image of a woman who has been abused by her partnerWhen we hear people ask this question, our first response is if you find yourself asking the question, it’s worth exploring the answer. While it’s normal, and even healthy, to ask yourself about the health of your relationship from time to time, if the question, “am I being abused,” continues to pop up for you, the question needs attention and an honest answer.

It can be difficult to be objective when you’re in a relationship. On the one hand, you are attached to this person. You may rely on them for companionship and support. You may genuinely love this person. You may have children with them, you might live with them and rely on them for financial stability. When you start to explore the answer to whether you are being abused, it can be difficult to answer honestly when you fear losing what it is you gain from the relationship.

It is important, however, to put those things aside for the moment and look, really look, at the answer. Otherwise, we can tend to minimize or make excuses for the other person’s behavior, decide that we deserve it, or worse, blame ourselves. This is an important question and it’s extremely important to be honest and objective when looking for the answer.

The next step is to take a look at what constitutes abuse. When physical harm is done to us, leaving behind bruises or physical markers that we can actually see, it can be a little easier to determine that we are being abused (although we still may minimize it or make excuses). It is often the more subtle forms of abuse that leave us confused as to whether or not we are being abused. Below are the various ways in which we can experience abuse. Do you recognize any of these behaviors in your relationship?

Physical Abuse

This form of abuse is often what we think of when defining abuse. We define physical abuse as any intentional behavior that physically harms us or controls our person, even if it doesn’t leave a mark. Behaviors include (but are not limited to):

  • Hitting/slapping
  • Kicking
  • Biting
  • Burning
  • Choking
  • Stalking
  • Using an object to inflict physical harm and/or pain (whether with a weapon or everyday items)
  • Putting you in dangerous situations
  • Keeping you against your will
  • Locking you out of the house
  • Throwing things at you
  • Keeping you from accessing medical services when necessary
  • Limiting your access to food and or water


Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is any unwanted sexual conduct that is perpetrated by force, threat, manipulation, coercion, or by taking advantage of another person. Contrary to popular belief, sexual abuse does not just happen to women and children, it can happen to men as well. Sexual abuse can be heterosexual, homosexual, or pansexual in nature and can happen at any age. Behaviors include:

  • Performing, or making you perform, any sexual act against your will or without your express consent
  • Using sex to humiliate you (forcing you to strip, putting down your feelings around sex, criticizing you sexually)
  • Calling you sexually derogative names (“slut,” “whore”)
  • Accusing you of cheating
  • Having sex with others when they have agreed to be monogamous
  • Withholding sex and affection as a display of power
  • Forcing you to have sex with others
  • Refusing to use birth control methods
  • “Tricking” someone into unwanted pregnancy (ie: lying about being on birth control in hopes of getting pregnant)
  • Deliberately passing on STD’s without disclosure to partner
  • Purposefully causing unwanted physical pain during sex


Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse is an overarching term that includes any non-physical behavior that uses emotional, verbal, isolating or threatening/intimidating tactics to diminish another person’s self-worth, dignity and identity, or to control another person. Psychological abuse can be a pre-cursor to physical and/or sexual abuse, can happen in addition to physical/sexual abuse, or it can be used as a sole tactic of abuse.

The core types of psychological abuse include:

  • Emotional
  • Verbal
  • Threats/Intimidation
  • Isolation

Specific examples of each type of psychological abuse are outlined below.


Often, the emotional abuser is not aware that he/she is being emotionally abusive. Rather, their behavior typically stems from insecurity and a need to control the relationship dynamics in order to feel safe and/or secure. Whether emotional abuse is intentional or not, the effects are no less damaging to the relationship and for the person being abused. Emotional abuse includes:

  • Ignoring you in an attempt to manipulate you
  • Making you feel like you can’t ever do anything right
  • Humiliating you (whether in front of others or when alone)
  • Constantly checking up on you to see where you are
  • Demanding you constantly check in with them
  • Infantilizing you
  • Abusing pets to intimidate you
  • Withholding love and affection as a way to assert their power over you
  • Forcing you to do degrading things
  • Demanding you stick to their timelines for activities (ie: demanding you be home by a certain time, or giving you a certain amount of time to get from one place to the next)
  • Controlling your activities
  • Forcing you to dress a certain way
  • Forcing you to commit illegal acts
  • Forcing you to partake in substance use
  • Using your sexual orientation to make you feel badly about yourself or intimidate you (threatening to “out” you, saying that you’re not a part of the group you identify with, etc.)
  • Using gender roles to place you below them (treating you as a servant, denying your feelings because they make you “appear weak,” etc.)
  • Gaslighting – a tactic that allows a person to exert control over another by making them question their reality (can be a tactic used with other forms of abuse to deflect the responsibility of the abuser, or can be a form of abuse on its own)



  • Making fun of your beliefs and values
  • Lying
  • Ridiculing you
  • Belittling you
  • Insulting you or those you love
  • Negatively criticizing you
  • Telling you that you’re unlovable/nobody else would want you
  • Continually accusing you of lying
  • Threats/Intimidation
  • Threatening to commit suicide
  • Threatening to leave you in an effort to control your behavior
  • Threatening to hurt loved ones and/or pets, or actually doing it
  • Brandishing a weapon in an effort to intimidate you
  • Playing with/cleaning weapons after a heated argument
  • Threatening to take away your children
  • Threatening to follow you when you go somewhere
  • Threatening to lie to authorities to have you arrested
  • Threatening to out your secrets
  • Using certain looks or postures in an effort to intimidate you
  • Destroying your property



Abuse through isolation often goes hand-in-hand with other forms of abuse, but it doesn’t have to. This type of abuse is often used to gain control of a person’s thoughts, feelings and actions and can be physical, emotional and/or social in nature. Whether intentional or not, the outcome is equally distressing for the person being abused. Abuse through isolation can include:

  • Controlling access to friends/loved ones
  • Controlling access to phone usage
  • Controlling access to the car/monitoring usage
  • Causing problems at work by constantly making you late
  • Locking you in the house when they leave
  • Demanding to know who you are with, what you are doing, where you are going, where you went
  • Making you feel guilty for spending time alone or with friends/loved ones
  • Making you ask permission before going out
  • Putting up roadblocks when you are getting ready to go out (ie: refusing to watch the children, coming home late on purpose when you need the car, starting a fight)
  • Alienating you from friends/family
  • Telling you that you can’t be trusted when out by yourself (accusing you of having affairs, etc.)
  • Spreading rumors about you or threatening to do so


Using the Children to Manipulate You

As any parent knows, the relationship between child and parent is sacred and special. Using the children as a mechanism to exert control or power over another person is a form of abuse, and can include:

  • Threatening to harm them
  • Threatening to take them away
  • Making you question your capacities as a parent
  • Denying or limiting visitation without just cause
  • Punishing or depriving the children in an effort to “get back at you”
  • Abusing the children to “get back at you”
  • Abusing you in front of the children
  • Using statements such as “If you loved the kids, then…”
  • Refusing to participate in caretaking
  • Using the children to manipulate you or make you feel guilty
  • Turning the children against you


Economic/Financial Abuse

Economic/financial abuse can sometimes be tricky to spot, since many of the behaviors can be considered part of the natural innerworkings of a domestic partnership. While, for many couples, it is normal to have one person in charge of finances, have both partners pool money into one bank account, and/or make joint decisions about career and future goals, when these things become a mechanism used to exert force or control over the other partner, it becomes abusive. Behaviors can include:

  • Belittling you about your occupation or how much you make
  • Controlling where you work or your career path
  • Preventing you from working
  • Keeping your paycheck
  • Not allowing you to participate in financial decisions
  • Not allowing you to have a separate bank account
  • Refusing to allow you to finish school or advance your career, or purposely getting in the way of you doing so
  • Punishing you for not managing finances “well enough,” or for not accounting for all expenditures
  • Refusal to work, forcing the other person to support them


Your answer to the question, “Am I being abused”

If any of these behaviors are familiar to you, it may be time to evaluate your relationship. A healthy, non-abusive, relationship is built on trust, honesty, respect, empathy and balance. Everyone has a right to feel safe in their partnership, and to be respected and nurtured by their partner.

If you’ve determined that you are in an unhealthy relationship, reach out to friends or a trusted professional. If you are in an abusive relationship and are unsure of your next steps, you may want to reach out to an organization that supports survivors of abuse.

If you’re ready to begin the process of healing and creating healthy, meaningful relationships, a relationship coach or trusted therapist can help you start that journey.

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