Forms of Abuse

Disclaimer: We acknowledge that there are many different words that individuals use to describe themselves after experiencing sexual assault. In this article, we use the term “survivor” for the sake of consistency. We acknowledge that there are many different ways of processing abuse, and we believe that each individual person should choose the language that they are most comfortable with.

A person's bare back with "Love shouldn't hurt" written on it.


Domestic abuse affects many people around the world. Abuse can take many different forms including physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, and more. Each form of abuse has distinct traits that separate it from other forms. Anyone can be the victim of abuse and anyone can be a perpetrator, regardless of their gender, age, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

What Is Abuse?

Abuse is defined as treating a person with cruelty or violence, either once or repeatedly.2 This abuse can take many different forms, with some being more obvious than others. Certain types of abuse are harder to prove and prosecute and some are all illegal in many countries. There are many signs of an abusive relationship. An abuser can be your partner, family member, friend, coworker, and many others. Fearing someone or feeling as if you must “walk on eggshells” all the time are some of the more obvious signs that you may be in an abusive relationship.2 By learning the characteristics of the different forms of abuse, you can learn to recognize the indicators if you or someone you know is being abused and you will be able to seek help.

Types of Abuse

There are several different forms of abuse that a perpetrator may exercise on their victim. The victim may experience one or several of the forms. The following are examples of the different forms of abuse:

  • Physical abuse
  • Psychological abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Financial abuse
  • Spiritual abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Digital abuse
  • Neglect

Physical Abuse

A person aggressively holding the wrists of another person.

Physical abuse occurs when any action causes physical pain or injury, including hitting, kicking, pushing, punching, and many others.1 This is usually the easiest form of abuse to spot because there may be visible evidence of violence on the survivor, such as bruises or scabs; however, physical abuse is not always seen on the body of a survivor.  A survivor does not need to have any visible signs of abuse for it to be considered physical abuse. The perpetrator may use physical abuse to intimidate their survivor or force them to comply with them. Even using the threat of physical violence is considered physical abuse. Physical abuse is one of the most dangerous forms of abuse. Survivors can be seriously injured or even die from the violent attacks they suffer.

Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse occurs when the abuser manipulates their victim’s sense of reality.1 Psychological abuse is often used to force the victim to cooperate with the abuser. For example, a person who is also committing sexual abuse may tell their victim that it is their own fault for dressing promiscuously. Shaming and humiliation are also common forms of psychological abuse. Psychological abuse can have serious effects on the victim and can lead to mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.1

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse may consist of verbal attacks, humiliation, breaking one’s possessions, or any actions that cause loss of self-esteem.2 This includes insults, name-calling, swearing, or criticizing. Emotional abuse is the most common form of abuse. The abuser may try to put down the survivor and make it seem like their own actions are the survivor’s fault. Because the abuse does not leave visible, physical injury, it can be very difficult to spot.  Emotional abuse is often a component of other forms of abuse. For example, a psychological abuser may inflict emotional abuse to further manipulate their partner.  These negative outbursts tend to be linked with jealousy, distrust, anger, and accusations. A common form of emotional abuse is called “gaslighting.” This occurs when the perpetrator attempts to confuse their survivor by making them question their own sanity and perceptions.2 For example, the abuser may deny that a certain event occurred, tell their survivor they are imagining things, or calling their survivor too sensitive. Gaslighting gives the abuser power and allows them to further manipulate their survivors.

Sexual Abuse

#METOO spelled put with cut-out paper.

Sexual abuse is any sexual conduct forced upon the survivor without consent that occurs once or on more than one occasion.1 This includes, but is not limited to, inappropriate touching, oral sex, anal sex, intercourse, or exploitation of the survivor’s body that is unwanted, unwelcome or pressured. This can also include watching the survivor undress, forcing them to engage in sexual behaviors with another person, or taking lude photos or videos of the survivor without their consent. Sexual abuse can also be called rape or sexual assault. Sexual abuse can happen between friends, strangers, family members, dating couples, and even married couples. The perpetrator may also use drugs or alcohol to incapacitate their survivor. Everyone has the right to say no and not partake in sexual activities. The only time sexual contact is not sexual assault is when both partners have received clear, affirmative consent from their partner. Consent is defined as a clear and unambiguous agreement from both parties for the entire duration of the sexual activity.1 Consent can be revoked at any point and it is up to the person initiating the sexual activity to be sure their partner has given full consent.

Financial/Economic Abuse

Economic abuse consists of the withholding and controlling of access to resources, such as money, transport, insurance, or shelter.1 Financial abuse is often a component of other forms of abuse.2 There are many actions a perpetrator can implement to control a person. For example, a perpetrator may cut off access to bank accounts, not give them financial information, tell them when and where to work, demand they give them their income, and more.  Being in charge of financial resources is very advantageous and can make it even more difficult for a survivor to leave an abusive relationship.1

Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse occurs when a perpetrator uses their survivor’s religion to control or mistreat them.4 This may include but is not limited to, preventing them from practicing their religion, cutting off access to their church, attacking their personal beliefs, or forcing them to join a cult. The abuser may use threats or intimidation to force their victim to cooperate and practice a certain religion. Perpetrators of spiritual abuse may also use violence such as rituals and initiation rites.4

Verbal Abuse

A hand painted with black paint across a person's mouth. The person's under-eyes are dark.

Verbal abuse occurs when the perpetrator uses aggressive or degrading language towards the survivor.2 This may include intimidation, threats, yelling, harassment, name-calling, insults, and more. The perpetrator may attempt to belittle their survivor by talking down on them or lowering their self-esteem. Another form of verbal abuse is telling the survivor what to do, say, eat, and wear. The perpetrator may also yell at their survivor and blame them for their own actions.

Digital Abuse

Digital abuse occurs when a perpetrator uses cell phones or the internet to manipulate, harass, intimidate, or stalk their survivor.2 This type of abuse can include checking the survivor’s phone without their knowledge, reading their texts, forcing them to send inappropriate pictures, stealing their passwords, controlling who they are friends with on social media, and insulting them on social media. Constantly texting someone or tracking their location without their consent is also considered digital abuse. A common form of digital abuse is found among adolescents who use the internet and social media to cyberbully other children.2

Neglect Abuse

Neglect occurs when parents or guardians do not provide the basic needs for the person they are responsible for, such as their children, the sick, the disabled, or the elderly.3 These basic needs include food, shelter, clothes, safety, love, and hygiene. In many cases, neglect occurs in circumstances such as extreme poverty or illness.3 Despite the circumstance, it is still considered neglect if the guardian is unable to provide basic needs for the dependent. This form of abuse still exists amongst various families of different socio-economic statuses.


If you or someone you know is being abused, there are several resources you can use to get help. Many shelters, hotlines, and businesses are dedicated to helping victims of abuse. Do not hesitate to contact one if you believe that you or a loved one is a victim of abuse. Below is a list of American and International hotlines and crisis centers that may be helpful for a person experiencing abuse:3

Concluding Remarks

There are many different forms of abuse. All of the forms of abuse discussed above are harmful and can leave lasting effects on the survivor. Although some are easier to prove than others, all forms are illegal. It is important to seek help if you or a loved one are being abused.


  1. “Types of Abuse.” Center For Relationship Abuse Awareness. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 May 2017.
  2. “Types of Abuse –” N.p., n.d. Web. 22 May 2017.
  3. Tracy, Natasha. “Types of Abuse: What Are the Different Forms of Abuse? – Abuse Information – Abuse.” HealthyPlace. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 May 2017.
  4. “Types Of Abuse.” Mental Help Types of Abuse Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2017.

Last Updated: 7 May 2017.