Characteristics of an Abusive Relationship

A couple sitting on a bench. One person is facing away and the other has their head down.

This article is designed to help individuals determine if they or someone they know may be in an abusive relationship.

Identifying the signs of an abusive relationship early on are important, but it is never too late to get help. It can be difficult to recognize whether or not one is in an abusive relationship. Abuse may not define the nature of all of your interactions but that does not make the consequences less severe when abuse does occur. When people hear the terms “abusive relationship” or “domestic violence”, they may think that these relationships must have physical violence to fall under these categories. However, the National Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic violence as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.”5 Other than physical, abuse can be sexual, financial, or verbal (emotional/psychological). While these other types of abuse can be much more difficult to identify than physical abuse, they can still have lasting and damaging effects on the survivors. Individuals experiencing verbal and psychological abuse may not feel as though they are in danger, however, many abusive relationships quickly escalate to higher levels of severity.1 For this reason it is best to be able identify the characteristics of an abusive relationship early on.

Forms of Domestic Violence

Each relationship is different, and interactions between partners are often complex. Although the differences between normal relationship behavior and abuse can be hard to distinguish, a healthy relationship is one in which overall both partners are happy and treat each other equally.  

It is up to each individual to determine whether or not their relationship is abusive. The following characteristics are meant to help aid in that decision.

Physical Abuse

Common forms of physical abuse are slapping, hitting/punching, hitting with an object, kicking, choking, shaking, push/pulling, pinching, scratching, pulling hair, or biting. More extreme forms are stabbing, shooting, drowning, or burning.6 Physical abuse does not just mean acts of violence are committed directly against the other partner. Other characteristics could include the following:

A person forcefully holding another person's arm while they are running away.
  • Throwing/breaking objects, punching/kicking walls, or slamming doors in order to intimidate partner
  • Threatening partner with physical assault or a weapon, especially if the partner says they will leave or tell someone about the abuse
  • Threatening to abuse others (children, pets, or even themselves) if partner does not stay or listen to them
  • Putting their partner in dangerous situations, such as driving recklessly, driving under the influence, or abandoning them in isolated areas
  • Withholding/limiting physical needs such as sleep, food, water, or help if sick/injured
  • Forcible physical restraint against will, tying/handcuffing, holding partner down, trapping them in a room, or locking partner out of the house6

A relationship should not have any forms of physical violence.

Sexual Abuse

Any non-consensual or unwanted sexual experience can be considered abuse, including:

  • Unwanted touching, groping, kissing, or licking
  • Unwanted vaginal, anal, or oral penetration, with a penis, finger(s), or other objects
  • Threatening to sexually assault partner
  • Coercing, manipulating, or guilting partner into engaging in any sexual activity that they do not want to do
  • Taking advantage of partner sexually when they are too incapacitated by drugs, alcohol, illness, or injury to consent
  • Making partner engage in unwanted sexual behavior with other people or prostitute themselves
  • Degrading partner by laughing at or insulting their body or sexual desires/behaviors
  • Withholding sex as a method to control partner
  • Cheating on partner and discussing the affair(s) in partner’s presence to humiliate/hurt them6

All sexual activity in a relationship should be consensual and enjoyable for both partners.

Financial Abuse

Financial abuse, or economic abuse, involves controlling a partner by managing or interfering with their finances, which may include:

A person holding money.
  • Taking money from partner without their explicit consent
  • Only being in a relationship with partner to use their money
  • Controlling the family income, giving partner no say in how money is spent or keeping them on an “allowance”
  • Lying/keeping secrets about how they spend the family income, having hidden bank accounts
  • Spending family income recklessly (i.e. spending money needed for essentials like bills or groceries on nonessential items)
  • Preventing partner from getting/keeping a job6

Money should not be used to control partners within a relationship, but as a means to equally support each other.

Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse can be the hardest form of abuse to distinguish (to people outside as well as within the relationship). Some also consider it to be the most detrimental due to the lasting effects it can have on a domestic violence survivor’s psyche, and the fact that it often convinces people to stay in abusive relationships that lead to other types of abuse. There are many forms of verbal abuse, some of which could be:

A person with an open mouth, frowned face, and pointing their finger out.
  • Constantly criticizing partner for their looks, actions, beliefs, ideas, and/or values
  • Calling partner mean, negative, and hurtful names
  • Saying anything to degrade partner’s self worth (that they are worthless, nobody else will ever love them, or they deserve the abuse)
  • Disregarding/ignoring partner’s feelings or needs, saying that they do not matter
  • Lies to partner to manipulate and control their thoughts
  • Purposefully blaming partner for things they know partner did not do to justify abusing them
  • Convincing partner that they are the ones who are crazy or in the wrong (“gaslighting”)
  • Using their gender to justify their abusive actions
  • Insisting partner look a certain way
  • Telling partner who they are allowed to talk to or spend time with
  • Experiencing excessive and constant jealousy that is taken out on partner
  • Constantly monitoring partner’s behavior, stalks them in real life or online, and explodes whenever they find something they do not like
  • Humiliating partner in front of others, in public, or online

Communication in a relationship should focus on positive, loving aspects about each other and build each partner up, not tear them down.

Other Characteristics

These are some feelings that abused partners may have:

A person covering their face with their hand.
  • Experiencing fear in their partner’s presence, are afraid of being alone with them, and fearing what they may do to them
  • Wanting to leave the relationship but feeling as though they cannot
  • Believing they deserve to be harmed or punished by their partner
  • Feeling guilty or feeling like everything is their fault

If any of these characteristics fit your or a friend’s relationship, please visit the Domestic Violence Hotline page to get more help.2 We encourage you to alert someone of the abuse as early as possible.

The Cycle of Domestic Violence

Abuse in a relationship often follows a cyclical pattern in which there are multiple stages. This cycle is what allows survivors to feel as though things are just getting better before their partner returns to abusing them again.3 The three main phases are the tension building phase, the incident phase, and the reconciliation phase.4

1. Tension Building Phase: This phase is the longest of the three. The abuser may consistently be in a negative mood and commit minor assaults, damages to property, or make threats. The other partner may appease the abuser through any of the following: satisfying their needs, calming them down, or avoiding confrontation.4

2. The Incident Phase: This phase consists of the actual abuse that takes place in the relationship.  It is the shortest of the three, lasting usually no longer than a day. It is common during this phase for the abuser to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Unfortunately, the abuser usually will not suffer repercussions for their behavior and is able to maintain their relationship with the survivor because of the third phase.4

3. The Reconciliation Phase: In this phase, the abuser declares their love for their partner, apologizing and promising to never be abusive again; they may claim that they will take other actions to end their violent behavior, such as quitting drinking. The abuser may buy the survivor gifts and/or shower them with attention until they forgive the abuser.  If police are involved, the survivor may stop the investigation and attempt to get the charges dropped by lying about/dismissing injuries or the events that took place. This phase is sometimes followed by a period of “calm” in which the relationship may appear to be improving before the initiation of the next tension building phase, causing the cycle to repeat itself again.4

Not all domestic violence relationships will fit this pattern perfectly. However, if you or somebody you know are experiencing this pattern in a relationship, please visit the Domestic Violence Hotline page. It is never too early or too late to get help.


  1. “Domestic Violence and Abuse.” Web. 18 May 2016.
  2. “Domestic Violence and Abuse.” Web. 18 May 2016.
  3. “What Keeps People in Abusive Relationships.” Emerge Center. Web. 31 May 2016.
  4. “Cycle of Abuse.” Emerge Center. Web. 31 May 2016.
  5. “Abuse Defined.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Web. 21 Jan. 2019.
  6. “Types of Domestic Violence.” Arizona Coalition to End Sexual & Domestic Violence. Web. 21 Jan. 2019.

Last Updated 07 February 2019.