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Abusive relationships

7-minute read

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:

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:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2019

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