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Abusive Relationships


Disciplines > Sociology > Articles > Abusive Relationships

Forms of abuse | The abused person | The abuser | Why it happens | What to do | See also


Abusive adult relationships are surprisingly common, where one partner acts in a way that causes distress to the other.

Forms of abuse

Relationships can become abusive where one person psychologically and/or physically abuses the other.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse creates pain, harm and distress, and includes:

  • Invading body space and standing over the other person in a threatening manner.
  • 'Mock' physical abuse, such as raising hand as if to strike, 'just missing' and sudden movements.
  • 'Accidentally' causing distress or harm by such as touching, pushing, bumping and tripping.
  • Aggressively and directly harming by such as punching, gripping, cutting and burning.

Psychological abuse

Psychological abuse causes such as fear, negative self-image, and feelings of helplessness, and includes:

  • Criticizing actions and decisions.
  • Telling them they are stupid and lack intelligence.
  • Telling them they are unattractive.
  • Calling them names, comparing them with people in low social positions.
  • Criticizing them in front of others.

Weakened resistance

The abused person typically has their ability and desire to resist or even leave severely weakened by the methods such as:

  • Nit-picking, criticizing them for every little thing.

  • Exhausting demands that require long hours of work.

  • Waking them up from deep sleep.

  • Criticizing the person's character, indicating they are wholly incompetent.

  • Guilt trips, blaming them for things which go wrong.

  • Random acts of violence that leave the abused person constantly in uncertainty and fear.

  • Occasional acts of kindness that prove they are 'not all bad'.

  • Threatening to throw them (and the children) out on the streets.

  • Repeatedly dragging up 'things done wrong' in the past.

  • Saying that if the abuser leaves the person will be devastated, lose their job or otherwise harmed.

  • Threatening extreme acts if the abused leaves (and blaming them for it), such as 'suing for everything', killing the abuser or committing suicide themselves.

The weakened person hence falls into a position of learned helplessness where they see no hope of change and no opportunity to leave.


Abuse is often about control. The abuser may hence act in many different way to exert control at every level, such as:

  • Dictating what the other person wears.

  • Deciding who they can be friends with.

  • Selecting or stopping hobbies and other activities.

  • Expecting them to do all work around the home.

  • Choosing when and what they will do together.

  • Randomly checking up on the other person ensure they are complying with demands.

  • Interrupting and dragging them out of their social engagements.

  • Expect to be considered first in all decisions.

  • Taking charge of all money and spending.

  • Being strict time-keepers.

  • Punishing any deviance from strict obedience.

  • Making the person wait whilst the abuser carries on a separate life.

  • Isolating the person, separating them from any social support.

  • Demanding and forcing sexual acts.

Progressive abuse

The abuser may well start with minor abuse, such as expecting the other person to do something and being a bit upset if it is not done. When the other person complies, the abuser moves to a gradually higher level of abuse. Like the proverbial boiled frog, before long the abused person has accepted harsher and harsher treatment until what would once have been unacceptable abuse is now accepted as normal and even 'reasonable'.

Abusers may be attractive at first because of their strength and control. They act in a highly protective way and are seen to defend the other person. This can become unacceptable in their jealous guarding of the person they come to see as their 'property'. This leads to severing of relationships with pretty much everyone and so isolates the abused person further, giving them no social support and depressing them further into accepting the abusive situation without question.

The abused person

The abused person may be recognized by some of the characteristics below. It can be difficult to detect that a person is being abused when they may well be ashamed of the situation or be trying to protect the abuser.

Psychological effects

The abused person easily ends up in a negative mental state, where the following conditions may apply:

  • Feeling bad, useless and incompetent.
  • Dependent on the abuser.
  • Strangely still attracted to the abuser.
  • Blaming themself for the situation.
  • Feeling lonely and hopeless.
  • Believing they cannot be helped.
  • Believing others will not believe them.
  • Believing others will interfere and only make things worse.

Hidden resistance

If the abused person summons up courage to resist, it is done very subversively such that the abuser cannot discover what they are doing. For example they may create a secret cache of their own food or make social contact with others when they are supposed to be shopping.


The abused person will try to mentally cope with the situation, for example by denying that there is any problem.

They may deny the problem to themselves as they want to feel normal and may well blame themselves for the situation.

They may well deny to other people who the person fears may look down on them for what is happening or who may try to fix the situation yet only make it worse.

If the person gains some strange comfort from the situation, they may not want or seek help, perhaps being 'happy' to wallow in self-pity.

Most often, the person copes by just going along with the situation and 'not rocking the boat' for fear of punishment. They hence take the path of seeking least harm, particularly in the short term.

The abuser

The abusing person may have particular characteristics, such as:

  • Believing they are always right (and others are wrong).
  • Fearing loss of control, feeling good when achieving control.
  • Feeling powerful when angry.
  • Having an explosive, hair-trigger temper, easily flipping from nice to nasty.
  • Constantly concerned about being abandoned.
  • Is very good at deception. Including deceiving themself.
  • Enjoying manipulating others, by charm, persuasion or aggression.
  • Seeing their partner as a possession more than a person.
  • Being jealous, fearing others will steal their partner.
  • Have different standards for themselves, for example enjoying other relationships.

The abuser may also have a past where they have been a failure in some way or have been abused themselves.

Charming men

Abuse in relationships is most often, but not exclusively, men abusing women. This is due both to the male's physical strength advantage as well as evolutionary forces which tend to make men more aggressive.

Horley (2002) describes the 'Charm Syndrome Man', who starts off in a very charming and charismatic manner, bonding the woman to him, then becomes gradually more controlling and abusive. This bonding, with occasional reinforcement by further bouts of charm, can lead the abused person to continue to love the abuser. The Stockholm Syndrome may also have a part in sustaining this connection.

It can be difficult for others to accept that charming men are abusive in private. These abusers come from all walks of life and are not the low-class drunkards that are often associated with abuse.

Dominant women

Not all abusers are men. The archetypal dominant wife who exerts close control over the 'little man' does exist. Such women can be highly abusive, although seldom in a physical way. Yet with histrionics and constant nagging, the man is psychologically worn down and goes in constant fear of his partner ever opening her mouth.

Female dominance and abuse can also appear in other forms. Where they have power and where they seek a high level of control, they may use all means at their disposal to achieve their selfish ends. This may even include physical abuse if the man is so cowed or physically inferior as not to respond in kind.

Two methods that abusive women use are denial and departure, both of which act on the fear of loss. They threaten or actually take things away, such as meals, money, sex, children or themselves. They may also take away approval, dignity and reputation.

The woman may also threaten to tell others what a bad person the man is (most people will more easily believe that the man, rather than the woman, is the abuser).

Children often are a powerful lever as most men know that divorce settlements are more likely to award custody to the woman.

Why it happens

There can be a number of reasons why abusive relationships happen.


The most likely key reason that the abuser acts as they do is for the sense of control that it gives them. They act to control every aspect of the other person's life with the threat of abuse being used as coercion and to weaken resistance.

The abuser needs to always be the boss, superior in every regard. In this position they can make demands and avoid all responsibility, blaming everything on the abused person.

The dominant male

Although women can be abusive, the most common situation is of men abusing women. There is an evolutionary argument for this, that men are naturally aggressive and will seek to be dominant. In particular an 'alpha male' has a strong tendency to seek a superior position of control.

Men who abuse women may want to dominate other men (which is how men can achieve status and attract mates) but have largely failed in this. As a result, they seek an easier target in physically weaker women.

Male abusers often have strong opinions about gender roles, with the woman as the subservient housewife and the man as the strong controller. This is supported by social norms that subtly tell them they are in charge. They may also have had early evidence with a controlling father, priest or teacher.

Despite much progress in female emancipation in developed countries, the truth is that men still get paid more, get more of the top jobs and have greater control in families. Evolution, of course, has also shaped individual brains and whole cultures to believe they are dominant.

Abusive past

A common pattern is that people who were abused, or witnessed abuse, become abusers. One reason for this is a perception that there are only two roles: abuser or abused. This is the same reason that people become bullies, in school, work and other contexts.

In abusing their partner, there can be a twisted logic where they are indirectly taking revenge on their historical abusers.

Victim mentality

While it is a trap for the abused person to think it is all their fault, they may subconsciously be encouraging the situation. Thinking of oneself as a victim means absolution from responsibility from any action to resolve the situation. It makes the other person wholly to blame and justifies feelings of hopelessness. Such thinking only serves to make the situation continue without resolution.

What to do

What to do about an abusive relationship depends on who you are and what forms the abuse is taking.

Please note the notes here are generalized. In most circumstances, getting professional support is good idea. There are many groups and bodies whose primary purpose is to help you.

Abused person

If you are abused person, you need to get a perspective on the situation. If you clearly recognize what is happening from the above notes, then you are likely being abused. If you are not sure (and perhaps anyway) then get professional advice.

A trap is to believe that it is all your fault. This is what the abuser likely wants you to believe. The first thing you have to start doing is to change your thinking.

It can be difficult to try to stop the person, who is likely quite skilled at what they are doing. Telling them what they are doing and how you feel may make them realize that it is bad and stop doing it. But it is more likely that they will simply increase the level of abuse in order to try to push you back into the subservient role.

A more practical solution, at least for a while, may be to get away. If you can stay with friends or family, this will give you respite and help you escape from the distorted thinking that the situation has forced upon you.

At some point, you will have to tell other people about what is going on. This can be scary as you may fear the shame or the consequences if your partner finds out. This is one reason why it can be helpful to talk to a professional. Family and friends can sometimes try to help but end up making things worse.

Trust is a critical question for you. You have likely had the trust knocked out of you, so you have to decide who you can really trust. While family and friends can be problematic, it can still be very helpful to find someone who will listen without over-reacting and who will work with you to resolve the situation.

Family and friends

If you are a friend or family member of the abused person, your natural reaction may be to wade in and confront the abuser. This may be effective, but it can also make things far worse so you do need to take care.

The best thing you can do short-term is to just listen to the person, take them seriously and let them stay with you if that seems best. If the situation seems hazardous, particularly with any significant physical abuse, then you may decide to call in the professionals, including the police.


If you are abusing another person and want to stop, yet find it difficult to do this, there are things you can do.

There is help out there for abusers as well as abused people, although it may be more difficult to find. If you can, get support. It may difficult for you to talk about what you have done as, even if you have blamed the other person, inside you know that you are are the guilty party. The shame of this and perhaps the fear of punishment can prevent any action.

If you do care in some way for the other person, then you can perhaps talk with them (although do understand they may well not trust you). Getting professional help can be a good idea here, for example where a counselor can help you restart a healthy discussion.

Thinking about the collateral damage can help motivate you. Consider the children and the effects on them of what they may have seen or heard. Also remember that you may be found out or the abused person may turn on you.

If you find it difficult to stop yourself, you may even decide to move away or encourage your partner to move.

See also

Conversion techniques, Personality Disorders, Games, Coping Mechanisms


Horley, S. (2002). Power and Control: Why Charming Men Can Make Dangerous Lovers, London: Vermillion


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