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Know the signs: what is domestic abuse?

This article will be identifying different behaviors and indicators of various types of abuse. If reading this article triggers traumatic experiences for you, or feels similar to a situation that you or a loved one are currently in, please consider reaching out to one or more of the resources linked at the end of the article.

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.

Abusive relationships can manifest between people of any age, gender or background.

When people think of abuse, they typically imagine physical or sexual abuse. However, these are not the only types of abuse. Abuse can be physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, psychological or a combination of these.

Abusive relationships can manifest between people of any age, gender or background. Graphic by Haley Jordan/Connect.

Abusive relationships can manifest between people of any age, gender or background. Graphic by Haley Jordan/Connect.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) demonstrates different forms of abuse with a wheel that has various forms of verbal or emotional abuse serving as the axis of the wheel and physical or sexual abuse on the outside of the wheel. The NDVH says abusers will often use methods of physical or sexual abuse to “reinforce” other, non-physical or non-sexual forms of abuse.

The NDVH also says that not all abusers are initially abusive in relationships. They might only act abusively every so often. There can be periods of time where the relationship seems loving and healthy until another period of abuse sets in.

Below are some typical signs and forms of abusive behaviors. A relationship can still be unhealthy or even abusive without explicitly falling into one of these categories. However, these are some of the most frequently identifiable examples of relationships manifesting into unhealthy or abusive ones.


They isolate you from your friends, family, school, work or other activities outside of home. They may attempt to separate you seemingly out of jealousy or with the excuse that you’re better off being away from them.

Verbal abuse and manipulation

Although verbal abuse does not always occur with physical abuse, the effects can be harmful and long-lasting. It can cause significant distress and affect your self-image. Verbal abuse includes both what would conventionally be thought of while using the term, such as insults, threats (both violent and nonviolent), lies and put-downs, as well as the different behaviors an abuser may use in addition to their words.

In other words, it’s not just what they say, but how they say it. Excessive yelling, aggressively dominating conversations and arguments, harassment, social sabotage, isolation or humiliation are all also verbally abusive.

One particularly common and dangerous form of verbal abuse or manipulation that abusers use is gaslighting. Gaslighting is when abusers purposefully lie to manipulate their partner’s perspective of reality. They deny their partner’s accounts of the past and insist on a false narrative, which can leave their partner confused, scared and angry. If their partner tries to argue that their behavior is problematic or harmful, the abuser will often minimize their claims or dismiss them entirely.

Controlling behavior

They actively and obsessively control or try to control anything that is yours or that would be inappropriate for them to control. This could apply to inanimate objects, such as your belongings, or things about you, such as your behavior, your time, or your health. This could also apply to your relationships with others, particularly those who are vulnerable or dependent on you, such as your children or your pets. Many controlling behaviors can fall into other categories of abuse, particularly physical abuse.

If your partner is obsessively or inappropriately controlling your finances, this is what’s commonly referred to as financial or economic abuse.

Rape, sexual coercion, sexual harassment, sexual assault or any other unwanted sexual activities

Being in a relationship with someone, even if it’s a sexually active one, does not give a person automatic permission to your body. Consenting to have sex in the past does not equal consenting to have sex in the present or future.

Non-consensual sexual activity of any form is abusive and illegal, even if it is non-penetrative.

If you initially agree to sexual activity but realize that you are uncomfortable with continuing said activity, you are allowed to stop. By telling your partner that you want to stop, you are revoking consent from continuing the activity.  

Physically dangerous behavior

Violence, even if it’s not towards you, but something you own, someone you care about or even in your presence or direction is abusive and illegal. Forcing you into uncomfortable, potentially dangerous or traumatic situations and withholding or threatening to withhold something you need for your health, safety or quality of life are also both abusive and violent behavior. Threatening to hurt themselves to make you act a certain way is also abusive behavior.

Threats of violence are to be taken seriously especially when an abuser has a previous history of violent behavior. Nonverbal threats and gestures can still be threats of violence.

Even in instances where threats are not immediately followed by violence, the intimidation of violence can be harmful or even potentially traumatic when someone is continually anticipating and fearing that their partner to physically harm them in some way. The intimidation of violence can often lead to victims and survivors changing their behavior to either try to conform to their abuser’s demands or prepare them to fight back. People outside of the relationship who are unaware of their situation and see their behavior might see them as overly or inappropriately defensive, reserved, apologetic, combative or reactive.

Some might have trouble comprehending why people stay in abusive relationships. Some victims have emotional attachments to their abusers or can be too scared to leave. Others believe leaving their abusers will make no difference in their quality of life or could even worsen it. Some believe if they leave their partners, they will be incapable of supporting themselves by their own, with family or friends or in new relationships, and will inevitably return to their abusive partners. Sadly, this does happen, but not because they are incapable of living without their partners. After living through repeated patterns of abuse, manipulation and codependency, their partners have convinced them that they can’t. And when they do return to their abusive partners, abusers often lash out at their partners with the excuse that they left.

Other reasons why someone might not leave an abusive relationship can be found on the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website.

To seek help

If you feel like you or someone you care about might be in an abusive relationship, please consider seeking professional help. Below are a few resources that aim to help people facing situations like the ones mentioned in this article.

If you are currently in immediate danger or crisis, please dial 9-1-1 immediately.

The USFSP Wellness Center offers victim advocacy, one-on-one and group counseling, and medical appointments to USFSP students and has a 24-hour line 727 873 4422

USFSP Campus Police (24/7) (727) 873 4444

USFSP Student of Concern Assistance Team (SOCAT) referral

National Domestic Violence Hotline (24/7/365) : 1 800-799-7233

Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA) St. Pete Domestic Violence Hotline (24 hrs) (727) 895-4912



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