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Relationships can be a great source of joy and fulfillment. But when a relationship is unhealthy or abusive, it can cause major harm. Relationship abuse is characterized by a pattern of control, disrespect, and emotional manipulation. Sometimes that pattern involves sexual or physical assault or coercion.
“My boyfriend refused to listen to my explicit ‘Nos’ or even ‘It hurts,’” wrote an undergraduate in New Hampshire. “At the time, I didn’t realize it was considered sexual assault. I thought that because we were dating, that wasn’t a thing.”
When sexual assault or coercion happens within the context of a relationship, it is still sexual assault or coercion. Most likely it isn’t an isolated incident but instead part of a pattern of abusive behaviors. “After I broke up with him, I started to realize how abusive the relationship was and how badly it impacted my self-esteem and grades,” the student said (in a recent survey by SH101). “It took a long time for me to realize that this problem did not have to define my time in college.”
Abuse can be emotional or physical
Sexual assault or coercion within relationships is only one category of abusive relationship behavior. Abuse can be largely emotional; it is not always physical. That said, studies suggest that sexual violence by partners is not rare. Like all unmistakable signs of abuse, it tends to happen out of sight. We are more likely to witness the “small things”—incidents of disrespectful or belittling behavior by one partner to another. These may signal that abuse is happening, or will happen in future.
We can look out for each other
Most of the steps for supporting a friend are actions that people appreciate whether or not they are experiencing abuse. Being an active bystander is about the things we do every day to look out for our friends and communities. In short: Know the warning signs of relationship abuse, and if you’re not sure, check in anyway.
Why does this matter so much? Unconditional support via social networks is vital to coping with relationship abuse, research shows. Supportive friends may be especially important for people of color, who tend to receive less backup than white women (Women’s Studies International Forum, 2004).
Abuse does not target any one type of person
Research has traditionally focused on abuse experienced by women in heterosexual relationships. Male and LBGTQ survivors have been overlooked until relatively recently. Men and women may experience emotional abuse at similar rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). “Anyone can be in an abusive relationship: female/male, gay/straight, any ethnic or cultural background, any physical size, ability, or strength,” says Dr. Rachel Pain, a professor of human geography at Durham University in the UK, who studies relationship abuse. “We all have a strong tendency to think it would never happen to us, but abusive partners are not abusive when we meet them.”
Common signs of abuse
You don’t have to be sure that this is abuse, but it’s helpful to know the signs. Abusive behaviors form a pattern of control, disrespect, and emotional manipulation. Click for info and examples.
Isolating the other person from friends and family
In a healthy relationship, each person talks to and communicates with their friends as they’d like. Abusive behaviors include preventing a partner from spending time alone with friends or family, or constantly calling or texting to keep tabs on a partner. “If he starts to notice that your family and friends are concerned about your relationship, he may be looking to keep you away from them,” says Dana Cuomo, coordinator of victim advocacy services at the University of Washington. (Because of this dynamic, don’t give up on your friend if they stop calling you—be there for them and stay supportive.)
Checking the other person’s phone, email, or social media without permission (or pressuring them for access)
In a relationship, each partner is entitled to privacy. Violating that privacy is a major warning sign.
Intruding on another person’s private communications may also be a means of changing or influencing their decisions and opportunities. “Maybe you get a job interview, but your partner deletes the email so that you never know about it,” says Casey Corcoran, a program director of Futures Without Violence, an advocacy organization working to end violence against women and children.
Red flags include:
- Checking a partner’s emails, texts, social media, and so on without their permission
- Obsessively keeping tabs on the partner via texting, calling, or social media
- Monitoring where a partner goes, whom they see, or what they do
- Making personal decisions on behalf of a partner, or pressurizing them in their decisions, such as who to hang out with, or where to study or work
Using social status or peer pressure to manipulate the other person
Abusive partners may use the threat of social pressure, gossip, or lies to manipulate their partners. Often, they’ll also claim to be the authority on how men or women, or romantic or sexual partners, are supposed to behave. This is a way of justifying their own behaviors or condemning their partner’s.
Leveraging their power as “gatekeeper” to a social community
Some partners provide an important link to a social community (e.g., a group of friends, a club or organization based around a shared interest or identity, or an academic or professional group). Abusive partners may try and use that community link as a way to pressure their partner to stay in the relationship. Abusers may similarly use financial resources or pressure to control their partner.
Example “If a partner who’s abusive is someone’s main link to an LGBTQ community, or maybe was that person’s first same-gender partner, that relationship can be very much tied up in their sexual identity,” says Gabe Murchison, senior research manager at the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. “They may be especially afraid to end that relationship, and they may feel they’ll lose a concrete part of their LGBTQ identity by ending it.”
Making belittling comments and put-downs
Calling a partner names, making them feel small or ashamed, or humiliating them are common warning signs. No one should use shame to control their partner.
Getting angry suddenly
“This can be a sign of a bigger issue, especially if your partner becomes physically or emotionally abusive when they ‘lose it,’” says Corcoran.
Example You can’t ever be sure you’re saying the right thing. It seems like anything might set your partner off. “You may feel as though you are on a roller coaster all the time,” says Corcoran. “One minute everything is fine, and the next he’s yelling.” In these cases, you feel like you can’t relax because you don’t know what to expect.
Being possessive and jealous
Warning signs include suddenly becoming jealous or angry, or making false accusations of infidelity.
Example You’re at the bar and run into someone you’ve been intimate with before. When your partner finds out, they get very upset. “This happens when the abuser sees you as their property,” says Cuomo. “It is part of the pattern of power and control in abusive relationships in which you aren’t allowed to make choices about your own life.”
Those choices may include what you wear. They may be thinking that “if you’re wearing something sexy or flirty, you’ll draw the attention of another person, and that will be your fault,” says Cuomo. “It is very manipulative because it isn’t your fault at all; it’s because they don’t trust you not to act on another person’s advances.”
Making over-the-top gestures
Expensive gifts at the beginning of a relationship, or a rush to spend a ton of time together, can be red flags. Overcompensating is a distraction tactic—maybe she doesn’t want you looking too closely at other aspects of the relationship—and can also be used as leverage.
Extravagant gestures can also be part of the pattern of abuse and making up, which is common in abusive relationships. For example, “He might get so angry that he hits you during a fight. Then later he brings you a bouquet of flowers,” says Corcoran.
These episodes of kindness and hope can position the targeted person to deny the fear and anger that they feel toward the abuser, research indicates (Feminism & Psychology, 2011). “This is the time when the abuser tries to regain control,” says Cuomo. “The cycle has three stages: The tension builds, it turns into a fight, and then they apologize and say they’ll never do it again.”
Engaging in “gaslighting”
“Gaslighting” (the term references a 1938 play) is when an abusive partner manipulates the other by trying to make them doubt their own reality, experiences, and emotional health. The abusive partner might say, “It’s in your head,” or “It didn’t happen like that.” They may trivialize their partner’s emotions or pretend not to understand what they are talking about.
Using physical violence, the threat of violence, or fear
This can mean anything from destroying possessions—phones, glasses, tables, or other property—to physically harming a partner. Sometimes violence will be used or threatened in connection to sex. Some abusers threaten self-harm as a kind of manipulation.
Making someone nervous or uncomfortable can be a deliberate power tactic. “In unhealthy relationships, your partner does things that are meant to make you fearful,” says Corcoran.
Example There’s no excuse for driving recklessly, especially with someone else in the car. If it’s intended to frighten the other person, this is abusive.
Pressuring or forcing sex
This includes sexual pressure, coercion, or force. It is common in physically abusive relationships, research shows. For example, in a 2005 study, two out of three women who’d been physically assaulted by a partner had also been sexually assaulted or coerced by that partner (Department of Justice).
Red flags include:
- Threatening or using alcohol or drugs to pressure a partner to have sex
- Ignoring a partner’s lack of interest in sex or even their explicit “nos” to sexual activity
- Demanding sex in return for a gift
- Refusing to use condoms or other kinds of birth control
Example “When your partner doesn’t respect your decisions around sex, she may try to manipulate or blame you,” says Corcoran. “Why do we need to use a condom? Is it because you are sleeping with someone else?”
8 steps to supporting a friend in an abusive relationship
People experiencing abusive encounters and relationships tend to tell a friend, studies show. If you are that friend, you can make a difference. If you are experiencing abuse, these steps can help outline what seeking support may look like.
1 Be there and listen
This sounds simple, and it goes a long way. Abusive relationships often function by isolating the abused person from their support network, especially friends and family. Being present for your friend can be powerful in and of itself, counteracting the isolation they experience.
When people reach out for support, it’s usually to a friend. For example, in a small study of college women who had experienced unwanted sexual contact, three out of four had disclosed the assault or abuse—the vast majority to a friend, according to Feminism & Psychology (2012).
Listening has many benefits. In a classic study of abuse survivors, people said they had valued the opportunity to talk and vent about their experiences, to receive comfort and emotional support, and to observe their friends’ anger toward abusers (Feminism & Psychology, 1993).
Be aware of factors and feelings that may make it harder for someone to disclose. Frequently, people in unhealthy relationships minimize the abuse they are experiencing (“It’s no big deal”); this may be especially likely if the abuse does not involve extreme physical or sexual violence. Some are concerned that others won’t understand and/or may respond in unhelpful ways. Some may be held back by embarrassment or shame, or fear for their safety if they tell anyone.
Self-blame is another powerful obstacle. In a 2015 study, people who had experienced sexual violence and understood it was not their fault were more likely to disclose it than were those who blamed themselves (Violence Against Women).
2 Be open to individual experiences
Stay attuned to your friend’s needs, regardless of whether or not their relationship conforms to what you’ve heard before about abuse. Be alert to common misconceptions about what abusive relationships look like and who they happen to.
While abusive relationships have similarities—the pattern of controlling behavior, for example—no two are the same.
Keep in mind:
- Abuse can take place in relationships of all types.
- Abuse can take place in relationships involving people of any sexual orientation and/or gender combination.
- Abuse can happen to anyone. Men can be abused in relationships. Outwardly strong, assertive people can be abused in relationships. Experts on relationship abuse can be abused in relationships.
How professionals moved past victim blaming
Professionals’ understanding of relationship abuse has shifted in recent decades. “In the mid-20th century, psychiatrists believed that only certain types of women ‘fell into’ abusive relationships,” says Dr. Pain. “Now it’s widely recognized that they were mistaking the symptoms of being abused (especially the mental health effects) for factors that predisposed certain people to being abused. This was a kind of medically sanctioned victim blaming that meant hefty challenges for the women’s movement and others trying to end relationship abuse. It also left men and LGBT victims out of the picture until relatively recently.”
3 Be clear that your friend is not to blame
Part of your role is to emphasize that the abuser is responsible for the abuse. Aggressors try to shift the blame: “I wouldn’t have to shout if you listened the first time”; “It wouldn’t be like this if I could trust you.” Self-blame is a common and powerful obstacle to disclosing abuse and seeking help.
4 Show your support
Ask: “What can I do to help?” The answer may be something seemingly small, like having breakfast with your friend regularly or walking them to class. Maybe you can help schedule an appointment with a doctor or counselor. In any case, follow your friend’s lead on how to help. Avoid saying anything that might trivialize your friend’s experience.
5 Remind yourself that your friend is in charge
Abusive relationships often involve repeated violations of a person’s autonomy. It is crucial that you not replicate that dynamic when you offer help. Your friend is (and should remain in) the driver’s seat. The decision of what to do and when is theirs.
6 Resist advising your friend to leave the relationship
It may be that all you want to do is advise your friend to dump the abuser. But many people find this advice unhelpful, in part because it can come across as victim blaming. Consider asking for guidance: “I’m not here to tell you to leave. That said, if you ever want to leave, I’ll support you. I’ll have your back, whatever your decision.”
It may seem baffling that someone does not immediately walk away from an abusive relationship. Researchers have found that the dynamics of abuse, and the decision to stay or leave, are highly complicated (Behavior and Social Issues, 2005).
People’s reasons for staying in abusive relationships are often rational and considered (for example, relating to safety, children, and finances), studies show. Individuals’ sense of belonging is important in deciding how to respond to abuse. For nonwhite people, the decision to leave a family or community can be especially seismic, research suggests (Women’s Studies International Forum, 2004). Researchers now understand that leaving an abusive relationship is a process and may take multiple attempts (Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2003).
Is it ever helpful to advise someone to leave?
Here’s the caveat: Some people report that the advice to leave an abusive relationship was helpful. This difference appears to depend on where each individual is at, research suggests. In a 2011 study, some women who had already considered leaving or had made preparations for leaving found it helpful to be advised to leave (Feminism & Psychology). For those who had not considered leaving, the same advice was unhelpful. Check in with your friend and ask what kind of support they need.
7 Suggest helpful resources
Suggest additional sources of support that might help your friend. These may be on campus, in the community, or online. Whatever you suggest, the decision on how to proceed belongs to your friend.
Researching the available support resources is a quick and practical way to help a friend. For example:
- On campus: Your friend could consider discussing the situation confidentially with a counselor at Counseling and Psychiatric Services or the Office of Victim Assistance, or privately (though not confidentiallty) with a trusted campus staff member, faculty member, RA, or someone from the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (the Title IX office on campus).
- In the community: Your friend may be interested in discussing their experiences with a sexual assault crisis center, or other victim advocacy organization, like Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA) in Boulder.
- Online: Your friend may find it helpful to talk with an advocate via an anonymous, confidential hotline or online chat service. This may be a general relationship abuse resource or one that supports a specific community (e.g., LGBTQ). For resources, see Find out more today.
When is it OK to take the decision to seek further help out of their hands?
Only if someone is experiencing an acute threat or might harm themselves or others. In that case, talk to a campus counselor, the campus safety office, or Title IX staff.
8 Seek out support for yourself too
Supporting a friend through an abusive relationship can take a toll on you. Seek support whenever you need it from friends, family, mentors, or professionals. Relationship abuse hotlines are for you too (see Find out more today). Respect your friend’s privacy throughout.
Why it’s important to reach out
You may have noticed similarities between abusive relationships and abuse or misconduct in other contexts. You can likely tell when someone is experiencing pressure, disrespect, or unwanted attention. This makes your job as an active bystander that much easier.
What to do when you’re not sure this is abuse—and why their relationship is your business
Recognizing troubling dynamics within established relationships is not much different from recognizing such dynamics elsewhere. Whether the interaction involves a couple, acquaintances, or strangers, you can likely tell when someone is experiencing pressure, disrespect, or unwanted attention.
What if I’m not sure this is abuse?
You might be thinking of a friend whose relationship is not entirely respectful or fulfilling. Low-level disregard and disrespect are not the same as a pattern of controlling behaviors. Still, we should be wary. Everyone deserves to have their boundaries and desires respected. As a good friend, you would still be concerned for your friend, their well-being, and their happiness. These skills and strategies—listening, being present, showing support—are still useful in these contexts.
And what if it’s actually abusive?
The negative consequences of relationship abuse are far-reaching, both for individuals, communities, and society. These examples may surprise you:
“Many high-profile mass shooters are also domestic abusers, and most ‘mass shootings’ are actually domestic violence incidents,” reported Vox, following the shooting at Fort Lauderdale airport in January. Researchers are exploring the parallels between relationship abuse and acts of terror. “While the two forms of violence are different in important ways, they are similar in the way that they work: largely, through fear,” says Dr. Rachel Pain, who co-directs the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action at Durham University, UK. “The physical incidents of violence are only part of the story; the threat of violence is used to exert control. And the fear that creates—either for the individual, children, or for a wider community—is one of the most important effects.”
Relationship abuse accounts for enormous costs in healthcare services, lost productivity, missed work, homelessness, and the ripple effects of intergenerational trauma (the impact on children and teens who are exposed to relationship abuse in their families). In the US, the cost of relationship abuse exceeded $5.8 billion a year, in a 2003 study for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Students share: What we learned about relationship abuse
The frequency and health impact of sexual assault by partners
Abuse of all types can affect people in relationships of any sexual orientation or gender-identity. The research on sexual assault and coercion within relationships is limited. Existing studies focus primarily on women experiencing abuse in heterosexual relationships.
- Sexual assault and coercion in relationships is not rare: In several studies of women who had been married or cohabiting, 8 to 23 percent reported having been sexually assaulted by an intimate partner, according to a 2003 review in Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. The study definitions of intimate partner and sexual assault varied.
- Sexual violence may be relatively common in young people’s relationships: In a UK study involving teens, 31 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys reported some form of sexual coercion or assault (NSPCC, 2009).
- Physical and sexual violence may go together: Many abusive relationships that involve physical violence involve sexual violence too, research shows (Department of Justice, 2005). Within relationships, the mental and physical health impact of sexual assault can be worse than the harms caused by physical violence, according to the same study. Sexual assaults by partners are more likely to cause physical injury than sexual assaults by strangers or acquaintances are (Partner Abuse, 2012).
- Sexual assault by partners can cause serious physical and emotional harm: Women who have been sexually assaulted within relationships had more post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, more pregnancies resulting from rape, more sexually transmitted infections, and more suicide attempts, compared to women who had been physically but not sexually assaulted by partners, according to the 2005 study for the Department of Justice.
- Sexual assault by partners is a risk factor for drug use: In the 2005 study, 27 percent of the women began or increased their use of nicotine, alcohol, or illicit drugs (usually cocaine) after they were sexually assaulted by an intimate partner.
- The sexual assault risk can vary according to circumstances: Women who are disabled, pregnant, or attempting to leave their abusers are at greatest risk for intimate partner rape, says the National Coalition Against Domestic Abuse.
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Hana Awwad and Evan Walker-Wells contributed to this article.
Casey Corcoran, program director, Futures Without Violence.
Dana Cuomo, coordinator of victim advocacy services, University of Washington.
Gabe Murchison, senior research manager, Human Rights Campaign.
Rachel Pain, PhD, professor, Department of Geography; co-director, Centre for Social Justice and Community Action; Durham University, UK.
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