What is Abuse?

Abuse defined: domestic violence (DV) is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.

It is important to understand that relationship abuse comes in many forms. Ending domestic violence means learning the behaviors that define abuse. DV can also be referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV), dating abuse, or relationship abuse. People of any race, age, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, education level, or economic status can be a victim or abusive partner.

Many forms of abuse are usually present at the same time. This includes behaviors that physically harm, intimidate, manipulate or control a partner, or otherwise force them to behave in ways they don't want to through physical violence, threats, emotional abuse, or financial control. There are varying types of abusive patterns. Abusive partners may minimize, deny and blame their partner for the abuse. Survivors of abuse often feel responsible for causing the violence.

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Why People Abuse: Power and Control

Every relationship is different and domestic violence doesn't always look the same. One feature shared by most abusive relationships is that the abusive partner tries to establish or gain power and control through many different methods at different moments.

Power and control. Those two things form the foundation of relationship violence and oppression. Once we develop a richer understanding of power and control, we can begin to understand the logic behind abuse and oppression. We work at Abused Deaf Women's Advocacy Services, ADWAS, who is in partnership with the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH). In our field, we have studied intimate partner violence, known as IPV, domestic violence (DV), sexual assault (SA), stalking, harassment and violence. We work with survivors of interpersonal violence, other anti-violence organizations, and have learned from everyone involved in domestic abuse advocacy to identify what reproduces the cycles of violence. They have narrowed this down to the key causes of power and control.

There are many frequently asked questions we want to answer about power and control, some of which we will cover here:

Abusive partners can be any gender. Abuse can happen to anyone. Some may use terms like “gender violence” or “gender-based violence” because there is a large pattern of violence from men toward women. This is also why some of our research or citations may mention “men”, but what we mean is the abusive partner. In the video above, we use 'abuser' or 'abusive partner' to identify who is taking advantage of power and control over another person, but there are terms other may prefer or may fit other contexts like 'batterer,' 'stalker,' 'harasser,' and more. The purpose of the word 'abuser' or 'abusive partner' is to identify someone who chronically mistreats and devalues their partner.

We have to recognize a big myth about abuse and violence: that it has to do with emotions. It does not. Lundy Bancroft, a consultant and writer on domestic violence, has worked in batterer intervention programs (BIP) for many years and wrote in his book, Why Does He Do That?,

[T]he problem of abusiveness has surprisingly little to do with how a man feels—my clients actually differ very little from non-abusive men in their emotional experiences—and everything to do with how he thinks. The answers are inside his mind.

One example of Lundy's revelations comes during a session of his with a survivor. She told Lundy that her partner had a tendency to snap and lose control and break things when he got angry at her. She lets him cool off because she felt his anger made it hard for him to think and listen to her. After this, he leaves, cools off, and comes back with gifts and apologizes to her. This has happened many times. Lundy and the survivor uncovered the pattern of how he would only break her things, and he would not clean up his own mess after returning. This is one of many examples where abuse can seem very emotional and heated, but the way they think is still calculating and clear. They feel entitled to breaking their partner's things. Why do they do this? Lundy writes,

...abuse is not his goal, but control is, and he finds himself using abuse to gain the control he feels he has a right to.

The Power and Control Wheel

Deaf Hope's power and control wheel showing 8 parts of power and control: minimize deny blame, isolation, verbal and emotional abuse, intimidation, force or threats, financial abuse, white male or hearing privilege, and using children

DeafHope has made a visual Power and Control Wheel inspired by the Duluth model of power and control. This shows some of the many ways abuse can look like. DeafHope provided ASL explanations of each part on their YouTube channel.

The parts on the power and control wheel are, but not limited to:

  • Minimize, deny, blame, which is how gaslighting makes someone powerless through self-doubt
  • Isolation, which is often how abusers start gaining control
  • Verbal and emotional abuse, which is how abusers chip away at self-esteem
  • Intimidation, which is how abusers take away more decision-making power in the relationship by making victims doubt their ability to make decisions
  • Force / threats, which is paired with intimidation and an overt display of physical power over their partner
  • Financial abuse, which is one of the most limiting actions abusers put on their partners
  • Using modes of oppression, which is how abusers take advantage of external power imbalances in society to gain more control
  • Using children, which is a form of manipulation

Warning Signs of Abuse

At the start of a new relationship, it's not always easy to tell if it will later become abusive. In fact, many abusive people appear like ideal partners in the beginning of a relationship. Possessive and controlling behaviors don't always appear overnight and may emerge and intensify as the relationship grows.

How can I identify warning signs of those methods that abuse could be present in my relationship? Common signs of abusive behavior in a partner include:

  • Telling you that you never do anything right
  • Showing extreme jealousy or a lack of trust after time spent away from your partner
  • Preventing or discouraging you from spending time with friends, family members, or peers
  • Insulting, demeaning, or shaming you, especially in front of other people
  • Preventing you from making your own decisions, including about working or attending school
  • Controlling finances in the household without discussion, including taking your money or refusing to provide money for necessary expenses
  • Pressuring you to have sex or perform sexual acts you're not comfortable with
  • Pressuring you to use drugs or alcohol
  • Intimidating you through threatening looks or actions
  • Insulting your parenting or threatening to harm or take away your children or pets
  • Intimidating you with weapons like guns, knives, bats, or mace
  • Destroying your belongings or your home

DeafHope has some examples in ASL of what deaf victims face and the tactics abusive partners use to abuse the deaf. Some of these are listed below:

  • Deaf victims of domestic violence often face unique circumstances: Information can travel quickly within a deaf, deafblind or hard of hearing community, compromising confidentiality and the victim's safety.
  • Law enforcement and shelters are often not skilled at communicating with deaf, deafblind or hard of hearing individuals and often don't have interpreters.
  • Their abusive partners may take away their communication devices.
  • Their abusive partners may give false information to the victim to make them believe they have fewer options.
  • The victim may be isolated from family, friends, services, resources and options.

Strategies to Set Boundaries

  1. Make it clear to them as soon as possible which behaviors or attitudes are unacceptable to you and that you cannot be in a relationship with them if they continue.
  2. If it happens again, stop seeing them for a substantial period of time. Don't keep seeing them with the warning that this time you “really mean it,” because they will probably interpret that to mean that you don't.
  3. If it happens a third time, or if they switch to other behaviors that are warning flags, chances are great that they have an abuse problem. If you give them too many chances, you are likely to regret it later.

One common comment about being in an unhealthy relationship is how every relationship has its ups and downs. While this is true that conflict happens in practically every relationship, what makes conflict unhealthy is when it becomes a way to reduce your power and control over your own well-being. An abusive partner is likely to react in anger as you take steps to regain control. With an understanding of power and control, red flags in a relationship, and strategies for setting healthy boundaries, you can maintain a healthy relationship where both your partner(s) and you are in charge of your own lives with support from everyone in the relationship.

  • If your partner is unable to accept you socializing with others due to jealousy, that is their own emotion to work through and not an acceptable reason to reduce the control you have over your own social life.
  • Every relationship in life has ups and downs, but the key is noticing a constant degree of power and control over yourself even during the downs.
  • If your partner shuts down during conflict and gives you the silent treatment, that is a form of manipulation, minimization or even intimidation.
  • If you notice your friends isolating themselves while in a relationship, that may be a sign that they are losing control over their social network.
  • If you feel repeatedly mistreated by a loved one, revisit the wheel and the warning signs list and see if you identify any of these happening to you.

Types of Abuse

Many people think of physical violence when they think about abuse. Physical abuse is only one type of relationship abuse and is not the only one. It's rarely the first type an abuser will use too. Abuse sneaks up on people. We are talking about a pattern of behavior, in other words, not just one incident. These behaviors can take on different forms and are often used in combination to exert control over their partner.

Physical Abuse

  • Pulls your hair, punches, slaps, kicks, bites, or strangles you
  • Forbids or prevents you from eating or sleeping
  • Uses weapons against you, including firearms, knives, bats, or mace
  • Prevents you from contacting emergency services, including medical attention or law enforcement
  • Harms your children, loved ones or pets
  • Drives recklessly or dangerously with you in the car or abandons you in unfamiliar places
  • Forces you to use drugs or alcohol
  • Throws objects at you
  • Prevents you from taking prescribed medication

Emotional & Verbal Abuse

  • Calls you names, insults you, or constantly criticizes you
  • Acts jealous and possessive or refuses to trust you
  • Isolates you from family, friends, or other people in your life
  • Attempts to control your appearance
  • Humiliates you in any way, especially in front of others
  • Threatens you, your children, your family, or your pets
  • Damages your belongings, throws objects, or damages walls or doors
  • Blames you for their abusive behavior
  • Tells you that you're lucky to be with them or that you'll never find someone better

Sexual Abuse

  • Forces you to dress in a sexual way you're uncomfortable with
  • Insults you in sexual ways
  • Forces or manipulates you into having sex or performing sexual acts, especially when you're sick, tired, or physically injured from their abuse
  • Strangles, holds, or injures you you during sex without your consent
  • Involves other people in your sexual activities against your will
  • Ignores your feelings regarding sex
  • Forces you to watch or make porn
  • Intentionally gives you or attempts to give you a sexually transmitted infection
  • Implies that you owe them something sexually in exchange for previous actions or gifts
  • Gives you drugs or alcohol to “loosen up” your inhibitions
  • Uses your relationship status by demanding sex as a way to “prove your love” or by threatening to cheat or leave
  • Reacts with sadness, anger, or resentment if you say no or don't immediately agree to something, or tries to normalize their sexual demands by saying that they “need” it
  • Continues to pressure you after you say no or intimidates you into fearing what will happen if you say no

Financial Abuse

  • Gives you money and closely monitors how you spend it, including demanding receipts for purchases
  • Deposits your paycheck into an account you can't access
  • Prevents you from viewing or accessing bank accounts
  • Prevents you from working, limits the hours that you can work, gets you fired, or forces you to work certain types of jobs
  • Maxes out your credit cards without permission, does not pay credit card bills, or otherwise harms your credit score
  • Steals money from you, your family, or your friends
  • Withdraws money from children's savings accounts without your permission
  • Lives in your home but refuses to work or contribute to the household
  • Forces you to provide them with your tax returns or confiscates joint tax returns
  • Refuses to provide money for necessary or shared expenses like food, clothing, transportation, medicine or rent

Digital Abuse

  • Tells you who you can or can't follow, or be friends with on social media
  • Sends you negative, insulting, or threatening messages or emails
  • Uses social media to track your activities
  • Steals or insists on being given your account passwords
  • Constantly texts you or makes you feel like you can't be separated from your phone for fear that you'll anger them
  • Looks through your phone or checks up on your pictures, texts, and phone records
  • Uses any kind of technology (such as spyware or GPS in a car or phone) to monitor your activities
  • Uses smart home technology, smart speakers, or security cameras to follow your activities
  • Creates fake social media profiles in your name and image, or uses your phone or email to send messages to others pretending to be you as a way to embarrass or isolate you


  • Shows up at your home or workplace unannounced or uninvited
  • Sends you unwanted texts, messages, letters, or emails
  • Leaves you unwanted items, gifts, or flowers repeatedly
  • Calls you and hangs up repeatedly or makes unwanted phone calls to you, your employer, or family or friends
  • Uses social media or technology to track your activities
  • Manipulates other people to investigate your life, including using someone else's social media account to look at your profile, or befriends your friends in order to get information about you
  • Waits around at places you spend time at
  • Damages your home, car, or other property
  • Hires a private investigator to follow or find you as a way of knowing your location

Why Do People Stay?

Leaving a relationship is not as easy as it seems

Abusive relationships are extremely complex situations, and it takes a lot of courage to leave. Abuse is about power and control. When a survivor leaves their abusive relationship, they threaten the power and control their partner has established over the survivor's agency, which may cause the partner to retaliate in harmful ways. As a result, leaving is often the most dangerous period of time for survivors of abuse.

Beyond the physical risks of leaving an abusive situation, there are countless other reasons why people stay in their relationships.

  • Fear

    A person will likely be afraid of the consequences if they decide to leave their relationship, either out of fear of their partner's actions or concern over their own ability to be independent.

  • Normalized abuse

    If someone grew up in an environment where abuse was common, they may not know what healthy relationships look like. As a result, they may not recognize that their partner's behaviors are unhealthy or abusive.

  • Shame

    It can be difficult for someone to admit that they've been or are being abused. They may feel that they've done something wrong, that they deserve the abuse, or that experiencing abuse is a sign of weakness. Remember that blame-shifting is a common tactic that their partner may use and can reinforce a sense of responsibility for their partner's abusive behaviors.

  • Intimidation

    A survivor may be intimidated into staying in a relationship by verbal or physical threats, or threats to spread information, including secrets or confidential details (i.e. revenge porn etc). For LGBTQ+ people who haven't come out yet, threats to out someone may be an opportunity for abusive partners to exert control.

  • Low self-esteem

    After experiencing verbal abuse or blame for physical abuse, it can be easy for survivors to believe those sentiments and believe that they're at fault for their partner's abusive behaviors.

  • Lack of resources

    Survivors may be financially dependent on their abusive partner or have previously been denied opportunities to work, a place to sleep on their own, language assistance, or a network to turn to during moments of crisis. These factors can make it seem impossible for someone to leave an abusive situation.

  • Disability

    If someone depends on other people for physical support, they may feel that their well-being is directly tied to their relationship; a lack of visible alternatives for support can heavily influence someone's decision to stay in an abusive relationship if they have a disability.

  • Immigration status

    People who are undocumented may fear that reporting abuse will affect their immigration status. If they have limited English proficiency, these concerns can be amplified by a confusing and convoluted legal system and an inability to express their circumstances to others.

  • Cultural context

    Traditional customs or beliefs may influence someone's decision to stay in an abusive situation, whether held by the survivor or by their family and community. Learn more about abuse in different cultural contexts.

  • Children and pets

    Many survivors may feel guilty or responsible for disrupting their familial unit. Keeping the family together may not only be something that a survivor may value, but may also be used as a tactic by their partner used to guilt a survivor into staying.

  • Love

    Experiencing abuse and feeling genuine care for a partner who is causing harm are not mutually exclusive. Survivors often still have strong, intimate feelings for their abusive partner. They may have children together, want to maintain their family, or the person abusing them may simply be charming (especially at the beginning of a relationship), and the survivor may hope that their partner will return to being that person.

How to Support a Loved One

Community intervention takes collective effort and practice. Talk with the victim before doing anything to reduce the potential for retaliation. Discuss your plans to maximize safety; suggest that they call a hotline or a local agency to conduct a safety plan.

Few people think they know an abuser, but statistically, we are likely to know some in our own circles: friends, family, colleagues, or others. This is why community intervention is important. Sometimes we can notice someone treating their spouse or partner in an uncomfortable way. This may be a red flag to keep in mind. When they are alone behind closed doors, it may be worse.

How to intervene

The first step to resolving abuse and harmful behavior is accountability. Accountability helps steer people away from unhealthy, abusive choices. It is not easy for an abuser to stop abusive behavior, and it will require a serious commitment to change.

The act of someone saying something, intervening and naming abusive behavior is enough to get people thinking about how they treat the people around them. Trust your intuition. Warning signs make themselves known, so if you see or hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable or crosses a line, note it and remember it. Red flags should not be ignored. Be involved, but be respectful. Don't get yourself or victims in a dangerous situation. Don't try to fix other people's relationships. Getting too involved by force may put the victim at risk. Discuss with the victim before proceeding with intervention.