Live Better. Love Better. Work Better.

How To Recognize If You Are In An Abusive Relationship

By: Olimpia Wesley

While most relationships begin with the parties demonstrating their best behavior and viewing each other with rose-colored glasses, some relationships may progress into abusive patterns with time. Abuse is a dynamic concept that could be physical, emotional, sexual, and/or financial, and are forms all harmful to the victim. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline (2021), relationship abuse is a pattern of behavioral conduct by a partner to maintain unfair control and dominance over their counterpart. Relationship abuse can be meted out to any partner regardless of their gender or status.  

Physical harm is often the first thing people associate with an abusive relationship. Lyness (2017), a renowned relationship scholar, argues that physical harm in relationships can occur in different forms. This may include slapping, punching, kicking, battering, grabbing, and other forms of physical assault. Abusive individuals in those relationships will occasionally or regularly subject their partners to physical violence, leading to different types of injuries. Partners who are physically abusive also compel their counterparts to do things they don’t want to do through intimidation or the instilling of fear by the use of threats. The concept of violence as a sign of an abusive relationship is not tied to the frequency of its occurrence; be it frequent or nonfrequent, it is deemed to be abuse. The manifestation of violence or any other form of physical harm is sufficient evidence to label a behavior or relationship as being abusive.  

Abusive relationships are also characterized by emotional manipulation and harm. Emotional abuse is a complex phenomenon that may be difficult to recognize due to the numerous and sometimes covert forms in which it is can occur in relationships. This is according to research conducted by Lyness (2017). Moreover, emotional abuse is characterized by certain behaviors or attitudes of nonphysical nature which are formulated to subdue, punish, dominate, or control the other partner through humiliation, manipulation, or fear. An appropriate definition of emotional abuse is any conduct involving elements of psychological, symbolic, or verbal abuse (aggression). It is a behavioral orientation designed to terrorize the victim with or without the application of any physical force. Emotionally abusive relationships are often associated with various features, including verbal assault, ridicule, dominance, isolation, intense jealousy, possessiveness, threats, intimidation, betrayal, and putdowns among other similar behaviors.

Other examples of emotional abuse in relationships include sulking and refusal to discuss an issue, stalking, belittling or berating a partner, insulting, and yelling at the other partner. While some characteristics of emotional abuse such as yelling and verbal assault are easy to identify, others are hard to recognize. For instance, a manipulation is a common form of emotional abuse in relationships. This is because the abuser will often gaslight or deny the existence of abuse and make the victim doubt their own memory or experience.

Abuse in a relationship can also have a sexual component, whereby a victim is physically forced or emotionally coerced in to sexual acts that they do not want or feel comfortable doing. If saying “no” to a sexual request results in threats or acts of violence or a form of emotional abuse, such as the silent treatment, threats of breaking up, or verbal insults, then that constitutes sexual abuse. Sexual abuse and rape can occur in various forms and stages of relationships, whether it is a first date, a developed relationship, or even between married partners.

Financial abuse involves the deliberate obstruction of a partner from the possession of financial self-sufficiency as a means of compelling the dependence of the victim on their abusive partner; thus, maintaining an uneven and unhealthy power dynamic in the relationship. An abuser may not allow the victim to access shared funds or may sabotage their victim’s attempts to earn or save money. 

If you have experienced any of the above signs in your relationships, you should consider seeking help through talking to a trusted friend or family member, calling a hotline, seeking a local domestic violence shelter, or by telling a doctor or counselor. If you have an immediate worry for your own or another’s physical safety, then call 911.

Symmetry Counseling offers confidential help to discern if you have experienced abuse, explore options to seek safety, and have therapeutic support while you take steps to survive and thrive after abuse. You can book an appointment for therapy in Chicago, or call 312-578-9990.   


Lyness, D. (2017). Abusive Relationships (for Teens). Retrieved 26 May 2021, from 

N.D.V.H. (2021). Understand Relationship Abuse. The Hotline. Retrieved 26 May 2021, from 

Symmetry Counseling Recent News Image 4
Recent Posts

When to Go to Couples Therapy? When You Notice These 3 Sign

Apr 30, 2024

Zoe Mittman, LSW If you’re asking the question “when to go to couples therapy”, you are in the right place. I am going to spend some time talking about 3 signs couples therapy may be a good fit for you.…

Read More

Healing the Heart – Tips for How to Get Over a Breakup

Apr 23, 2024

Breakups can be extremely difficult for both the heart and the mind. Grieving the loss of a relationship is taxing both mentally and emotionally. Whether you initiated the breakup or are the individual being broken up with, the pain and…

Read More

Surviving the Holidays: 5 Tips for Managing Holiday Stress

Apr 16, 2024

Paula Gonzalez MA, LPC, ADHD-CCSP, CIMHP                                                                                         The Christmas holiday season can be filled with “tidings of comfort and joy!.” It can also be filled with lots of invitations to holiday parties that will have you “rockin’ around the Christmas tree…

Read More