Abusive relationships | Abusive relationship | Emotionally abusive relationship | Verbally abusive relationship

Abusive Relationships – Understanding the Signs, Symptoms and Solutions

Woman needing help in an abusive relationship

An abusive relationship is one in which one person tries to control or dominate the other – emotionally or physically. Although abuse can occur in any type of relationship (parent/child, among spouses, friends, siblings, etc.) the most common type of abusive relationships are between intimate partners – also referred to as domestic abuse or spousal abuse.  If you think you or someone you know is being abused, what do you do? The answer may not be as simple as you think. Often times the victim may not see a way out, holds out hope that it will get better, or refuses to acknowledge that abuse is taking place – especially if they're in a committed relationship and/or there are children involved. Abuse can also take different shapes and forms, which can make it tricky to detect. The sad truth is, abusive behavior doesn't simply go away. And even if the relationship ends, the effects of abuse can leave lifelong scars on its victims.

Abusive relationships can be physical or emotional. The abuser typically has extreme trust issues and insecurities, and attempts to cover them up with controlling and/or aggressive behavior. If you feel you're walking on eggshells for fear of doing or saying something that will set your partner off, chances are you are in an abusive relationship.

The most common symptoms of abusive relationships are: a fear of upsetting your partner, and feelings of worthlessness, depression, anxiety, and helplessness. Sometimes the victim may feel a sense of accomplishment when they've managed to keep the abuser happy. This is a false sense of victory, since it usually involves not having a voice or opinion, or "lying low".

Emotional Abuse

When Kristin met Paul, she was quickly swept off her feet into a whirlwind romance. She was flattered that Paul lavished so much attention on her. Kristen initially found it endearing that he wanted to spend so much time together. But as the weeks turned into months, Kristen began avoiding her friends and family. Her bubbly personality retreated as she struggled with the burden of keeping Paul happy - and the fear and guilt of disappointing him.

The driving force behind emotional abuse is for the abuser to emotionally disable the victim – to make him or her feel worthless, and incapable of independence. The person on the receiving end of abuse may be confused and even feel responsible for the abuser's words and actions. A verbally abusive relationship is considered emotional abuse as well. Although name calling and insults are common forms of verbal abuse, any form of verbal manipulation (sarcasm, humiliation) that undermines someone's confidence and sense of self-worth is considered verbal and emotional abuse.

Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship:

Insulting or humiliating you – in private or in front of others. The abuser may do this in an aggressive manner, or may justify it as "humor".


Limiting your access to money, a car, etc. – The abuser requires that you go to him or her first and ask permission. You might also be required to show the receipts of your purchases. Financial abuse can also include your being prevented from working.


Excessive jealousy or possessiveness - The abuser is suspicious of your activity when you're away. Suspicion turns to anger when you don't answer your phone or respond to text messages. Making plans to spend time with others can trigger the abuser's anger as well.


Ridicules or dismisses your opinions and thoughts – This includes treating you as an extension of the abuser, and having an opinion outside of the abuser's perspective is not tolerated.


Unable to acknowledge their mistakes or apologize – Abusers tend to blame others for their own feelings or problems, and are unable to laugh at themselves.


Puts down or sabotages your personal goals and ambitions – Doing anything outside of the abuser's personal objectives can trigger their insecurities.

Unlike physical abuse, an emotionally abusive relationship can be difficult to detect, and both the abuser and victim may be unaware that abuse is taking place. The effects of emotional abuse can be just as harmful, if not more harmful than physical abuse, since it can go on for years undetected - undermining your sense of worth and crippling your true potential.

What causes some people to abuse others? Often, it's due to unresolved childhood traumas and emotional wounds that have evolved into deep trust issues and insecurities. If you think you may be abusing someone you love, working with a trained counselor or life coach is the most effective way of resolving these issues and learning how to move forward in a healthier relationship.  If you think you are being emotionally abused, talking with a trained professional will provide you with the insight and tools needed for setting boundaries and repairing the effects  of emotional and psychological damage – whether you decide to stay in the relationship or not.

Physical Abuse

Physically abusive behavior within an intimate relationship – also referred to as domestic violence -  often starts with verbal abuse or threats, and escalates into physical violence. Any form of physical force used to control or intimidate someone is considered physical abuse. Punching, slapping, pulling hair, shoving, pinching... no matter how minor the abuse may seem, or how infrequently it happens, physical abuse should be taken seriously. Even a shove can cause a serious fall. And once abuse begins, the chances of it happening again are very high.

Before discussing possible solutions for the victim of abuse, we must first understand how the cycle of abusive relationships works:

A physically abusive person usually has more control over their behavior than they would have you believe. They are careful to choose who they lash out at, and when their outbursts occur. After the abuse, they may act remorseful and apologetic. This is not because they genuinely regret their behavior, but because they fear getting caught or losing you. They may still blame you for their abusive behavior, and avoid taking full responsibility. But when they are faced with the possibility of losing you or fear the consequences of their actions, they make promises to change. For a while, the abuse stops. This period of improved behavior can lead the victim into believing the abuser has changed for good. But suspicions, jealousy and repressed anger will continue eating at him or her, until the cycle of abuse starts all over again.

Signs of a Physically Abusive Relationship

  • Treating you as "property" – This may include demanding or forcing you to have sex, regardless of your needs or feelings.
  • Holding you responsible for their abusive behavior – blaming you for making them angry.
  • Having an unpredictable temper – abusers often have severe mood swings and erratic bouts of anger.
  • Threatening you – this includes an abuser threatening to hurt you, your pets, or to take away your children.
  • Destroying your things – the abuser shows little regard for your personal possessions, and may even resent things that hold meaning for you.
  • The abuser tries to control where you go, what you do, and who you interact with.
  • He or she tries to isolate you from others in an attempt to keep you completely dependent on him or her.

If you think someone you know is being abused, what do you do? Let them know they can talk to you about anything, whenever they're ready. Validate their concerns, listen to what they say, and support them. Offer to help. Don't give them ultimatums, and never push them. They are in a very vulnerable position and setting conditions on your friendship will only push them away and isolate them further.

Abusive relationships – no matter how minor the abuse may seem - or what type of relationship it is – should never be taken lightly. Help is available for both abusers and victims. Acknowledging there is a problem is the first step. Reaching out for help is the most important step. Speaking with a life coach can shed light on your options and help you gain understanding on what's going on and how to resolve issues of abuse. To make an appointment for a free initial consultation with a certified life coach, click here.

If you feel you may be in immediate danger, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or 911.

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