Abuse Definitions


What is abuse, anyway?

We get it. You’ve heard the “A” word (abuse) tossed around a lot. But how can you be sure your actions qualify as abuse and are not just another way for your partner to blame you for problems between the two of you?

Abuse, simply stated, is the mistreatment of something that results in harm. We can abuse a car, our phone, or our natural resources. Of course, the abuse we’re talking about on this site is related to relationships where one person mistreats another.

What is domestic abuse? 

Domestic abuse is when one person mistreats another who is part of their household, family, or is in a dating or marriage relationship with them. While the domestic abuse definition can include mistreatment of an older family member (elder abuse) or a child (child abuse), the kind we are focusing on is hurting our intimate (dating or marriage) partners.

Mistreatment (abuse) comes in different forms. It could be bodily injury or the threat of injury (physical abuse) or words or actions that damage a person’s sense of well-being and independence (emotional abuse).

What is physical abuse? What is domestic violence?

Physical abuse and domestic violence are two terms for the same thing: physical force that hurts someone in our household, family, or in a relationship with us. Here’s what is considered domestic violence:

  • Pushing or shoving
  • Grabbing to restrict movement (stopping a partner from leaving, for example)
  • Slapping
  • Kicking
  • Biting
  • Hitting with a fist or object
  • Beating up (striking more than once)
  • Using a knife or gun

There’s a progression of violence from top to bottom, but an answer of ‘yes’ to any of these is considered domestic violence and battery. Threatening any of these, even if they are not carried out, is considered domestic violence and assault. See our page on domestic violence laws for more on assault and battery.


What is emotional abuse?

Can abuse occur if no one is touched? Yes. Examples of emotional abuse are:

  • Controlling your partner’s time, space, money, thoughts, or choices such as what they wear
  • Monitoring where your partner goes or what they spend money on
  • Isolating your partner by not letting them see or talk to others
  • Making all of the decisions without your partner’s input or consideration of their needs
  • Accusing your partner of flirting, having an affair, or being unfaithful when there is little or no evidence they have done so. Read more about jealousy here.
  • Getting angry or resentful when your partner is successful in a job or hobby
  • Intimidating your partner by making them afraid, including breaking things, punching walls, slamming doors, or throwing objects
  • Threatening to hurt your partner, their children, their pets, or damage their property, even if you don’t follow through on the threat
  • Threatening to hurt yourself, especially when things are not going your way
  • Threatening to leave or divorce your partner, threatening to not let them see their children
  • Demeaning your partner with frequent put-downs, name calling, blame, or humiliation
  • Saying things that are designed to make your partner feel “crazy” or “stupid.” This is called gaslighting and you can read more about it here.
  • Always being right, never apologizing
  • Punishing your partner by refusing to talk to them or by withholding affection. This is called stonewalling and you can read more about it here.
  • Withholding essential resources like food or money (also called economic or financial abuse)
  • Frequent mood swings, where one moment you are loving and affectionate, and the next moment you’re angry and threatening
  • Frequently and quickly escalating into rage, where you just snap and lose it
  • Blaming others for your behavior, especially your parents, partner, or children
  • Blaming alcohol, drugs, stress, or other life events for your behavior
  • Using sex, money, privileges, or other favors as a way to “make up” after conflict in order to stop feeling guilty
  • Acting like your behavior is no big deal, denying the behavior, or telling your partner it’s their fault
  • Using religious beliefs to justify holding a dominant, authoritarian position over your partner (also called spiritual abuse)
  • Attempting to force your partner to keep quiet about your behavior or drop criminal charges

You may be thinking, “So if I’m upset and don’t talk to my spouse for an afternoon, or I slip up and call him or her a name in the heat of an argument, that’s abuse?” While neither of these actions are ever good, they are not necessarily abuse. In reality, we all do some of these things sometimes. They become abusive when they are repeated frequently. Read more about dirty fighting styles in this blog.

I see myself

What if, in reading these lists, you have that awful, gut-wrenching feeling that you fit the definition? Then what? We have a really important message for those of us who see ourselves in the descriptions above. We know that you probably don’t intend to do those things, but may end up doing them anyway. It doesn’t have to be that way for you forever. Change is possible. To borrow a quote from Beverly Engel in The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: “There are no monsters here, only injured but brave individuals who are seeking to heal themselves from the bondage of their actions.” We’re here to help you find that healing.

Make it your goal to never (or never again) use physical force in a conflict or to get your way. Also, try to significantly minimize doing anything that is emotionally abusive. Stopping physical abuse but ignoring things that are emotionally abusive might keep you out of jail but will not help you build good relationships and a happy life.

Healthy relationships

Most couples disagree without resorting to the abusive actions listed above. If you’re still wondering where your relationship falls in the spectrum from healthy to abusive, check out this page from the National Domestic Violence Hotline. We especially like their list of characteristics of healthy relationships and think these are good ones to aspire to: open communication, mutual respect, trust, honesty, equality, both shared and separate interests, consensual sex, supportive parenting.

Disagreements in a relationship are normal. However, disagreements that lead to a physical scuffle are not normal, not healthy, and not necessary. Frequent behavior like that described in the emotional abuse category is also not normal, not healthy, and not necessary. It hurts your loved one. It hurts your relationship with that person. And, you might be surprised to learn, it hurts you. For more on this, check out our Who’s Hurt page.