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 purview of TV Tropes, this article provides a short summary defining abuse itself, the most common types of abuse and warning signs of abuse. It exists 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 with some sort of perceived interpersonal connection between individuals. 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, some forms of abuse only require the abuser to perceive interpersonal connection where there is none)
Abuse is as traumatizing of an experience as it is because of perceived interpersonal relationship aspect and ongoing contact. 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. Reassurances that it won't reoccur are often worthless. In the case of a stalker or someone wanting to commit a hate crime, you cannot convince them that you are not 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 100 percent at fault. If you are being abused continually, you may even develop sympathy for your abuser or blame yourself, despite you 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", no matter what they appeal to. They are hurting the person they abuse. Reasons and causes are various, from wanting control over another person to their own mental issues to some form of gain for them to sadism to psychopathy to a personality disorder to lacking self-control to a twisted thought pattern that only makes sense to them. This misconception connects to the next one.
- "I could have/should have prevented this." The only way to prevent abuse is to disengage from an abuser. 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. It can only change with major work and willing 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 truly reflective and repentant as opposed to the victim trying to appease the abuser, or the abuser faking an epiphany to reel the victim back in.
- "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. It's 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, only men can be abusive, and/or 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. In some jurisdictions, even roommates are covered by the domestic violence laws. LGBTQIA 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))
- Exploitative and/or toxic friendships (which often take on a lot of the characteristics commonly associated with abusive relationships)
- Exploitative companionship/"sugar" setups (when the partner with money continually moves the goalposts and shifts the conditions more and more in their favor, especially when the "kept" party is dependent on them for housing or major expenses that they would not be able to meet otherwise, e.g. school expenses).
- Elder Abuse (senior citizens' decreasing ability to take care of themselves makes them vulnerable to abuse of every kind, whether from neglectful families, abusive or negligent caregivers, or exploitive scam artists)
- Enabling (while enablers are frequently abuse victims themselves, allowing the existence of an abusive environment, covering for abusers, being a "people pleaser" who can't say no to anyone, and other acts that allow abusive people to run rampant is still abuse)
- "Flying monkeys" (a common feature of narcissistic abusers, "flying monkeys" are typically friends or family of a narcissist who have bought into their public persona and typically act on their behalf to harass people who have cut off the main abuser)
- "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. Some forms of emotional abuse (specifically those taking place online, cyber bullying, 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, e.g. the mere fact that someone else on social media/their new roommate/a random person on the street is black/female/gay/whatever else they find objectionable is all it takes for the abuser to begin attacking them.
- In the case of some abusers, they choose to prey upon people that have no specific connection to them aside from proximity, but who fit a specific appearance/class/demographic that they fetishize or hate (or sometimes both) - e.g. predatory pedophiles, who will lose interest in a victim as soon as they age to puberty and move on to other young children or white supremacists or homophobes, who choose to target, abuse, harass or attack random individuals simply on the basis of perceived differences of race or sexual orientation.
- "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", dealing with a partner who has issues with mental illness or addiction who is being difficult or obstinate, 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.
- "It takes two." Mutually abusive relationships do exist. They are also miles away from one-sided abusive relationships where the abusing party attempts to shift as much blame to the abused party as possible. The lines can often be very blurry (especially when mental illness, drugs, or alcohol are involved), but relationships where both parties really are terrible to one another will, over time, manifest certain traits that distinguish them from one-sided abusive relationships with hazy dynamics. Note that they can often progress into unidirectionally abusive relationships and vice versa depending on the issues at hand; again, addiction and/or mental illness greatly increase the likelihood of this happening.
- "Love conquers all." No amount of love can improve an abuser. This notion often keeps people under abusive control. Psychopaths in particular can exploit love just like any other vulnerability, being devoid of conscience or empathy, and abusive people in general love to cultivate "us against the world" narratives to encourage victims to isolate themselves from friends and family. That last one is why you should always bite your tongue when talking with someone whose s/o you believe is abusive; open disapproval (especially when accompanied with ultimatums or personal attacks on the s/o's character) is a goldmine for abusive partners, who can easily spin it in ways that will make a victim either willingly cut people off or defend them so vigorously (and likely belligerently) that they instead get cut off by the people they went off on. If you absolutely need to talk to someone about their relationship (e.g., you genuinely fear for their life), focus on them, not on their partner.
- "Time heals all wounds." As anyone who has experienced traumatic events can tell you, old wounds do not just politely disappear because you left them sitting untouched, and wounds caused by abuse are no different.
- "Everyone should just forgive and forget." One way abusers dodge responsibility is by appearing conciliatory. Psychopathic abusers especially are notoriously slick at escaping accountability in any way possible. For "forgive and forget" to even be a healthy decision, people (not just an abused person) need to keep responsibility on an abuser without letting him/her off the hook. The abuse has to actually be over. An abuser has to actually be of mind to become a better person. That, however, is unlikely. Abuse can't be just in the calm parts of an ongoing cycle of abuse or continuing covertly with an abuser pretending to have changed. Such often happens after public "amends" have been made. Stopping abuse can't be just lip service. An abuser has to be held responsible for stopping abusive conduct and improving his own behavior. Even if any of this is possible or likely, a victim of abuse can justifiably be uncomfortable around abusers, even former and repentant ones. "Forgive and forget" is a dangerous and harmful platitude. An unlucky party who has experienced abuse has a right to continue his/her life without any obligation to "forgive and forget" and any interference from an abuser.
- "Don't sink to their level." The extension of the "forgive and forget" and "cheer up, it can't be that bad" fallacies, this is insulting, insensitive and abusive in a different way. Saying it implies that anything other than easy forgiving and forgetting is petty, childish and vindictive when someone wants to take serious steps to ensure their abusers actually face consequences.
- "Everyone deserves a second chance." Even if someone appears genuinely repentant and seems to be taking serious steps to change, you have no obligation to accept it. You can give them credit where credit is due, yes, but "too little, too late" and simply not wanting to ever have anything to do with someone who put you through a ton of shit ever again are both very valid feelings and reasons for not welcoming someone back in. Furthermore, some people truly are incapable of changing and any visible display of contrition can, at best, be assumed to be genuine in intent, but unlikely to actually occur, and at worst is hollow grandstanding for attention and/or an outright falsehood.
- "I told you so." As anyone who has ever tried to reason with someone about an abusive relationship can tell you, reasoning with them or attempting to get them to see the light almost never works and usually backfires, and the frustration of seeing someone you care about go even deeper into what you're trying to get them out of can tempt you to say this when they finally have that epiphany on their own. This is one of the worst things that you can say because the shame of realizing that you fell for an abuser hurts enough as is, and the shame of feeling like your family and friends think you're an idiot who only just now realized what everyone else had been saying also hurts enough to potentially keep people in their situation. No matter how frustrated or pissed off you may be at someone for ignoring your advice in a situation you knew was bad (even if they repeatedly got you involved in dramatic or dangerous situations), bite your tongue and be unconditionally supportive when they see the light and give them a safe place to turn to and process everything that they are feeling.
- "My ex fucked me up." If you have been in an abusive relationship and you have been so heavily damaged by the ordeal that you yourself have fallen into toxic or abusive behavior patterns and can't function in a healthy manner within the context of a relationship, then you should be receiving professional help from a good therapist, NOT entering into another relationship and continuing the cycle. Abuse can absolutely destroy your ability to function healthily with partners, but it is no excuse for going on to victimize people yourself.
- "When it's good, it's amazing." This is called the honeymoon phase, and this is one of the main ways that people get sucked back into abusive situations or remain in them even when they know that it's bad. All relationships have their ups and their downs, but if your relationship has a major seesaw dynamic, it's probably toxic or abusive. Lovebombing will feel like genuine, heartfelt affection when you've been treated like human garbage the rest of the time.
- "Blood is thicker than water." People who have never been in toxic or abusive families are unlikely to understand that family can be your worst enemy, especially when their own family was healthy. If someone doesn't want a relationship with their family, there is likely a good reason for it, and even if you have difficulty understanding it, respect their decision.
- "That's just the way I am, take it or leave it." One of the most basic parts of being a mature human being is learning how to account for and change toxic or abusive personality traits and behaviors for their own good and the good of others. If someone's first response to being called out on their toxic or abusive behavior is to pull the "this is who I am" card, they have not earned the right to call themselves an adult.
- "I'm just standing up for myself." Learning how to self-advocate appropriately is a basic component of being a mature human being. Taking the nuclear option in all possible contexts and approaching disputes in an extremely confrontational, aggressive, and hostile manner is not appropriate self-advocacy and is most certainly toxic and/or abusive behavior. People whose first instinct is to flip their shit and "keep it real"note are, simply put, not adults.
- "If you loved me, you would have done whatever it takes to keep me." Like the above two examples, trusting partners and not playing games or subjecting them to Secret Tests to see if they "want" you enough is basic mature adult behavior. Playing games with partners to see if they will "prove" their worth to you is emotional abuse (not to mention extremely childish and immature), and, furthermore, no healthy partner will play them because mature, healthy adults know that if someone is playing games, they are a lost cause and should be avoided like the plague.
- "If you can't handle me at my worst, you don't deserve me at my best." This platitude. While the basic idea behind it (not abandoning people on their bad days) is valid, that is never the application. If you are regularly at your "worst" and are a consistently out-of-control toxic mess of a human being, and your go-to is to blame other people for not being able to handle you at your worst, you deserve to be alone until you can figure out that you are the problem here.
- "They were never like that with me." A common and frustrating reply to people who have been victimized by someone abusive or predatory, this implies that maybe it was just the victim's perceptions, if not an outright lie. This is because offenders like this are typically opportunistic - they won't go after their friends and allies because they aren't easy targets, and also because they want people who will have their back if someone ever outs them. More than anything else, this is how the concept of the "missing stair" (a known problematic individual in a social group who people are warned about in private, but who is never publicly outed or confronted) perpetuates; people may know of someone's predatory proclivities, but do not publicly state them because they are aware that the person simply has too many people who will go up to bat for them and cast the outing individual's credibility and the veracity of the accusations into doubt. It's simply easier to just warn people individually and then place some responsibility on them for not heeding the warning ("I told her to never be alone with him while she was drunk"; "I told him to never give her his number"), than it is to publicly out someone and risk earning the ire of the rest of the group for "causing drama" and being ostracized or forced out.
- "Age is only a number." Large age gaps are typically looked at with great skepticism and disdain because younger partners are usually much easier to control in numerous ways. They are less experienced with relationships and often far more idealistic about them (which usually means that they are far more able and willing to rationalize abusive behavior), and are usually also far less financially established; coupled with the fact that most have only just started to assemble careers, abusive partners can easily guide them into self-sabotaging or career-limiting paths in the name of "love" that will leave the younger partner dependent on them. Lastly, some older partners just never really progressed beyond a certain age emotionally, which means that partners their age will quickly grow sick of their shit and younger partners will eventually notice that while they are growing and changing, their older partners have stayed static. While healthy relationships with substantial age differences can exist, there is a reason why many people on the sidelines will go over them with a fine-toothed comb; where there is smoke, there is fire, and if one of these relationships looks unhealthy or abusive, it probably is.
- "They're going through a bad time, you can't just abandon them." Yes, sticking by people who are going through trying times in their life is often basic human decency, even when they contributed to it (if they realize where they went wrong and are actively and sincerely trying to fix things), but you have no obligation to stick by people who do not want to change, whose "rough time" is causing them to actively bring harm to people whose only crime was knowing them, or who destroy everything they touch and cannot or will not see it. Enabling can cross over into abuse whenever it involves allowing abusive people to run free, sweeping toxic or abusive behavior under the rug and attempting to make others do the same, or attempting to prevent people who were victimized from holding the abusive party accountable, and if your attempts to stand by someone result in people repeatedly getting hurt and you side with the person who caused the harm or actively work to free them from any sort of responsibility for their actions, you are complicit and have tacitly approved of their abusive behavior. If you have come to realize that someone is simply incapable of changing and uses the help and good will of others as a means of continuing their dysfunction, you have every right to cut them loose.
- Crazy Jealous Guy/Clingy Jealous Girl: Paranoid, pathological jealousy is not love. At best, it is extreme insecurity that has metastasized into something far more pernicious and toxic, and at worst, it's a particularly vile deliberate form of control from someone who seeks to isolate their victim, as anyone who has to endure a battery of invasive questions whenever they go out on their own that don't ever seem to have satisfactory answers unless they reinforce the narrative that the questioner has already created will eventually just stop going out and associating with their own friends altogether rather than continually be interrogated. This also ties into "my ex fucked me up"; if a past partner or partners cheated on you and you find yourself constantly looking for hints that your current partner is cheating and have an extremely difficult time accepting even the most reasonable of explanations or defenses regarding a person or situation that you've inquired about, get therapy.
- Victim Blaming. This can take dozens of forms (see the link for more details), but always boils down to the idea that a victim is somehow responsible for what happened to them. It can happen when victims blame themselves (see above), when abusers portray their actions as never being their fault, or when people try to cast doubt on the victim's story ("She led him on. He provoked him. They were asking for it"). Suffice to say, this way of thinking lacks not only basic empathy but plain common sense. Everyone is only responsible for their own actions and choices. Nothing anybody does can create an obligation for someone else to abuse them; it's the abuser's choice how to respond. Abusive actions are simply never justified, no matter what someone else may be saying or wearing or doing. Therefore it is never your fault whatever someone else chooses to do to you. That's on them. Period. At best, toxic or abusive behavior in response to toxic or abusive behavior from a partner is a surefire indication of an extremely unhealthy or outright mutually abusive relationship, but regardless of why you did it, the point is that both of you did it of your own volition. Neither of you made the other act in an abusive manner.
- Disability as an Excuse for Jerkassery: Mental illness is a very frequent cause of abusive behavior, and while it definitely is an explanation, it is never an excuse. Mental illness does not magically cure the pain and trauma that it causes you to inflict upon others, and it also does not absolve you of responsibility for the pain that you have caused. Furthermore, it is not bigoted or ableist to say that there are certain disorders (primarily Cluster B personality disorders and certain types of bipolar disorder) that should absolutely bar you from dating unless they are properly managed, which means sticking to all prescribed medications and therapy regimens without deviation. Again (because this cannot be stated enough), if you have a disorder that has an extremely high correlation with being toxic or abusive and you are not taking the proper steps to manage it, you have no business being in a relationship. Understand that this is for your own well-being as well as any potential partner's and just go out there and get help.
- Henpecked Husband: If the genders were flipped, a male partner who constantly criticized and belittled a visibly subservient female partner would rightly be viewed as emotionally abusive. There is no reason why the dynamic should be any more acceptable from a female partner who throws plates randomly and screams insults. Hypercritical partners who seldom give praise, and only backhanded, mocking praise when they do, are usually abusive or, at best, toxic. If your partner annoys or frustrates you so much that you consistently find yourself unable to bite your tongue and/or separate valid criticism from petty grievances, consider couples' therapy if you think the relationship can be salvaged, or splitting if you think it will be fruitless.
- "Just Joking" Justification: Hurtful personal digs that are quickly followed up with a "just kidding" are one of the core components of emotional abuse. Abusive partners will regularly subject the other partner to these with the goal of destroying their self-esteem and gaslighting them into believing that they really are just too sensitive, with the end result being that the other partner will not speak up or advocate for themselves in general because they know that their position will be mocked and denigrated, or they may even have come to believe that they are too thin-skinned or prone to misperception.
- Brutal Honesty: It goes without saying that providing honest, objective feedback is a crucial component of adult relationships of all sorts. Abusive people, however, love to make cruel, hurtful personal attacks, then whitewash them as "just being honest", "just speaking my mind", "not sugarcoating things", or other things that take the very real hurt that people on the receiving end feel and turn it against them and make them out to be people who just can't handle the truth. If someone regularly says shitty things to other people and immediately hides behind the shield of "brutal honesty" or "just telling it like it is", they are a toxic or abusive person.
What are the primary kinds of abuse?
Physical abusePhysical 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. Physical violence towards others also very frequently serves as a precursor - your partner may swear that it's them, not you, and may say that they would never hurt you, but if they regularly get into violent altercations with others where they are either the aggressor or massively escalated the situation, engage in extreme road-raging behavior (i.e., not just yelling at other drivers or making rude gestures, but actively attempting to terrify them or cause accidents), vent their anger on inanimate objects, or otherwise demonstrate that violent behavior is a prominent character trait, there will come that day where they turn their focus on you.
Emotional abuseIn most cases, emotional abuse is far more insidious and far less obvious than physical abuse. Emotional abuse is the most common form of abuse. It consists of tactics to hurt mind and emotions and make the victim feel worthless, threatened, fearful, crazy, helpless, confused and entirely controlled by and dependent on the abuser. An emotionally abused victim may be misdiagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses or actually develop them. It's also possible for a victim to develop physical illness, suffer from stress, suffer from reduced societal and career opportunities and even be Driven to Suicide. Physical and emotional abuse share effects including death. In fact, it could be argued that emotional abuse is worse than physical abuse in at least one way: It's very easy for those, who inflict it to present the victim as crazy/dangerous/The Mentally Disturbed. Unlike physical abuse, it is very difficult for an outside observer to understand what really is going on.
For example: An abusive partner regularly berates and castigates their partner, then proceeds to scream about how awful they are being treated or how crazy their partner is whenever their partner tries to defend themselves, putting them under huge emotional strain. But because they never lay a finger on them, this emotional strain goes unnoticed until the partner hurts themselves physically - by which time it may be assumed that the partner is simply mentally ill and need the support of their partner.
Additionally, abusive women can be especially skilled at emotional abuse, using their perceived vulnerabilities as The Fairer Sex to allow them to scream insults and threats at their male partner while society simply reads them as 'standing up for herself' - or even telling their partner that if they defend themselves or file a report, they will be arrested as well. Abusive women have been reported to self-harm on occasion to make it appear as if their partner is the one hurting them.
A victim of emotional abuse may show:
- self-blaming in general
- anger or despondency at seemingly small slights compared to what their larger problem is (for example, flying into an uncharacteristic rage at someone criticizing their beliefs/partner, crying and worrying 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)
- fear of being the abuser/cause of the abuse themselves
- belief they are only hurting out of "weakness"
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 abuseSexual abuse encompasses abusive acts that have a sexual component: rape, incest, grooming (both child and adult), various forms of dubiously-consensual sex, forced or coerced sex of any sort, child molestation, forced sex work, sexual harassment, and emotional incest. It 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; even emotional incest, which itself doesn't involve a physical component (though it frequently can progress into actual physical incest), is still incredibly damaging to victims. 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.
Simply put, religious abuse is physical, emotional, sexual and/or financial abuse either codified by a religious system or practiced by members of a religious system using religious justifications for either practicing or covering up abuse. This is often one of the most absolutely crushing forms of abuse to victims, because religion and spirituality are important and often an all-encompassing part of life to those most likely to be victimized. Finding out that one's religious leaders are frauds (or worse, one's religion itself is a fraud constructed solely to harm people) is often almost as traumatizing an experience as the 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.
- Cult expert Steven Hassan has described the "BITE model" of control tactics that are often used by cults and other high-control groups— Behavior control, Information control, Thought control, and Emotional control. If a religious (or otherwise) group exhibits many of the behaviors on his list, it's pretty safe to flag them as abusive.
What are some major warning signs of abuse?There are many warning signs of abuse. Many are specific to the specific type of abuse. You can get clarity about them in the resources available online. Some signs 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. This is also why large age gaps in relationships where one partner is significantly younger are also subject to heavy scrutiny; youthful naivete, inexperience with relationships, and the tendency to not know what you don't know that comes with being young all combine to make younger partners great targets for abusive older partners who can easily groom them. If a relationship with a large age gap has a younger partner who is visibly subservient, there is a very good chance that it's only the tip of the iceberg. As a whole, 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.
- Major life changes occurring rapidly and seemingly with no forethought. If someone is charging straight into major commitments with a new partner or group at an inappropriately fast pace that seem to have been done at the partner's or group's behest, or otherwise clearly benefit the partner or group more than it benefits the other party, it is a major red flag.
- Dramatic changes in personality, appearance, personal interests, or other defining characteristics, especially when they match up with the other partner's known preferences and interests. While most people will pick up things to have something extra in common with a partner, giving up everything about themselves to be someone's dream partner is almost always a sign that something is seriously wrong.
- Fear of an individual, place, situation or organization. If something is terrifying someone or "keeping them in line" there may be a terrifying 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. This is especially true when 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 dismissed. While many suicides and suicide attempts are the result of mental disorders, it is possible to be Driven to Suicide, especially 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)
- 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 and sometimes is more hopeless or harder to escape 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. 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.
Common red flags for potentially abusive partners include:
- Every ex was bad. Most people have at least one bad ex, but if every single ex was crazy or abusive or what have you, chances are that they're the common denominator. At best, maybe they all actually were bad, which likely means that the partner has serious issues that let in abusive people that will doom this relationship. At worst, they were the problem in every single relationship.
- Coming on extremely strong. If someone comes in going on about how you're the best thing that's ever happened to them, it means one of two things: either they're immature (never a good thing), or they're trying to sweep you in and get you to let your guard down to establish control. Same goes for major commitments: if they want to rush right into cohabitation, marriage, or children, there is no possible innocent explanation.
- They're almost always right, and if they ever aren't, it's a huge production. Not ever being able to sincerely accept that they are wrong is a universally toxic behavior trait, and if it's accompanied by them implying or stating that there's something wrong with you for always disagreeing with them, especially if they ever finally admit to being wrong about something in a way that is clearly about making them look good, they are almost certainly abusive.
- Jealousy and paranoia. If they always seem to be suspicious of your opposite-sex friends (or, worse, any interactions with the opposite sex) and are constantly demanding access to your phone and messaging apps, or outright accusing you of cheating, get out while you still can.
- A history of large age gaps. This is mostly relevant for younger partners, but if an older partner has historically dated only people who are much younger than them, it means one of two things: either they're immature and no one their age will put up with their shit, or they want people who are easy to control. Both are signs you should not touch them with a ten-foot pole.
- Constant drama in their lives. People who are always surrounded by conflict and strife are never blameless. Either they suck at managing their lives, or they destroy everything they touch. The potential for abuse comes when it grows to include your own circle, as many abusive partners will deliberately drive away a partner's circle by creating massive shitstorms with everyone close to them, which will eventually get them cut off by those people when they finally have enough or get the partner to willingly cut them off when the abusive partner convinces them that they "don't want them to be happy" or that they are "out to get them".
- No one ever really seems to last in their lives. Everyone has people come and go, but if someone's life is a revolving door of people, especially if things always seem to end acrimoniously and/or the new people get swept in extremely quickly, there is almost never a good reason for this. If someone regularly burns out other people and rushes to find their replacements, it is all but guaranteed that you will become another casualty, and if you do manage to last, it will likely be because they guided you into enabling them and you became part of the problem.
- They are always "misunderstood", or are widely disliked by others. While youthful cliquishness is to be expected when both of you are younger, and people do have a way of getting dragged into petty drama, people who are consistently disliked by most of the people who encounter them or are within their vicinity rarely find themselves in that position purely by accident. If someone repeatedly claims that no one understands them, that people just meeting them should not believe whatever they have been told about them, or flippantly shrug off their poor reputation ("haters gonna hate", "opinions are like assholes", "people just like to talk shit"), chances are good that their reputation was well-earned, and that you will see exactly what people are talking about if you stick around anyways.
How can I get help?Abuse is a horrible experience to go through. All too often the victims are shamed, intimidated and/or threatened 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. 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. The police will also help you decide if you should pursue a restraining order against the abuser; in appropriate cases such orders are actually quite effective at deterring abusers from following you, and make it much easier to stop and punish abusers when they do try to resume the abuse, as it is usually much easier to prove violation of the terms of a restraining order than it is to pursue criminal charges against an abuser.
- Seek medical help. This is highly important especially with prolonged physical abuse or with sexual abuse. Beatings especially can inflict damage even beyond visible damage, e.g. postconcussive syndrome and other traumatic brain injury from repeated blows to the head or face, nerve damage from being hit elsewhere and STDs or internal injury from sexual abuse. Medical professionals, in the US, are also mandated reporters, if you tell them you are being abused or have injuries that suggest abuse. This can be valuable, if you wish to contact the police. Even if you've already escaped your abuser and do not need law enforcement intervention, mentioning what has happened to you in the past is important so you can be properly tested for any conditions from the abuse and they can be treated.
- Seeking psychological help and therapy is also a good idea, though that depends on how you are personally dealing with it. Some people can survive abuse of various forms without needing counseling or therapy. Not every abuse survivor or rape survivor develops PTSD or C-PTSD or other mental health issues. This being said, if you are having mental health issues as a result of abuse, seek out proper mental health care.
- 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. It doesn't hurt to find out about internet security, of course. 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.
- If you are concerned about abuse or neglect of a child, do call your local child welfare agency. It is not true that Social Services Does Not Exist—although it is definitely true that some welfare agencies are capable of royal screwups, most of those screwups happen because nobody even brought the problem to their attention, or if the problem was brought to the agency's attention, it was not made clear that it was a child welfare issue. Calling the child welfare agency when you have serious concerns about a child being abused or neglected is usually a good choice.
- In the United States:
- In the UK, there's Refuge: 0808 2000 247, also available at 
- In Scotland, you can call 0800 027 1234, or visit 
- 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.
- * In the UK there's The Mankind Initiative specifically for male victims: 01823 334244
Support and advocacy groups
- RAINN: Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network; 1-800-656-4673
- SNAP: Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (and other clergy) ; 1-877-762-7432
- MaleSurvivor.org: Specific resources for male survivors of sexual abuse or rape.
- JourneyFree: Resources for survivors/victims of abusive religious sects.
- ACSA: Adult Survivors of Child Abuse
- HAVOCA: Help for Adult Victims of Child Abuse (UK)
- GRACE: Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment
- The One in Three Campaign: Australian resource for male victims
- Making Daughters Safe Again: Support and advocate for survivors of mother-daughter sexual abuse
- National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence
- National Centre for Domestic Violence
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
Literature about abuse
- In Sheep's Clothing by George K. Simon
- Another book, Character disturbance, describes various disturbed personality and character types as well as the larger current cultural context fueling problems.
- Bully in Sight by Tim Field
- Why does he do that? by Lundy Bancroft
- Stalking the Soul by Marie-France Hirigoyen
- The Emotional Rape Syndrome by Michael J. Fox
- Patricia Evans:
- Verbally Abusive Relationship
- The Verbally Abusive Man: Can he change?
- Controlling people
- Caveat: Mostly helps understand how someone can get disconnected from their sense of self; also handled in this article. One better be skeptical, however, about how much it applies to abusers and remember that some parts about psychology of disconnecting from one's sense of self seem to better describe targets of abuse. Also described are 'defining statements' someone can use to control another person and avoid connection with them.
- Teen torment: Overcoming verbal abuse at home and at school
- Victory over verbal abuse
- Susan Forward:
- Emotional Blackmail
- Toxic parents
- Betrayal of innocence: Incest and its devastation
- When your lover is a liar
- Emotional Abuse: The trauma and the treatment by Marti Tamm Loring
- Yet more booksrelated to bullying and interpersonal dysfunction
Online articles about abuse
- Wikipedia -article about psychological abuse
- Sites someone recovering from abuse should AVOID
- Goodtherapy.org briefing
- Out of the Fog
- Evolution Counseling; two attitudes that hinder moving on
- Evolution Counselling; gaslighting
- Hiddenhurt; warning signs of an abusive relationship
- Hiddenhurt; verbal abuse
- Bullyonline; What is bullying?
- Profile of a serial bully and different bully types
- Gaslighting revisited
- What is a character disorder?
- Aggressive character types that are willing to fight unnecessarily, overtly or covertly, for what they want and thus bring abuse, mind games and unwanted conflict, drama and hurt into relationships
- Deceptively civil covert-aggressive personalities can make you feel crazy
- Serious abusers and psychology's failure to understand them
- Manipulative-people.com by Dr George K. Simon; Your resource for coping with life's most troubling characters
- Heartless Bitches International; the creator Natalie P.:s thoughts on emotional abusers
- Some personality disorders make for very toxic individuals to be involved with
- Dissociation and how it can put at greater risk of abusive relationships
- Identifying losers, controllers and abusers in relationships, avoiding and detaching
- When the jig is up for controllers
- Understanding, recognizing, stopping and dealing with bullying
- What the zero tolerance police of schools actually does and what to do as a parent
- Kickbully.com; More about workplace bullies, their tactics and how you can respond
- NoNonsenseSelfDefense; Stalking and domestic violence
- Are you trying too hard to understand?
- Evolution Counselling general files about abuse
- Spiritual Abuse awareness
- Psychological issues in cults
- Avoiding churches that abuse
- Healthy faith vs unhealthy faith
- Warning signs of dysfunctional cults
- Healing abusive models of God by Timothy Conway