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Useful Notes: Abuse
Many tropes involve interpersonal abuse of some sort, from Abusive Parents to Bastard Boyfriend to Domestic Abuse to Financial Abuse to many of the Sexual Harassment and Rape Tropes. What, though, is abuse in Real Life? How is it recognized as such, and how does it differ from healthy (or even unhealthy but non-abusive) interpersonal interactions? While providing an entirely exhaustive treatment of abuse has both been done elsewhere and is beyond the overview of TV Tropes, this article exists to provide a short summary defining abuse itself, the most common types of abuse, warning signs of abuse, and to dispel some common myths (found in tropes or otherwise) about various types of abuse.

What is abuse?

Abuse is an individual act of harm and/or a pattern of harmful acts between individuals that have some sort of perceived interpersonal connection. If no interpersonal connection exists, the harmful or criminal act is not, technically, abuse. For example, if a stranger punches you in a Bar Brawl, it is definitely an assault and a crime, but it is not abuse, because no interpersonal relationship or ongoing contact exists. (Note "perceived" there: as noted later, there are some forms of abuse that only require the abuser to perceive interpersonal connection where none actually exists)

The perceived interpersonal relationship aspect and ongoing contact is what often makes abuse as traumatizing of an experience as it is. Again using the Bar Brawl example, while you may be traumatized and injured from being punched, you can be fairly sure you won't be punched again at least for a while. In an ongoing situation of Domestic Abuse, on the other hand, you can never be sure it won't happen again (and reassurances that it won't are often worthless). In the case of a stalker or someone wanting to commit a hate crime, you cannot convince them that you or what you are is not somehow connected to their life, which leaves you a target for ongoing abuse.

You can also write off the bar brawler as a drunken jerk who was 100 percent at fault, whereas if you are being abused continually, you may even develop sympathy for your abuser or blame yourself, despite your being no more at fault than as if you'd been targeted by a random stranger.

What are some common myths and misconceptions about abuse?

  • "I deserve it/it's my fault." No one deserves to be abused in any way. Someone engaging in abuse is not looking out for someone, not helping someone, not "disciplining." They are hurting the person they abuse, for anything from their own mental issues to some form of gain for them. This misconception connects to the next one...
  • "I could have/should have prevented this." The only way to prevent abuse is to not interact with the abuser and even that is not foolproof. This cannot be stressed enough: nothing YOU do or do not do can change or stop an abuser's conduct.
  • "Things will be different in the future." Abuse is a set pattern that is incredibly hard to change and that can only change with major work on the abuser's behalf. Some situations could resolve with abuse ending (e.g. if the abuse is precipitated by substance use or by triggers or the abuser having been abused and the abuser recognizes this AND gets treatment for it rather than blames the victim) but these situations are rare. Not only are they very rare, they are also the result of the abuser being reflective and repentant as opposed to the victim trying to appease the abuser.
  • "It could be worse. Therefore it is not abuse." This is a very common one. Especially in regard to forms of abuse such as emotional abuse and financial abuse, a victim may think that being made to feel suicidal or being forced to hand over all of their income is not "abuse" because it isn't something like daily beatings or rapes. Keep in mind that abuse comes in many forms, and is defined by its effect of an interpersonal relationship becoming unbalanced and controlled by one individual to the harm of the other. If a victim keeps thinking "It could be worse", it will probably get worse as the abuser takes more liberties with them. Abuse should be stopped as soon as it is identified, like cancer.
  • "Only women and children can be abused, Domestic Abuse is the only abuse." Abuse can happen in ANY interpersonal relationship. In Domestic Abuse alone, you can have men abusing women, women abusing men, men, women, or both abusing children, adult children abusing parents, and/or siblings abusing each other. GLBTQIA couples are also not immune to Domestic Abuse. Nor is Domestic Abuse the only context in which abuse can happen, there are other contexts:
    • Bullying/mobbing (physical or emotional abuse in the context of workplace and/or education)
    • Sexual harassment/sexual abuse in the context of workplace or education
    • Financial coercion (financial abuse in the context of work or education)
    • Bullying (physical, emotional, or financial abuse between children)
    • Child on child sexual abuse
    • Religious/spiritual abuse (the use of a religious or spiritual context to perpetuate control and abuse of victims by religious leader(s))
  • "Abuse requires the people involved to know each other." Generally, it does - which is part of its dynamic in most cases - but note "perceived" connection. Stalking and harassment can occur without the victim knowing their abuser in any meaningful way (the abuser perceives a relational connection that does not exist), and some forms of emotional abuse (specifically that that takes place online, hate crimes, and hate speech) can also happen in this manner (the connection is proximity and the abuser perceives a connection that the abuser does not want when none actually exists)
  • "Once abuse is over everyone should just forgive and forget." While this is definitely possible, it is a very individual decision. For it to even be a healthy decision, the abuse has to actually be over (and not just in the calm parts of an ongoing cycle of abuse) and all parties involved must be capable of moving on, with no blame or judgment on a personal level but definite judgement toward the acts committed that they were wrong and that they nor the conditions and patterns that allowed them must ever be repeated. If any of this is impossible or unlikely, or even if it is likely and possible but the victim of abuse is uncomfortable around even former and repentant abusers (or alternately, the presence of the victim makes recovering abusers tempted to return to old patterns or uncomfortable) "forgive and forget" is a dangerous and harmful platitude, and the people involved should maintain separate lives with no obligation to "forgive and forget," whether as Amicable Exes or with zero contact at all or anything in between.
  • "Abuse is always intentionally or mindfully performed on the part of the abuser." While many examples of abuse are indeed done with the act in mind, there are times where the abuser has no idea what they are doing to the other person, either due to culture justifying their behavior in some way or another, due to the influence of substances, due to being abused themselves and their seeing it as "normal," etc, etc. This is mostly done with emotional abuse, but physical abuse, financial abuse, and some of the milder forms of sexual abuse (relating to the grayer areas of questionable consent and the like) can also happen in this manner. Mostly this form of abuse is a lot more mild than a person who is intentionally doing it, but its effects can still be harsh to the victim even after abuse has stopped. Mostly it will happen when the abuser is angry, upset, or abusing lighter substances (alcohol or soft drugs), and will happen in the form of insults or speeches given by the accidental abuser to try and vent their frustrations, in mutual physical fights without intent to inflict major damage or kill, overspending with no concern for their financial well being (as opposed to intentionally trying to take their money), or in being "pushy" or "insistent" on requesting sex from a partner despite being declined. Although the results are (usually) not as bad, as this form of abuse can come to an end if something that is causing the person to engage in abuse in the first place is gone, the person is educated or undergoes therapy/treatment, escalation does not happen, and there is no express intent to cause harm (which generally precludes the worst abuses such as severe beatings and forcible rape) as well as generally being more mild, they can still cause trouble, such as bringing already existing emotional or mental problems to a worse degree or inflicting negativity where there was none before.

What are the primary kinds of abuse?

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is the stereotype of Domestic Abuse. It is nonsexual violence or the threats of it by the abuser against the victim. It can include everything from "minor" verbal threats, pinches, shoves, slaps to horrific beatings, torture, and murder. It almost always also includes emotional abuse, sometimes includes sexual abuse, and has a very nasty tendency to escalate - a fancy term for getting far, far worse. As in, the person who starts out shoving you away from him or her or slapping you may, over time, be the person who kills you.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is far more insidious and far less obvious than physical abuse in most cases, and the most common form of abuse. It consists of tactics to make the victim feel worthless, threatened, fearful, crazy, helpless, confused... and entirely controlled by and dependent on the abuser. Whereas physical abuse hurts the body, emotional abuse hurts the mind and emotions. An emotionally abused victim may suffer from stress, may be misdiagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses or actually develop them as well as develop physical illness, suffer from reduced societal and career opportunities, and even be Driven to Suicide - all of the effects of physical abuse including death are effects of emotional abuse as well. In fact, it could be argued that emotional abuse is worse than physical abuse in at least one way - it is very easy for those who inflict it to present the victim as crazy/dangerous/The Mentally Disturbed... and unlike physical abuse, it is very difficult for an outside observer to understand what really happened.

For example, if someone goes to the hospital with obvious facial wounds and a broken arm, and the victim's partner is with the victim, and when questioned, the partner comes up with Blatant Lies or outright brags about how he beat up the victim - the partner will, at least in most of the Western world, be immediately arrested and the victim will be given full legal support in pressing charges, getting a restraining order, filing for separation/divorce/etc.

If the same person, however, turns up at the hospital with an overdose/slashed wrists/self-inflicted gunshot wounds/another form of Self Harm or outright suicide attempt, however, the first conclusion is usually that the victim is suffering from an extreme mental illness and is unable to care for himself or herself, and their partner or parents can easily slide into the role of "loving, worried caregiver," even if hours earlier they were screaming at the victim to kill himself or herself, even if they worked to consciously destroy the person's self-worth/self-concept/ability to live independently/etcetera. Unless someone thinks to ask AND the victim can actually, coherently describe what has happened to them (which some can, but others cannot) AND be believed, there is a very high chance the victim will be returned to their abuser except with a diagnosis "proving" all the awful things the abuser said and giving them even more control over the victim because, after all, the abuser(s) are "just trying to help that poor crazy person."

This is the reason that, when possible, anytime someone seeks care for suicidal thoughts/suicide attempts or major depression, especially if the "patient" is showing lack of self-worth and free will, overwhelming submissiveness and apologies, or similar or seems to have "given up on life," a thorough inventory for emotional abuse should be done - *after* the person has been given some time to rest and calm down away from their partner or parents and in complete confidentiality, and with it being understood the person may or may not know the proper terminology to express what has been done to them.
  • Also, a victim of emotional abuse may actually present as self-blaming in general, as angry or despondent at a seemingly small slight compared to what their larger problem is (for example, flying into an uncharacteristic rage at someone criticizing their beliefs/partner, or crying and despondent over losing a seemingly minor belonging or being caught doing something relatively harmless or even normal in fear of the emotional abuse they will later get if they don't defend/for what they've done), be afraid they are the abuser/caused the abuse, believe they are only hurting because they are "weak" or simply go mute and/or otherwise dissociate. This pattern is especially common in male victims in male-dominated societies, because of the cultural belief that men aren't supposed to have emotions.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse encompasses abusive acts that have a sexual component. Rape (and various forms of dubiously-consensual sex), forced or coerced sex of any sort, child molestation, forced sex work, sexual harassment. Almost always contains strong elements of emotional abuse as well - in fact, it could be argued that sexual abuse is a combination of physical and emotional abuse, and is often found with both.

Financial Abuse

Financial Abuse is abuse centered around either the control of money as a means of control and/or around forcing the victim to engage in financial behaviors that profit the abuser at the expense of the victim. It can include anything from taking all profits from the victim's work or income, forcing the victim to work beyond the victim's capacity, exploiting the victim's financial resources, outright stealing from the victim and/or selling their possessions, or forcing the victim to commit crimes for financial reasons. Emotional abuse is often a very large part of it simply because emotional abuse enables financial abuse to exist.

Religious abuse

Religious abuse is, simply put, physical, emotional, sexual, and/or financial abuse either codified by a religious system (No Real Life examples allowed, but the Corrupt Church, Path of Inspiration, Religion of Evil, Scam Religion and Cult are some tropes that describe some aspects of this + fictional versions) or practiced by members of a religious system using religious justifications for either practicing or covering up abuse. Often one of the most absolutely crushing forms of abuse to victims, because religion and spirituality is both important to and often an all-encompassing part of life to those most likely to be victimized, and finding out that one's religious leaders (or worse, one's religion itself) is a fraud constructed solely to harm people is often almost as traumatizing an experience as abuse itself.
  • While this is not absolute in any way, The Bonewits Scale provides a generalized guide to determining if a specific religion/seminar/other social group practices this kind of abuse or is ripe for its presence to begin. The higher a group pings on the scale (especially with high numbers in multiple categories) it's likelier that this form of abuse is occurring or can easily begin to occur.

What are some major warning signs of abuse?

There are many warning signs of abuse (many specific to the specific type of abuse), which you can find in the resources available online, but out of those, there are some that are almost always signs of abuse occurring, to the point that if you see them happening to you or to someone else, you should almost always suspect abuse.
  • Total control of one person or group of persons by another person or group of persons. This is a major warning sign of emotional abuse (which often underlies all abuse) and it enables all forms of abuse. If a religion imposes it, it's almost always a sign of religious abuse afoot. In fact, it is arguably the most obvious warning sign of abuse ever to exist. The only times this could arguably not be a sign of abuse is if it is the limited result of a Total Power Exchange or Gorean kink relationship - and even there it should be watched very, very carefully for development into abuse.
  • Sudden development of anxiety, depression, or especially fearfulness and/or timidity, especially concurrent with a new relationship, new job, new friendship, or other new interpersonal interaction.
  • Fear of an individual, place, situation, or organization. If something is terrifying someone or "keeping them in line" there may be a very bad reason why.
  • Unexplained, repeated wounds, injuries, or scars - or injuries with very flimsy explanations are often a sign that physical abuse is occurring.
  • Suicidal behavior or feelings are a warning sign of abuse often enough that abuse should at least be considered as a reason, specifically in cases which the suicidal person is living in a situation controlled by others (living with family or a member of a restrictive religious group for example). This is often dismissed assuming that the family member(s) or group is always supportive rather than the source of problems - it shouldn't be, because while many suicides and suicide attempts are the result of mental disorders, it is possible to be Driven to Suicide, specifically if someone in an abusive situation is or is made to feel so limited in choices that the only choices are suicide or staying in the situation. The risk for suicide increases when help is only partial (e.g. someone is told the situation is abusive but is given no concrete, workable way to escape it) and when emotional abuse is the largest component (e.g. someone regularly getting into physical fights with a partner when they drink but where there is no ongoing effort by either partner to destroy the other's self-worth and self-concept is less likely to commit suicide than someone who is continually made to feel inadequate, worthless, useless, stupid, sick, dependent, etcetera, even though both situations are abuse. This is both due to the nature of emotional abuse itself, and that a situation involving it often does seem more hopeless or harder to escape, and sometimes is, than a situation that is one of overt physical violence.)
  • Acting out sexually in ways that are out of character or age-inappropriate. This is often one of the biggest warning signs of sexual abuse, though there can be other explanations why. It can also be indicative of other forms of abuse, e.g. a financially abused person doing sex work for money or an emotionally abused person seeking "love" even if it is from total strangers.
  • Odd or extreme financial behaviors such as donating huge amounts of money to a religious or self-development organization, being unaware of how much income one has and unable to ask about it, working to a degree that risks health or safety, taking out massive loans (especially of predatory types like student or payday), or suddenly engaging in embezzlement or theft. While all of this behavior could have other explanations, it could be indicative of either direct Financial Abuse (the abuser is making the victim do it) or of a victim desperate to escape physical or emotional abuse and willing to make any sacrifice to do so.
  • Rationalization of abusive acts is a MAJOR warning sign of almost every form of abuse, and it generally means the person is so controlled by their abuser that they may not even be able to make it out by themselves/that they are a victim of More Than Mind Control on behalf of their abuser(s). Some examples would be someone saying "but I deserved it," in reference to injuries inflicted by a partner, someone in a religious group justifying any of the forms of abuse in this article or other means of controlling and harming people (especially children), or someone explaining why they are exactly the bad person someone told them they were.

How can I get help?

Abuse is a horrible experience to go through, and all too often the victims are shamed by their attackers into silence. If this is you, you need not be afraid. You Are Not Alone. There are people who can and will help you, and there are also many people who have had similar experiences and have escaped and survived them, as you can.
  • Contact your local police station (if you are in a Westernized country); they have lists of local groups and organisations who will give you assistance and support.
  • If you don't wish to contact the police (at least immediately) and/or are in a location where the police won't be of any help/are an adult victim of primarily emotional abuse/are leaving an abusive religious group, there are other resources available - if your abuser won't be checking your internet history or doesn't know you are online, finding a survivor's community or forum for victims of abuse is probably the best way to do this - sometimes there are even specific communities or forums for the emotionally abused or for people who are contemplating leaving/have left specific high-demand abusive religious organizations.
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1800799SAFE (18007997233), also available at [1]
  • Safe Horizon: 1-800-621-HOPE (1-800-621-4673), also available at [2]
  • In the UK, there's Refuge: 0808 2000 247, also available at [3]
  • In Scotland, you can call 0800 027 1234, or visit [4]
  • In Australia, you can call the Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Helpline: 1800 200 526.
  • In France, you can call this free number (which is anonymous) to get a safe haven : 115.
    • 03 22 52 09 52 to get advice and talk to someone.
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