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What Does Abuse Mean?

Black married couple sitting on couch in living room at home and quarrelling. Angry husband negative emotionally shouting at wife.

When you hear the word abuse, you may imagine someone intentionally harming or injuring another person. While this is abusive behavior, there’s a lot more to understand about abuse and abusive relationships. So, what does abuse mean? It’s a pattern of behavior used to control and assert power over another person. Understanding the meaning of abuse can make it easier to protect yourself from abusive relationships.

Understanding the Types of Abuse

Abuse can take many forms. It isn’t limited to physical harm. Abuse can be emotional, psychological, sexual, and financial. A person in an abusive relationship may experience multiple types of abuse.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is the type most people are familiar with. It includes causing any intentional physical harm to another person. 

But, physical abuse doesn’t always have to leave a mark or cause noticeable injury. It can also include physical threats, non-consensual touch, or any behavior that affects another person’s physical well-being. Depriving someone of food or forcing a person to consume drugs against their will are both types of physical abuse.

Physical abuse can affect a person emotionally and contribute to various mental health issues in the long term.

Examples of physical abuse include:

  • Punching, slapping, or kicking
  • Choking or strangulation
  • Pulling hair or clothing
  • Restraining or restricting movement
  • Forcing physical behaviors
  • Threatening with weapons
  • Sleep or food deprivation
  • Forced consumption of substances

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is physical force, threats, or emotional manipulation to coerce someone into unwanted sexual activity. It can also be using sex as a weapon to manipulate another person’s behavior or emotions. Perpetrators use sexual abuse to assert power and control over another person.

People of all genders and ages may experience sexual abuse. One common type is childhood sexual abuse. This type of abuse involves an adult having sexual or inappropriate contact with a child. 

Examples of sexual abuse include: 

  • Rape or forced sexual acts
  • Sexual contact with a person unable to consent
  • Sexual contact with a minor
  • Pressuring or threatening someone into performing sexual acts
  • Non-consensual explicit photography or pornography
  • Using sexual insults toward someone
  • Controlling a person’s contraceptive choices

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is a method of controlling another person by using emotions to criticize, embarrass, shame, blame, or manipulate them. This abuse includes causing intentional emotional pain and distress.

Emotional abuse can be just as damaging to a person as physical and sexual abuse. And it can often take even longer to heal from. Emotional abuse can also lead to physical abuse in some cases. It’s essential to spot the signs early and get help before the abuse escalates. 

Examples of emotional abuse include:

  • Putting someone down and making them feel not good enough
  • Humiliation or shaming 
  • Acting jealous and possessive
  • Regular yelling, screaming, and swearing
  • Making someone fear your behavior and reactions
  • Threatening someone to act in a certain way
  • Gaslighting someone into doubting their thoughts, feelings, and sanity
  • Socially isolating someone


Neglect occurs when the physical, emotional, and social needs of a dependent person are not adequately supported by their primary carer. 

Neglect is a form of abuse most commonly associated with children. But it can happen to anyone in a vulnerable position, including seniors or adults with disabilities.

Examples of neglect include:

  • Withholding food, water, medication, or access to healthcare
  • Not providing a safe place to live
  • Not providing emotional support
  • Failing to ensure privacy and dignity
  • Refusing access to other people
  • Abandonment or isolation

Financial Abuse

Financial abuse is when an abuser asserts their power and control over another person using financial means. The abuser takes control of all finances and sometimes even prevents the other person from working. They may provide an allowance that the other person has to justify. 

Having financial control over another person’s life keeps the person in the abusive relationship from leaving.

Examples of financial abuse include:

  • Controlling another person’s finances against their will
  • Fraud or scamming
  • Running up debts in another person’s name
  • Stopping someone from accessing their own money
  • Preventing someone from earning their own money
  • Stopping someone from accepting personal allowance or benefits
  • Giving someone an allowance and making them justify their spending

A scared young woman sitting on a floor waving her hands towards an abusive act.

What Does Abuse Mean?

Recognizing abuse in real life is much more complex than a checklist of abusive behaviors. It’s also the meaning behind the abusive behavior. So what does abuse mean?

Abuse is about power and control. In an abusive relationship, one person is trying to control the other using abusive behaviors. 

It’s important to recognize patterns of abuse. Abuse can include some or many of the behaviors listed above. It’s often not limited to just one type of abuse. These behaviors are usually sustained over time and escalate gradually. The behavior can become normalized in the relationship. Sometimes, a person may not even be aware they’re being abused.

Who are Common Abusers?

Abuse can occur in any relationship. The abuser may be a family member such as a parent or grandparent, a partner or spouse, or a close friend. They could also be authority figures, such as a teacher or coach. 

A relationship can start healthy and turn abusive over time. An abuser will often create a level of trust and affection before becoming abusive. This pre-existing bond stops many people experiencing abuse from leaving the relationship or reporting their abuser.  

It’s common for people who experienced abuse earlier in life to become abusive themselves. They may have learned abusive behavior and think it’s the right way to handle certain situations. But that doesn’t make the abuse OK. They also need help to overcome their abusive behavior.

How to Get Help for Abuse

Recognizing abuse is the first step in removing yourself from an abusive relationship. If you recognize the behaviors above, it may be time to seek help.

Immediately Report Life-Threatening Abuse

If you believe that you or someone you know is in a situation where the abuse may be life-threatening, you should report this immediately. Call 911 for help.

Tell a Safe Person

You don’t have to wait until abuse becomes life-threatening to seek help. If you’re experiencing abuse, reach out to a person you trust and confide in them about what you’re going through. A safe person can offer support and help you decide how to handle the situation. It’s also good to know that you’re not alone.

If you’re not sure who to trust, call the National Domestic Violence/Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233. A helpline volunteer can assist you in further identifying the signs of abuse and equip you with the knowledge and resources you need to remove yourself from the situation.

Relocate to a Safe Location

Abuse can happen within your home. You may feel scared to address or report the abuse if you have nowhere else to go. Talk to a safe person about staying with them while addressing the issues. Abuse helplines may also be able to find you a safe place to relocate temporarily. If abuse is happening within the home, removing yourself from the situation is one of the first steps to protecting yourself.

Connect with a Support Group

Support groups are safe spaces for abuse survivors to meet. Joining a support group can help you feel less isolated and allow you to talk with people who understand what you’re going through or experienced.

Find a Therapist

Whether the abuse happened recently or took place 20 years ago, talking to a therapist can help you heal and regain a sense of self and safety. Therapy can help you address painful emotions and work through the trauma resulting from abuse.

How ILC Can Help

At Integrative Life Center, we understand how difficult it is to experience abuse and remove yourself from an abusive situation. Our trained mental health professionals use a heart-centered approach to help people work through the trauma and emotional pain caused by abuse. We tailor our holistic treatment programs to your specific needs to help you heal and live the life you deserve. Contact us today for help.

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