TYPES OF ABUSE IN A RELATIONSHIP: What Are They & How to Detect Them


According to the National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately one in every four adult women and one in every nine adult men has been a victim of one of the many types of abuse in a relationship. But, domestic abuse is not a rare or isolated occurrence, as statistics show; it occurs on a tragically regular basis.

While physical violence is an obvious sign of abuse, toxic and abusive relationships can manifest in other, more subtle ways, such as verbal and financial abuse. One of the most important roles of a social worker is to assist in the identification of these types of abuse in a relationship and to provide support services to those in need.

What is Abuse in a Relationship?

Abuse in a relationship refers to a pattern of toxic behaviors that exist in a romantic or intimate relationship. Abuse in a relationship, more specifically, involves one partner acting maliciously or manipulatively with the ultimate goal of gaining power and control over the other partner.

Domestic Abuse vs. Other Types of Abuse in a relationship

Although child and elder abuse can occur in the context of domesticity, the term “domestic abuse” in this context refers to abuse in a relationship involving power dynamics between two intimate partners.
It may also be useful to distinguish between abuse in a relationship and stalking, in which the abuser and the abused have little or no relationship or shared life.

Statistics About types of Abuse in a Relationship

Although abuse in a relationship has long been a taboo subject, it is far more common than many people realize.

  1. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “in the United States, on average, 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner every minute.” This equates to more than 10 million people per year.
  2. One in every ten women has been a rape victim by an intimate partner.
  3. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, financial abuse occurs in up to 99 percent of cases of domestic abuse.

These troubling statistics demonstrate that domestic violence is all too common and can take many different forms.

Types of Abuse in a Relationship

Abuse is a complicated concept that is both easily defined and difficult to understand and identify. Many people who have experienced abuse in any form for an extended period of time or from multiple people in their lives have difficulty distinguishing between unhealthy relationship patterns and the dangers of prolonged abuse.
The term “abuse” encompasses a wide range of behaviors and actions, making it difficult to identify a specific number of types. The following are some of the most common forms of abuse in a partnership, marriage, or long-term relationship.

1. Emotional abuse

This abuse is one of the most nebulous types of abuse to which a person can be subjected. Emotional pain and hurt are common in relationships; it is natural to experience negative emotions in the aftermath of arguments or unpleasant events in a relationship. While emotional responses are natural, it is not healthy or natural to feel as if your thoughts, feelings, and emotions are constantly threatened by your loved one. Emotional abuse is the persistent denial of your right to express yourself. It is a betrayal or mockery of your most important values and beliefs. Some warning signs that you may be subjected to this type of abuse include:

  1. Withholding approval or support as a form of punishment. 
  2. Criticism, belittling, name-calling, and yelling.
  3. Threats to leave or being told to leave on a regular basis.
  4. Invasion of privacy.
  5. Elimination of support by preventing contact with friends and family.

2. Psychological abuse

Psychological abuse is also difficult to define because it encompasses a range of abuse with no visible physical evidence. Also, psychological abuse can be a component of emotional or verbal abuse, making it difficult to distinguish it as a distinct form. Many people have been subjected to this type of abuse in the form of restraint, belittlement, unrealistic demands, or threats. It can also include things like withholding affection/information in order to elicit specific behavior from the person being abused. Many of the symptoms of mental abuse resemble those of emotional abuse. Here are some examples:

  1. Refusal to socialize with the victim.
  2. taking care or house keys from the victim to prevent escape or safety.
  3. Threatening to take the children
  4. Mind games
  5. Ignoring or minimizing the victim’s feelings.

3. Vocal Abuse

Verbal abuse is frequently the mildest form of abuse with obvious evidence. While some verbal abuse occurs in private or when no one is present, many verbal abusers become comfortable making statements in front of friends, family, and in public. Behavior can range from small, repetitive comments to loud, angry shouting intended to denigrate the person receiving the comments. The characteristics and warning signs of verbal abuse are similar to those of physical abuse.

Symptoms of Verbal Abuse

Abuse is not the same as a disagreement; every couple has verbal squabbles or arguments. The difference is that in a healthy relationship, an argument should not devolve into name-calling or belittlement — and arguments should not occur on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, verbal abuse involves behavioral patterns in which the abuser may:

  1. Try to humiliate the victim with words.
  2. Frequently yell or scream
  3. Start an argument but then blame the victim for it
  4. Bring up irrelevant issues or accusations
  5. Seek praise for remaining true to one’s words rather than resorting to physical violence.

The Consequences of Verbal Abuse

Living with this kind of verbal toxicity can have long-term consequences, such as the following:

  1. Depressive disorder
  2. Nervousness
  3. Ongoing discomfort
  4. Guilt and shame
  5. Doubting memories and past events
  6. A sense of being unwanted or unworthy of love

4. Physical Abuse

The most common and visible type of abuse is physical abuse. There may be visible markings, cuts, bruises, contusions, and other long-lasting forms of evidence. Some obvious forms of evidence, on the other hand, are absent for extended periods of time.  Many people experiencing physical abuse exposes to pushing, shoving, slapping, biting, kicking, strangling, punching, or abandonment. An abuser may lock the victim out of the house, deny the victim food, medicine, or sleep, or refuse to help if the victim is sick or injured.

Physical abuse can consist of either intentional or unintentional harm inflicted on the individual. Abuse can cause a variety of physical and mental health problems, including brain injury, heart disease, respiratory problems, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. It is often difficult to assess and diagnose, as it is with other types of abuse in a relationship.

Physical Abuse Symptoms

A variety of indicators point to physical abuse, beginning with visible injuries. Social workers are trained to recognize the physical marks left by violence and abuse, as well as the efforts made to conceal those marks (such as long, layered, or baggy clothing, especially worn out of season). Social workers may also notice psychological and behavioral changes in the abused person, such as sudden changes or abrupt shifts in how the abused person acts or speaks.

Physical Abuse’s Consequences

Those who have been physically abused by an intimate partner may experience a variety of symptoms, both short and long-term. The following are the most common signs of physical abuse:

  1. Alterations in sleeping patterns
  2. Modifications in appetite and eating habits
  3. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (PTSD)
  4. Depression
  5. Sexual impotence
  6. Abuse of drugs or alcohol

5. Sexual Abuse 

While sexual abuse is a type of physical abuse, we classify it as a separate category because it can include both physical and non-physical components. Rape or other forced sexual acts, as well as withholding or using sex as a weapon, can all be involved.

An abusive partner may also use sex to judge and value their partner; for example, criticizing or saying that someone isn’t good enough at sex; OR that sex is the only thing they’re good at. Because sex can be full of emotional and cultural implications, there are a plethora of ways in which the feelings associated with it can be used to wield power and control.

Sexual abuse, a particularly complex form of abuse, is a combination of physical, psychological, and emotional abuse, particularly in long-term relationships. It can manifest itself in the following ways:

  1. Anger or jealousy
  2. Sexual criticism
  3. Withholding sex or affect in order to hurt or punish someone
  4. Publicly showing interest in others
  5. Forcing unwanted sexual acts or forcing sex after a beating
  6. Forcing any part of sex through guilt, coercion, or manipulation.

6. Economic/Financial Abuse

Because abuse is about power and control, an abuser will go to any length to maintain that control, which often includes financial means. Whether it is controlling all of the household budgeting and not allowing the survivor to have access to their own bank accounts or spending money, or opening credit cards and running up debts in the survivor’s name, or simply not allowing the survivor to work and earn their own money; this type of abuse is frequently a major reason why someone is unable to leave an abusive relationship.

Many of the survivors we work with have credit issues as a result of their abuser’s past behavior. Poor credit history can make it difficult to obtain an apartment, a job, a car loan, and a variety of other necessities for self-sufficiency. We work with survivors to resolve these issues, but social safety nets such as food stamps, cash assistance, and health insurance can provide much-needed relief.

Financial Abuse Symptoms

A financial abuser can behave in a variety of ways, including the following:

  1. Undermining the victim’s employment prospects
  2. Preventing the victim from working outside the home.
  3. Having control over how money is spent
  4. Refusing direct access to joint bank accounts
  5. Compulsory financial crimes (like writing bad checks or creating fraudulent tax documents)
  6. Amassing large debts on shared accounts without the victim’s consent
  7. Forcing the victim to work in the family business, possibly for no pay

Financial Abuse’s Consequences

Victims of financial abuse can suffer greatly. Victims may have difficulty finding shelter, providing for themselves and their children, or otherwise escaping abusive relationships if they do not have access to their own finances (and may have bad credit as well).

7. Cultural/Identity Abuse

Cultural abuse occurs when abusers use aspects of a victim’s cultural identity to cause suffering or to exert control over them. Not allowing someone to observe their faith’s dietary or dress customs, using racial slurs, threatening to ‘out’ someone as LGBQ/T if their friends and family are unaware, or isolating someone who does not speak the dominant language where they live are all examples of cultural abuse.

What are your options?

If you are experiencing the signs of an unhealthy relationship, do not be afraid to seek help. Make sure you have a reliable friend or family member on whom you can lean. It is not a sign of weakness or embarrassment to seek assistance when you require it. And, above all, trust your instincts! If you are unsure about returning home or are afraid of your spouse or partner, take precautions to ensure your safety.

This could include having a friend accompany you when you return home so you are not alone, or, in extreme cases, going to the home of a loved one or a domestic violence shelter rather than returning home. Above all, remember that you are not alone! If you are experiencing any of the aforementioned types of abuse in a relationship, there are people who can assist and support you. While reaching out may appear to be an impossible and potentially dangerous task, know that help is available and waiting for you.


An abusive relationship can include any or all of these types of behaviors, which are often sustained over time and escalate. If you or someone you care about is going through this and you want to talk to someone about it, talk to a trained advocate who will listen without passing judgment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are men victims of domestic violence?

Yes, men can become victims of domestic violence. Domestic violence is a widespread, life-threatening crime that affects millions of people in the United States, regardless of age, economic status, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, ability, or educational level.

Is it possible for abusers to change?

Yes, but they must first decide to change their ways. It is difficult for an abusive partner to stop choosing abusive behavior, and serious commitment to change is required. When an abuser has all of the power in a relationship, it can be difficult to transition to a healthy relationship in which each partner has equal respect and power.

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