What is abuse?

In healthy relationships, people support each other and respect each other’s boundaries. But too often, people we should be able to trust take advantage of us.

What can abuse look like?

The most obvious way people abuse each other is through physical violence. But more and more people are realizing that “abuse” can be so much more than that. There’s no simple definition of abuse that everyone uses—but there are a few common ideas that come up when people talk about abuse:

  • Exercising unfair power and control over another person. People who are abused feel unsafe about their situation. They may feel fear of being hurt or attacked emotionally or physically. You can feel like you’re walking on eggshells because you don’t know if what you say or do is going to result in backlash.
  • Treating another person as an object. Abusive people don’t consider how their actions might be harmful to another person—or they simply don’t care. This could look like: treating you as their property, telling you how to feel, repeatedly telling you mean and hurtful words, diminishing your feelings or perspectives, or hitting you.
  • Twisting the relationship into something it shouldn’t be. There are certain things that are appropriate in some types of relationships but not others. For example, it’s appropriate for parents to lay down rules for their children to follow (assuming those rules are reasonable and enforced fairly). But it’s not okay for a boyfriend to do that to his girlfriend.

Who can be abusive? And who can be abused?

That’s simple: Anyone can be abusive. And anyone can be abused. It’s even possible for two people in a relationship to abuse each other at the same time.

That said, abuse is all about power and control—so it’s much easier to be abused by someone who has a lot of power and control over you. Because of this, there are certain relationships that are more likely to be abusive than others:

  • Men are more likely to be abusers. Women and nonbinary folks are more likely to be the victims. In most societies, men make more money than other people and have more privileges. On average, they are also physically stronger. Even when men are victims of abuse, they are more often abused by other men.
  • Parents and children. Children are dependent on their parents, especially when they are very young. Sadly, many parents ignore their responsibility to nurture their children, and instead abuse the power they have over them.
  • People who are marginalized in society are more likely to be abused. People of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and people who are homeless or addicted to drugs or alcohol are more likely to be abused.

Abusers often try to increase the amount of power they have in relationships. This makes it easier for them to get away with abuse. There are many ways they might do this, including:

  • Isolating you from other friends and family
  • Encouraging you to quit your job and depend on them financially
  • Putting you down, making you feel helpless and worthless
  • Making you doubt yourself
  • Encouraging you to use drugs and alcohol, which impair your judgment and make it harder to live independently

What does abuse do to people?

Being abused is a traumatic experience. Trauma has long-lasting effects on our mental health. People who feel abused may experience conditions like depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

Communication in an abusive relationship often includes blaming the victim or diminishing the attacks. This can lead us to doubt ourselves or even reality. We may have trouble trusting our own feelings, trusting other people when they point our red flags, or knowing what’s real and what isn’t.

Many people who have been abused blame themselves, thinking that the abuse wouldn’t have happened if only we hadn’t provoked the person. Or we might feel stupid for getting into an abusive relationship.

If you’ve been abused, it’s so important to realize that the abuse isn’t your fault. We all make mistakes and hurt each other, but there’s nothing you could do that would make it okay for another person to abuse you.

What if it’s someone I really love?

Actually, most abuse is committed by the people we love. They may even genuinely feel love for us. But love is not enough for a healthy relationship! Someone can love you very much and still hurt you deeply.

Abusive relationships are often very intense—and can be difficult to leave. Abusive relationships create dynamics where it is hard for any one person to leave the other. It may be hard to believe, but there is always a better alternative. You can find happiness and love with someone who also treats you with respect. And it’s better to be alone than to be with someone who abuses you.

What if the person isn’t doing it on purpose?

It doesn’t really matter whether someone is being abusive on purpose. They may have good intentions, or not realize what they’re doing. But at the end of the day, if what they are doing is causing physical or emotional harm to another person, it’s still abuse.

It can be really uncomfortable to label someone as an “abuser.” You might feel guilty about using that label. Just remember that your physical and emotional safety is more important than protecting their feelings. You don’t have to say it out loud to them! Just saying it to yourself can help you take it more seriously—and be motivated to make changes.

What should I do if I’m being abused?

Leaving an abusive situation can be a difficult process. Often, by the time you have made up your mind to leave, you are already in a situation where the person has a lot of power over you. You may not have a safe place to go if you leave. Take a deep breath and take things one step at a time. You don’t have to leave all at once. Keep these things in mind:

  • Remember: your safety comes first. When you are afraid to leave an abusive situation, it’s okay to lie to your abuser. It’s okay to sneak around. If there are children involved, it’s okay to take them with you. Do whatever it takes to keep yourself safe.
  • Reach out for help. This could come from a loved one, an anonymous hotline, or a shelter.
  • Create a safety plan. Do you have a safe place to go? Do you have cash? Do you have a phone the abuser can’t access? If you don’t have these things, what can you do to get them without tipping off your abuser?

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great resource for someone who is trying to leave an abusive situation—or anyone who wants help deciding what to do next. You can also take one of our mental health tests to get a sense of how the abuse may be affecting your mental health. These resources are free and confidential!

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Related Topics

​Click on each topic to see more articles:

  1. PTSD
  2. Relationships
  3. Trauma
  4. Youth

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