Abuse Hides in the Dark. Turn on Your Light.

About Abuse

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What Are Other Words for Abuse?

You might hear abuse called many things:

  • domestic violence
  • domestic abuse
  • family violence
  • intimate partner violence (IPV)
  • wife or spousal abuse
  • relationship abuse
  • violence against women
  • battering or assault
  • mental and emotional cruelty

Who Is Abused?

Abusers target any person (adult or child) regardless of age, race, religion, education level, IQ, economic background, culture, or community status.

Who Gets It Worse, Men or Women?

As a society, we tend to assume that abusers are men and victims are women. This assumption ignores the many people who are not women but are abused. We must take everyone seriously when they reveal they are abused.

That said, women experience physical abuse more often than men. However, newer statistics show the gap between women and men as victims of abuse is closing. Still, we so often refer to women as the victims of domestic abuse for a simple reason:

“Men commit 86 to 97 percent of all criminal assaults, and women are killed 3.5 times more often than men in domestic homicides.”

The Duluth Model

Who Are the Abusers?

Any person can be an abuser of any other person. There is no demographic absent of abusers. Men, women, and children, regardless of their age, race, religion, education level, economic background, culture, or community status, can abuse. When it comes to children abusing other children, we typically speak of bullying, but bullying is abuse.

Abusers can be:

  • business partners
  • spouses and lovers
  • bosses or coworkers
  • parents and grown children
  • caregivers for the elderly or ill
  • friends

Why Do People Abuse?

Are Abusers Mentally Ill?

People might abuse others if they are sociopaths, psychopaths, narcissists, controllers, manipulators, mentally ill, or mean. An abusive person can fit under any or all of those labels – but they don’t always fit under any label at all.

It is wrong to think that a person is not abusive because they do not have a mental health diagnosis. In fact, doctors cannot diagnose all abusers with antisocial personality disorder (sociopathy or psychopathy), narcissism, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, or any other mental disorder. There is no proof that mental illness affects abusers at a rate higher than people who do not abuse.

No one knows for sure which abusive people are mentally ill unless they’ve received a diagnosis. Besides, the vast majority of people with mental illness are not abusive. So it doesn’t really matter if your abuser has a mental illness or not. If their behavior is abusive, it isn’t healthy for you to be around them.

Abuse Is for Gaining Power Over

People who abuse others want power over their victims for some reason. When someone is working hard to gain power over you, the abuse can take on physical, sexual, verbal, financial, social, emotional, or psychological forms.

Some types of abuse are against the law, but verbal abuse is not one of them. But verbal abuse is the foundation of all domestic violence and other types of abuse. We cannot put someone in jail for saying what they want to say, no matter how hurtful it is. Verbal abuse signals that there is also emotional abuse in the relationship (at least), and verbal abuse foretells physical violence.

You can press charges against your abuser if they:

  • sexually assault you
  • threaten to assault or kill you or your children
  • steal your money or possessions
  • stalk you
  • abuse your children
  • or any other crime

Triggering Events Can Cause a Person to Start Abusing

For many people, abuse and violence start after a triggering event that causes the abuser to believe the victim will not or cannot leave the relationship. Triggering events can be:

  • sexual intercourse
  • meeting parents
  • pregnancy
  • engagement
  • marriage
  • buying a house or moving in together
  • or any other situation the abuser identifies as a commitment.

There is no way to predict what event may trigger an abuser to begin abusing. There is no way to predict what kind of abuse will come first. The abuser will say or do whatever they think necessary to gain and maintain power and control over the victim.

Do Abusive People Have Anything in Common?

Abusers do have a couple of things in common though. They feel entitled to their behavior and believe they are right (about almost everything). Therefore, very few abusers participate in psychological studies or counseling which makes it very difficult to understand them thoroughly.

Abusers tend to believe that the rest of us are weak and wrong – we need counseling, not them.

An abusive partner’s “value system is unhealthy, not their psychology.”

Lundy Bancroft, author of Why Does He Do That?

Types of Abuse

Remember that there s no excuse for someone to abuse you or anyone else. Abuse is never the victim’s fault even though the abuser may say it is. Each of us is responsible for our own behavior; none of us can control another person’s behavior. If a person abuses you, tell someone – a crisis line volunteer, family member, friend, school counselor, therapist, . . . someone you trust.

Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse comes in many forms and fashions. It includes body language as well as what you can hear. Sometimes verbal abuse and emotional abuse seem to be the same because we communicate emotionally abusive ideas with words. Some body language that is also verbal abuse includes

  • pretending to choke you
  • drawing an imaginary knife across the throat signaling violence to you
  • laughing in your face
  • pretending to beat or kill your pet

Verbal abuse also includes insults, racial or ethnic slurs, joking meant to hurt, put-downs, intimidating words, bullying, and many other ways of communicating. We discuss many distinct types of verbal abuse on this website.

Financial Abuse

Financial abuse can occur even when the victim has access to the couple’s money. Abusers also use the money to control what victims spend on groceries, bills, clothes, or other things. Often, the abusive person gives an unrealistic allowance that falls short of what their partner needs.

Abusers may also:

  • refuse to pay the bills
  • force victims to hand over paychecks
  • leave victims out of financial decisions
  • insist their victim not work or pursue a career, eroding the victim’s ability to find work at a reasonable wage
  • berate the victim for their “inability” to manage money

Emotional and Mental Abuse

Crazy-making, gaslighting, and brainwashing are all types of emotional and mental abuse. Abusers may

  • refuse to acknowledge you in conversation
  • keep their whereabouts secret
  • use put-downs and insults
  • withdraw physically and emotionally
  • find fault in all the victim does or says

Social Abuse

Examples of social abuse include times when the abuser:

  • insults their victim in public to create an embarrassing scene
  • sets victims up to fail in front of their children, family, friends, or strangers
  • ignores their victim in public
  • prevents their victims from seeing friends and family
  • acts nicely in front of others while acting like a jerk when alone with their victim
  • acts hostile or rude to their victim’s loved ones, co-workers, etc.
  • threatens to deport their victim
  • steals the victim’s passport and other important identification

Sexual Abuse

When it comes to sexual abuse, abusers might:

  • threaten or commit sexual assault and rape
  • threaten to harm their victim’s reputation
  • put the victim down sexually
  • compare them unfavorably to other people
  • treat their victims as sex objects with no concern for their feelings
  • cheat while accusing the victim of cheating
  • withdraw their sexual affection or continually insist on having sex with their victim (or others)

Physical Abuse

Many people consider physical abuse to be actions that hurt the victim’s body (punching, kicking, choking, slapping, pulling hair, etc.). Physical abuse also occurs when the abuser grabs or restrains the victim so they cannot leave an area.

Why Do Victims Stay in Abusive Relationships?

There are many barriers to leaving an abusive relationship. One large barrier is the abuse itself. Abuse causes people to lose faith in themselves, and if you don’t believe in yourself, you cannot help yourself. Leaving abuse is extremely difficult. It becomes more so the longer a victim stays or if there are abusive relationships in the victim’s past.

Other barriers include financial concerns and religious and cultural beliefs. A huge barrier to leaving is the victim’s belief in the abuser when they say, “I will kill myself,” “I will kill our children,” or “I will kill you if you leave.” The fear of death at the hands of an abuser is very real. Law enforcement deals with new cases of murder-suicide due to domestic violence every day (Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research for Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges, p3 section 1.6)

Instead of asking why victims stay, we could ask why abusive people seek to control, manipulate, hurt and abuse others. The problem is the abuser’s behavior, not the victim’s behavior. The act of abusing someone requires power over the victim’s choices, behaviors, and thoughts. It doesn’t require total control, just enough to keep the victim scared of finding out what will happen if they don’t follow the abuser’s rules. It really isn’t hard to understand why someone stays in an abusive relationship when you can understand their fear of what would happen if they left it.

The Power and Control Wheel Pattern of Abuse

The power and control wheel is gender specific. It came about after studying male aggression towards women because women are likelier than men to be victims of control and violence. This is not to say that women abusers do not behave in the same way, only that there are no studies to support that the genders wield power and control in the same way. Learn more about the wheel at Domestic Violence Intervention Programs.

You will see the words “power and control” in the center of the Duluth Model Power and Control Wheel. The outer edges of the wheel say “physical violence sexual” to represent both physical and sexual violence as a result of the desire for control. The spokes of the wheel name the ways in which abusers attempt to satisfy their need to control. The methods of gaining and maintaining control include: using coercion, threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, children, and male privilege.

the Duluth power and control wheel is based on studies of male aggression towards women

The Cycle of Abuse

Sometimes there is a cycle of violence that many victims of abuse recognize. However, adopting the cycle of violence as the absolute explanation of domestic abuse puts victims in a bad spot. After all, if a victim knows what the stages are, then why doesn’t he or she leave before the next argument? The psychology of abuse is not that simple. It is not easy to leave an abusive relationship.

The Cycle of Abuse Explained

Because so many victims recognize the cycle, I’ll explain it and you can decide if you experience it or not.

  1. In the first stage of the cycle, the abuser’s anger and tension build (sometimes slowly, sometimes immediately).
  2. The second stage begins when the abuser verbally abuses the victim, threatens the victim or something they love, or strikes the victim. The abuser might stage a show of force by punching walls, breaking things (usually the victim’s things), or otherwise asserting dominance and control.
  3. The third stage of the cycle is the “honeymoon” stage. The cooling down or making up that happens during this stage may or may not feel like a honeymoon, but often the abuser acts so contrite that the victim feels compelled to forgive him or her, or at least to put the ugliness out of mind in the hope it doesn’t happen again.
  4. After that period of peace (which may get shorter and shorter until the victim no longer recognizes it), the tension builds and the abuse explodes. No one can predict what triggers abuse, but victims often attempt to read the abuser’s mind in hope of avoiding it. Eventually, the victim lives in an on-guard state all of the time in an attempt to prevent future violence of hand or word.

Are you unsure whether you’re abused or not? Here’s the Am I Abused Quiz to help you decide.

How Does Abuse Affect a Victim?

Long-term symptoms of abuse range from depression and anxiety to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide. Victims feel worthless and helpless much of the time and blame themselves for the situation they are in and their relationship problems. Victims could turn to substance abuse to dull the pain or may be forced into substance abuse by their abuser. They often feel hopeless like they may never feel truly happy again.

The effects of verbal, emotional, or psychological abuse are largely invisible – especially when the abuser has effectively employed isolation from family and friends.

Depression, anxiety, and PTSD can result from domestic violence and abuse. The victim can be triggered into symptoms of mental illness or irrational-appearing behavior at any time during or after the abusive relationship.

How Are Children Who Witness Domestic Abuse Affected?

Children have better hearing than we adults think they do. If there is abuse of any kind in the household, the children will hear it and form their own opinions of what is happening and which end of the yelling they want to be on when they grow up. Children exposed to domestic violence could be as negatively affected as children who directly experience sexual or physical abuse.

Children could display symptoms of abuse like bed-wetting, acting scared or confused, and trying to take care of the abused parent. Kids can also formulate some unhealthy ideas such as punishment equals love, violence at home is normal, and when they get big they can bully other grown-ups too.

Featured Photo by Melanie Wasser