When one person tries to dominate or control someone they are in close contact with, that is an abusive relationship.
The abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual or financial. It can involve violence, intimidation, threats, insults or psychological manipulation. It can involve a partner or ex-partner, a carer or guardian, a family member, or anyone who is in close contact with another person.
People from all walks of life can be in an abusive relationship. Abusive relationships affect men, women or children, people in heterosexual or in same-sex relationships, and people from any culture, ethnic group or religion.
What to do now
If you think you are in an abusive relationship, or know someone who might be, get help now. Trust your gut instincts.
If you are in danger, protect yourself. Get out of the situation and call the police. Talk to someone you trust, whether it’s a friend, family member or a counsellor, who can help you decide what to do next. Then come up with a plan — decide what to do the next time something bad happens.
If you feel safe to confront the other person, tell them that their behaviour is unacceptable. Set boundaries about what you will and will not accept. You could also seek counselling, either together or alone.
If you (or someone else) are in danger, or if you have been threatened, physically hurt or sexually assaulted, then call the police on triple zero (000). With enough evidence, they can lay criminal charges.
Types of abuse
The term domestic violence usually makes people think of someone physically hurting someone close to them, usually a man hurting a woman. Violence is a crime and the abuser is breaking the law.
However, abusive relationships do not always involve physical violence. There are other kinds of equally damaging abuse, none of which are acceptable. The abuser can be a man or a woman. Types of abuse include:
- physical abuse — physical violence, throwing things, denial of food, threatening or dangerous behaviour
- verbal abuse — intimidation, name-calling, yelling and swearing
- psychological and emotional abuse — putting you down, blaming or ignoring you, treating you as an inferior, frequently saying your behaviour is inappropriate, questioning your sense of reality
- sexual abuse — rape, unwanted or forced sexual acts or behaviour, sexual threats and insults, restricting access to birth control, refusing to wear a condom
- social abuse — demanding attention and resenting your relationships with others, isolating you from friends and family, accusing you of being unfaithful, embarrassing you in public, putting down your friends and family to drive you apart
- spiritual abuse — ridiculing your religious beliefs and culture, or preventing you from being part of your religion or cultural group
- financial abuse — giving you an allowance, not allowing access to bank accounts, hiding assets, preventing you from working, sabotaging interviews or meetings, theft, damaging your ability to save or pay bills
- child abuse — physical and sexual abuse, neglect, verbal and emotional abuse of a child
- elder abuse — similar to child abuse, but directed at elderly people
What are the signs of an abusive relationship?
Learning about the warning signs is important. You could be in an abusive relationship if the other person:
- frequently insults and ridicules you, puts you down or humiliates you
- ignores your feelings, opinions, thoughts or choices
- controls what you do, where you go and who you see
- is excessively jealous
- threatens to hurt you, people close to you, your pets or themselves
- threatens to take your children away or uses them against you
- is violent, aggressive or forces you to do sexual things against your will
- blames you for their behaviour or unhappiness
- limits your access to money, the phone or car
- threatens to ‘out’ you to your family, friends, or employer
What is the ‘cycle of abuse’?
If abuse happens once, it can happen again. It can become a ‘cycle of abuse’ that may involve a number of different phases.
First there is a build-up — tension starts to increase, with verbal, emotional or financial abuse. This may then be followed by the stand over, when the behaviour worsens and the person being abused may feel they are ‘walking on eggshells’.
Next comes the explosion. Things erupt, and this may result in violence.
Afterwards, the abuser may feel remorse, when they are ashamed of their behaviour and try to justify it. The abuser may seem distant or start a pursuit, when they promise not to do it again, make excuses or pay more attention to the person they have abused. Both people then may enter a honeymoon phase, when they both are in denial about how bad the abuse is. The cycle often starts again.
How you might feel
If you are living in an abusive relationship, you might feel scared, afraid of being physically hurt, or find yourself changing your behaviour or avoiding certain topics around the person. You may be afraid of telling other people, or worried that you would not be able to cope if you left.
People who are being abused often feel powerless, worthless, stupid, confused, ashamed, depressed or alone. You may feel like you deserve the abuse or that you are to blame. But you are never to blame for someone else’s behaviour.
How the abuse may affect your children
The signs that a child is being abused include:
- they are withdrawn or detached
- they are bullied by, or bully other children
- they complain of physical problems, such as headaches or stomach cramps
- problems with schoolwork
- they hurt themselves, or use drugs or alcohol
- mood swings
- using language and showing sexual behaviour too advanced for their age
- they feel guilty and believe they are to blame
Children can be emotionally and psychologically hurt, even if they are not directly abused. They may not learn about good relationships, and are more likely to use controlling and manipulative behaviour themselves.
Where to get help
People often stay in an abusive relationship for longer than they should. Once you know that you are in an abusive relationship, however, you should do something about it.
If you are in immediate danger, call triple zero (000). The police are there to protect you. If you need to get out, you could go to a refuge, a trusted family member or friend.
You can also access these resources to help you work out what to do next:
- 1800RESPECT: National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service: 1800 737 732. You can use their website to find services in your area.
- Call your state or territory support service:
- ACT: Domestic Violence Crisis Service ACT (02) 6280 0900
- NSW: Domestic Violence Line 1800 656 463
- QLD: DV Connect 1800 811 811
- Vic: Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre 1800 015 188 or Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria
- WA: Women’s Domestic Violence Helpline 1800 007 339 or (08) 9223 1188; Men's Domestic Violence Helpline 1800 000 599 or (08) 9223 1199
- SA: Domestic Violence Crisis Services 1800 800 098
- Tas: Family Violence Response and Referral line 1800 633 937 or Family Violence Counselling and Support Service 1800 608 122
- NT: Dawn House 08 8945 1388 or NT Domestic and Family Violence Services
- For financial help, Centrelink has a range of services to help you in a crisis.
- Lifeline — 13 11 14 provides support if you suffering a personal crisis, or are thinking of suicide.
- Kids Helpline — 1800 55 1800 — a confidential service for young people aged between 5 and 25 via telephone, email and web.
- MensLine Australia — 1300 78 99 78 — provides support to men having relationship problems and men who use or experience family and domestic violence.
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Last reviewed: August 2019