Types of Abuse in a Relationship

Therapists and clients spend a great deal of their time together discussing relationships. Romantic, family, work, and community relationships create a lot of conflict and confusion for people, and a second perspective is often helpful in choosing correct actions.

A less common, but important conversation therapists have with clients, particularly women, is whether a problematic relationship is abusive. Not all troubling or confusing partner problems are abuse. However, one of the defining characteristics of abuse lies in the perspective of the individual involved.

A starting point for this conversation is whether a person feels abused.

A woman's hands clutch her dress and the sleeves of her sweater in a worried way.
Wondering if this is abuse. Photo by boram kim on Unsplash

When a client reports in therapy that they feel abused in an intimate relationship, it sets off a series of questions and inquiries to clarify. The responses to these questions help the counselor determine the true nature of the relationship, and to provide the client – or more accurately, the victim – a prudent course of action to remain safe.

The American Psychological Association identifies four types of abuse that intimate partners might experience.

Please note that if you believe you are experiencing one or more of these types of abuse, it is important to know that all therapists follow state regulated laws and ethical practices. Therapists are mandated to break confidentiality if you are at harm you yourself or others, if a child or elderly is being neglected or abused, or if contacted by legal authorities. If you are in an abusive relationship, it is not your work to “deal with it” or “get over it.”

A counselor can help an abused partner determine the best course of action and provide information about resources in the community that can assist in ending the abuse. A trained therapist might also be helpful in processing and moving past the damage that happens in these relationships, which often times leads to trauma.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is the most commonly understood type of abuse that can occur in a relationship. It is not hard to identify the signs, which range from shoving or slapping to hitting or even choking a partner.

Less obvious physical abuse can include abandoning a partner in an unsafe place, failing to help them leave a situation in which they feel threatened, or even refusing medical aid.

These signs of physical abuse are often minimized by a partner. “He was just angry,” they might say. Or, “she was just having a bad day.” Unfortunately, left unaddressed, physical abuse can get worse. All too often these smaller events have led to more severe events, including murder.

Sexual abuse

Unlike physical abuse, which can sometimes be visible to friends and family, sexual abuse is almost always entirely hidden from public view.

Sexual abuse can range from the seemingly mundane acts of unwanted advances or pressure to engage in sex or physical contact all the way to forcible rape. And rape can occur in an otherwise consensual physical relationship.

Any physical, verbal, or visual acts that a person perceives as a threat or invasion is a form of sexual abuse.

A person should note that any sexual act that causes harm, is degrading, or takes away the ability to control contact can fall in the category of sexual abuse.

Psychological abuse

Psychological abuse includes any of a wide range of actions intended to make a partner feel they are not worthwhile, and to keep the victim under the control of the abuser.

This can include name-calling and belittling, humiliation, and threats of physical harm (even if the threats are not ultimately carried out.) Often prompted by extreme jealousy or a sense of control, acts such as restricting friend groups, controlling social encounters, and monitoring a person’s movements are forms of psychological abuse.

This type of abuse can be especially dangerous because the abuser can even involve loved ones by threatening to harm them physically or emotionally. Physically harming or threatening to harm household pets or damaging favorite objects to get intended results is also abusive.

A subset of psychological abuse includes economic abuse. In some instances, the abuser exerts control over their victim by restricting access to resources including bank accounts, transportation, or even medical care.


Stalking is the threatening repeated appearance of the abuser in the victim’s life. This can include showing up at their home or work, making unwanted phone calls to the victim, leaving unwanted notes, and even damaging property.

Stalking is a serious concern because this type of repeated behavior can be an indicator of a possible future threat of harm and – in some cases – actual harm, including rape or murder.

What if I believe I am experiencing abuse?

If one or more of the items apply to your relationship, you should seek the help of a trusted resource. A therapist or counselor in this case is NOT the solution, but may be able to provide insight and access to resources to help keep you safe.

Once you are safe and appropriate steps are being taken to permanently end the abuse, a therapist might help you restore a sense of security and normalcy to your life.

If you have further questions about what constitutes abuse in a relationship, or if you would like to set up a consultation, please contact Sakina at She can walk you through the process to give your teenager and you the tools to navigate this challenging time.

Contact Sakina today.

Maybe your relationship is not abusive, but is just not everything you know it can be. Learn how mindfulness can help your relationship.

The definitions used in this article are accepted by the American Psychological Association and are described in more detail in this resource:









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