Recognizing an Abusive Relationship

Domestic abuse occurs irrespective of one’s religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or financial status.  Victims are often either embarrassed and/or fearful to report the abuse to police or family members. Society often interchanges the terms domestic violence and domestic abuse. These terms should not be interchangeable.  Too often women and young adults will confuse abuse with violence and not report incidents which don’t result in physical harm. They think if they aren’t bleeding or bruised, it is not abuse.  Dating violence is defined as controlling, abusive, and aggressive behavior in a romantic relationship, however, sexual intimacy doesn’t have to exist to be a victim of domestic abuse, nor does a victim have to have physical injuries.  Domestic abuse can occur within all types of relationships, between all people (heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender), and can include several forms of abuse (verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse).  College students are at extreme high risk of either acting as perpetrators or being victims of dating physical or sexual abuse during their college years.  Therefore, young adults need to learn about what an unhealthy relationship looks like before becoming exposed to a violent relationship away from home. 

Abusive behaviors or tactics can cover many actions which don’t necessarily result in physical signs of violence.  We need to make it very clear to individuals beginning a romantic or physical relationship that abusive behavior by a partner is considered domestic violence even if there are no signs of physical battery; such as bruises, bites, or broken bones. Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive control one-person exercises over another person. Domestic violence involves a continuum of behavior ranging from degrading remarks to cruel jokes, economic exploitation, punches and kicks, false imprisonment, sexual abuse, suffocating actions, maiming assaults, and homicide.  Verbal and emotional abuse can be very subtle. When left unchecked, verbal and emotional abuse may increase in frequency and severity and are just as destructive to victims as physical abuse.

Many feel that the violence an abuser uses comes from an inability to handle anger or is the result of drugs or alcohol use.  Ninety-five percent of abusers do not have a history of violent crimes outside of their personal relationships.  They abuse those they want to control.  They will try to conceal the location of the physical harm on areas of the body which can be covered with clothing, such as the torso, arms, legs, and head. Finally, they are less likely to be abusive in a public place.  Abusers will wait until they can perpetrate their acts toward controlling their partner in a private setting, so they avoid being held accountable by others or law enforcement.    

Recognizing Possible Signs of Abuse in a Relationship

  • Withdraws from family and friends
  • Stops participating in activities and hobbies
  •  Makes excuses for their dating partner’s behavior
  • Is afraid of making the dating partner angry
  • Overeats or sleeps too much
  • Uses alcohol or drugs
  • Has suspicious injuries or bruises

            If you suspect you are in an abusive relationship you need to know it’s not your fault and you are not alone. It is important to talk about the situation, even if it means you have to tell a friend how you have been hurt.  Friends should not judge. Tell them you are always available and remind them the most important thing is their safety.  Encourage them to talk to someone other than yourself if they seem to be uncomfortable talking to you.  Don’t minimize their fear.  Be supportive.  Tell them abusive behavior is never acceptableDon’t force them to end the relationship.  This may place them in greater harm.  The most dangerous time for any victim of domestic violence is when they decide to end the relationship and or leave.  Remember the abuse is about control and the abuser feels they are losing controlEmpower them by providing them with options and resources.  Encourage a safety plan. Their safety is the first priority.  If you feel you or your friend is in immediate danger you must take immediate action. Call your local police department or domestic violence shelter.   Immediate danger is when the victim has been threatened by the abuser that they will be hurt or killed and the abuser has the means to follow through on the threat. 

People in healthy relationships respect each other and can talk to each other openly and honestly without fear of retribution or violence. They respect each other’s independence and support one another’s success and failures.  In an unhealthy relationship there is no trust or respect. There is one person attempting to control the other through various means.

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About Dr. Lynn Atkinson Tovar

Dr. Lynn Atkinson Tovar is a professor of Justice, Law and Public Safety Studies at Lewis University in Illinois. The former commander has done research on teen relationships and technology as well as abusive relationships. Her book "Smart Teen, Safe Teen: Respecting Relationships in Your Social Digital Life " is available at

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