examples of abusive behaviors include:
- Trying to control where you go, who you spend time with, and what you do
- Extreme anger or jealousy over mild events
- Hitting, threatening to hit, or hitting objects or walls near you
- Behaving in a frightening manner, even if no explicit threats are made
- Forcing or coercing you to participate in sexual behavior you don’t want
- Extreme commitment to traditional gender roles, especially as they pertain to controlling or restricting women’s behavior
- Attempting to isolate you from friends or family
- Denying that the abuse has occurred or claiming to be the partner who is being abused
- Blaming you for the abuse or telling you that you deserve it
- Threatening to, or actually harming or destroying your possessions
- Threatening to, or actually hurting your pets, family members, friends, or other loved ones
- Threatening to hurt or kill themselves
For more information, visit Red Flags: Relationship Abuse (link).
If you are, or think you may be, in an abusive relationship, it is important to talk to someone. Advocates in RISE are available to help provide you with confidential support and resources to assist you in determining your options and helping you to form a safety plan. For more resources, visit Confidential Support (link) and Make Connections (link).
Why do people stay in abusive relationships?
Although there is a myth that people, especially folx identifying as women, stay indefinitely in abusive relationships, the truth is that most people do eventually leave. Leaving is a process, though, and for some people it involves going back to the abusive partner and then leaving again.
There are many reasons why people stay in an abusive relationship for a while, including:
- They fear the abuser, who may have threatened to kill them, or someone they love if they leave.
- The abuser has succeeded in isolating them, personally and economically, to the point that they feel they have nowhere to go.
- Their partner has succeeded in systematically dismantling their self-esteem so that they feel they are at fault or deserve the abuse and do not have the right to leave.
- They may still love their partner and be convinced that their partner can change.
- They are taking time to get money and resources together so that they can leave successfully.
- They may feel that they are at fault and responsible for the abuse.
- They may not know that resources are available to help them leave.
- They may fear stigma and feel ashamed to have people know they have been abused.
- They may fear being deported if their residence status in the U.S. is dependent upon their partner.
- Their religion, ethnic or cultural beliefs may prohibit or discourage divorce.
You might even tell yourself certain things to explain away or justify the abuse. Common self-talk includes the following:
- My partner isn’t abusive all the time – they love me
- Your partner may act loving towards you at times and may truly feel sorry for their horrible behavior, so it might be hard to stay angry and upset with them. However, there is quite a high chance that their behavior will continue. Abusers can be incredibly charming people, especially if they’re trying to make you or others see them in a good light.
- Things will get better – they didn’t mean it
- After a partner exhibits abusive behaviors, it’s common for both you and your abuser to try and downplay what happened with excuses, apologies, or promises to change. Things might settle down for a bit, but it’s often only a matter of time before it happens again. It’s very difficult to eradicate abuse in relationships, and any abusive behavior, without professional help.
- It’s so confusing – I’m sure it’s a one-off
- If you’re experiencing abuse, things can feel really confusing, especially if it’s your first relationship. You might not be sure what to expect next. Abusers often try to influence your sense of what’s real, to make you feel confused or even that you’re going crazy. (This is known as ‘gaslighting’.) Statistically, though, if someone behaves abusively once, they’re very likely to do it again.
- Maybe it’s my fault
- You may begin to think that you’re to blame for your partner’s abusive behavior. An abuser may excuse their behavior by saying something like, ‘It wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t…’ The truth is that no matter what you do, another person’s abusive behavior is never your fault.
- I’m scared of what will happen if I leave them
- It’s not unusual to feel afraid of leaving the person who’s abusing you. You might feel unsafe, or scared of what the person might do to you or themselves. You might also feel that you aren’t capable of making it on your own. It’s important to remember that there are people who can help you every step of the way.
People are sometimes not sure if what their partner is doing constitutes abuse, or the abuse may have escalated so slowly that they don’t know how they ended up with someone who hurts them. Regardless of how the abuse came about, remember that it is not your fault and no one has the right to hurt you.
Aren’t only cisgender women victims of intimate partner abuse/violence?
No. The common perception of relationship abuse is that of a man abusing his wife or girlfriend. Although this is the most frequent form of intimate partner abuse, not all violent relationships fit that stereotype. Folx of any gender can be victims of intimate partner violence at the hands of a partner or partners of any gender. Unfortunately, there may be barriers to seeking and receiving services due to the stereotypes that only cisgender women are abused. However, although shelters are often only available for cisgender women, anyone can make use of RISE services, hotlines, and the legal and medical systems. If you are the victim of intimate partner violence and you do not identify as a cisgender woman, you have just as much right to receive assistance and have your experiences taken seriously as anyone else. RISE is here to help you navigate the available support services, both on-campus and in the community.
Does intimate partner abuse/violence occur in relationships other than those involving heterosexual partners?
Yes, people of all genders and sexual orientations can be abused by their partners. The dynamics of power and control, as well as the types of abusive actions, seem to be fairly similar to those in heterosexual relationships. One exception is that threats of outing may be used to control or intimidate a partner, especially if they are not able to be open about their sexual orientation or trans identity at work or with their family. The effects of violence, such as fear, guilt, feelings of shame or responsibility, and anger, as well as physical injury, are also similar in non-heterosexual relationship abuse. Unfortunately, people abused by their non-hetero partners often face additional obstacles in finding support, assistance, and even legal help.
Some of these barriers include:
- The myth that intimate partner violence only occurs in male-female relationships, which is frequently supported by outreach campaigns that only target violence in heterosexual relationships. This myth can cause abused folx in non-cisgender, non-hetero relationships to feel even more isolated, to believe that they are the only person to have experienced such abuse, and can make it harder to even recognize the aggressive behavior as abuse.
- The presence of non-responsiveness, homophobia, or mistakes by the legal system. This can include police refusing to take the situation seriously, arresting the victim because they look stronger or more “masculine,” an inability to recognize battering in non-hetero relationships, and even slurs or violence against the victims due to their gender identity or sexual orientation.
- Fears of bias and prejudice in the legal system, hospitals, counselors, shelters, etc. Although prejudice does exist, many service providers have received special training and are compassionate, understanding, and aware of violence in non-cisgender, non-heterosexual relationships. Unfortunately, survivors often do not know which service providers have such training and may avoid seeking services altogether because of fear of being treated harshly or violently, or of being involuntarily outed. For assistance finding welcoming service providers, contact RISE or visit Make Connections (link).
All of these reasons can cause non-cisgender, non-hetero folx abused by their partners to be reluctant to seek assistance. It’s sometimes even difficult for these survivors of intimate partner violence to label it as abuse at all, due to the strength of the idea that intimate partner violence only includes cis women abused by cis men, but it’s important to remember that intimate partner violence and abuse does occur in all types of relationships and that all survivors have the right to assistance.
*From Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness (link)