Understanding Abuse

Abuse is when someone uses their behavior or influence over another person to cause harm or to exert power over them, especially when that behavior is repeated regularly. It can be hard for many of us to recognize abuse because it most often comes from someone we know and trust. If we’re already having a difficult time emotionally it’s even harder to realize we might be suffering from abuse, especially when it starts out in a subtle way and builds over time, such as is common with domestic or child abuse.

Abuse can occur in many forms and happen in many settings. It can happen to us or to someone we know and love. It’s estimated that one in five people have experienced some form of abuse in their lifetime and one in four women, and one in seven men, will experience severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. (CDC, 2017)

Types of Abuse

Abuse comes in various forms, and it’s possible to experience multiple types of abuse simultaneously. The most common forms include: physical, emotional/verbal, sexual, financial, digital, and stalking. Here’s a brief description of each:


Physical abuse is when someone intentionally causes unwanted harm or pain to our bodies. This includes pushing, hitting, scratching, grabbing clothing, throwing things, restraining, unwanted sexual content, or violent gestures toward or around one’s body. This unwanted contact doesn’t have to cause pain or even leave a mark to be considered abuse.


Verbal or emotional abuse involves name-calling, insults, threats, isolating an individual and constant monitoring of whereabouts or behavior. This can include yelling, publicly embarrassing someone, intentionally gaslighting or confusing someone, belittling, threatening to leave or attempt suicide if certain demands aren’t met, starting rumors and controlling or telling someone what to do.


Sexual abuse involves forcing, coercing, or pressuring someone to participate in unwanted sexual activity. This can be a wide range of behaviors including rape, unwanted kissing or touching, refusing to use a condom or lying about using a condom, using sexual insults, or having sexual contact with someone who is drunk, under the influence, or drugged. Women report significantly more sexual abuse than men in childhood, adulthood, and over the course of their lifetime, as well as a higher prevalence of emotional abuse than men.


Financial abuse can often be very subtle. At its core, financial abuse is controlling how someone uses their money, using financial pressures or restrictions to control someone’s behaviors or accessing/stealing financial resources or information without a person’s permission.


Digital abuse can be much like emotional/verbal abuse but instead uses digital channels like social media, texting or email to bully, harass, stalk, or intimidate someone. Common types of digital abuse include online insults, intimidation, starting rumors, sharing personal photos, manipulating personal photos or information, or catfishing or impersonating someone online.


Stalking is when someone watches, follows, or harasses us on an ongoing basis in a way that makes us feel afraid or unsafe. The legal definition can differ from state to state, but it generally includes: showing up places uninvited, sending unwanted texts or emails, unwanted gifts, using social networks to track someone down or keep tabs on them, reaching out to someone’s friends, family or coworkers, waiting around at places someone hangs out, damaging property, etc. Stalking can be particularly damaging because many of these techniques are not — in and of themselves — considered illegal. So stalkers can often cause significant damage to a person’s life and sense of well-being without legal ramifications.

Common Signs of Abuse

People often hide signs of abuse because they are worried about what will happen if people find out, or they may be protecting the person who is abusing them. It’s not uncommon for people who perpetuate abuse to be apologetic and remorseful after the abuse, and to convince a victim that it won’t happen again.

Common signs include:

  • Visible signs of physical abuse can include: bruises, red or purple marks, sprains, or other injuries. A warning sign can also be clear attempts to cover up these injuries with cosmetics or clothing.
  • Behavioral symptoms of abuse can include: increased agitation or anxiety, changes in sleep patterns, increased drug or alcohol usage, over apologizing, inability to keep up with work or school, fear, or talking about suicide. People who suffer from abuse may also become more distant.

It’s important to note that a single abuser may be using multiple forms of abuse. For example, an abusive partner might be causing physical and emotional harm on and offline, while controlling someone by intimidating, using financial threats, and monitoring.

If we recognize signs of abuse in ourselves or in the lives of our friends or a family member, we need to speak up and take action. If you feel like you’re being abused, have conversations about these feelings with someone you trust, not the person who may be causing the abuse. This article has more ways to identify and report signs of abuse.

Common Signs that Someone Might Need Support

Abuse is NEVER the fault of the person being abused. There’s no excuse to ever cause physical or psychological harm to another person. If you or someone you know are in immediate threat of harm, please call 911 immediately. You can also call or chat with the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

You can visit our resources page for more ways to get help. You can also text START to 741741 or call 988 for a confidential conversation with a trained counselor anytime.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.