A couple comfort one anothe... A couple comfort one anothe...

Shedding Light on Partner Abuse

A couple comfort one another after a violent episodePartner abuse, or intimate partner violence (IPV), is most simply defined as coercive control directed toward an intimate partner. Abuse is behavior that physically harms, incites fear, or prevents the partner from doing what he or she wishes. IPV may be chronic, sporadic, or an isolated incident.

Intimate partner violence has been around as long as there have been couples in relationship. For a long time, IPV was regarded as a man’s prerogative and swept under the rug. British common law, for example, condoned wife beating and instituted what came to be known as “the rule of thumb,” illustrating that a man could beat his wife with “a rod no thicker than his thumb.” It wasn’t until the late 19th century that lawmakers in the United States began to rescind a man’s legal right to beat his wife. For the next century, laws to protect women from partner violence were on the books—but they were not consistently enforced and IPV continued to be accepted or dismissed.

The 1970s ushered in a new era for women’s rights, and violence against women began to be recognized as a sociopolitical issue. A movement emerged, demanding that the legal system recognize the right of women to be safe in their own homes. Many of the leaders in this movement were formerly battered women who had escaped violent partners and now worked doggedly to reform the legal system to treat domestic violence as a serious crime. The cry went up to “hold batterers accountable.” The movement’s message was simple and straightforward: abusive men exercise power and control over their female partners and they must be made to stop. A new school of thought emerged recognizing that many men benefit from power and status at all levels of society and, similarly, that many men believe that they have the right to control their female partners.

Today there is a body of research that tells us that not all IPV is the same. In the article Why Do Partners Abuse Each Other?, I discussed the range and types of IPV, but it cannot be emphasized enough that all IPV is harmful and needs to be recognized for what it is, so that it can be stopped. Unfortunately, there just are not enough sources of information about IPV available to professionals or laypeople. In my work with clients who grew up with IPV or are living with it now, the question often comes up, “Why couldn’t I have learned this earlier? Why can’t they teach this in school?”

Indeed, though my graduate-level training in counseling psychology was strongly geared toward family therapy, there was barely a mention of partner violence. This is particularly disconcerting given the prevalence of at least one type of IPV, situational couple violence, estimated to occur in more than 50% of couples! Situational couple violence doesn’t typically represent an ongoing pattern of abuse, but is specific to a particular conflict. In addition, teen dating violence made headlines in recent years, after a preventable tragedy occurred. But how widely is information on this issue disseminated to teens in middle and high schools? Most communities have programs for teaching primary and secondary school students about child abuse, but what about abuse between parents? What resources do they have to understand why one parent regularly beats and humiliates the other?

I hope that through the advocacy of educators and mental health providers, we as a society will gain a better understanding of what is going on behind closed doors all across the country. Professionals in all types of social and health services need to know what questions to ask and what warning signs to look for. The safety and welfare of the women, children, and men that they serve may depend on it.

If you suspect that you, your teen, a friend, or a family member might be in an abusive or controlling relationship, consider how that person might answer the following questions.

Does your partner:

  • blame you for all of the problems in your relationship?
  • blame you for all of the problems in his/her life?
  • tell you that you are “crazy,” “stupid,” or “psycho?”
  • call you “lazy,” “worthless,” “a jerk,” “a loser,” or some form of obscenity?
  • tell your children negative things about you?
  • call you a “bad mother” or a “bad father?”
  • demand to know where you are at all times?
  • accuse of being unfaithful? Does your partner check your phone, email, etc.?
  • frequently call you at work or show up at your workplace unannounced?
  • discourage from working or going to school?
  • control all the money? Does your partner give you an allowance or force you to be on a budget?
  • keep you from spending time with friends or family members because of your partner?
  • criticize you or humiliate you in front of others?
  • frighten or intimidate you when he/she is angry? Do you “walk on eggshells” around your partner?
  • threaten to leave and take the kids away from you? Has your partner threatened you or your children?
  • ever hit, push, slap, pinch, kick, punch, grab, shake, choke, or restrain you?
  • ever threaten to commit suicide if you leave?
  • ever force, coerce, or manipulate you into engaging in sexual acts that you do not want to do?

A pattern of one or more of these behaviors is indicative of an abusive relationship. Many of these examples represent an abusive partner’s efforts to destroy the self-confidence and self-esteem of his or her partner.

If you or a loved one is in an abusive relationship, that person urgently needs understanding and support. Try to assist that person in getting help as soon as possible. Don’t wait, thinking things will get better—they won’t.


  • National Domestic Violence Hotline; 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline; 1-866-331-9474
  • WomensLaw.org, a guide to legal information and support for victims of domestic violence

© Copyright 2010 by Leslie Larson, LPC-S. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Suzzie W.

    March 31st, 2010 at 2:22 AM

    Although partner violence used to be physical in nature a few decades ago it has now moved to being mjental and emotional and has become very difficult for most women,simply because it is hard to explain and prove of that…if a partner abuses his wife physically,then it can be proved quite easily and action can be taken but mental and emotional abuse is something that even the law is not too well equipped to tackle…all this needs to change if there has to be peaceful marriages all around.

  • Leslie Larson

    March 31st, 2010 at 8:14 AM

    It’s true that mental and emotional abuse are more prevalent than physical, though just as damaging as far as long-term effects. The fact that not only legally, but socially we do not recognize mental and emotional abuse as such makes it that much more insidious. It is a slippery slope when we talk about how to bring legal sanctions for emotional abuse; it is nearly impossible to prove and can devolve into endless “he said/she said” scenarios. My own opinion is that we still have a long way to go in educating the public about all types of abuse.


  • cathy W.

    March 31st, 2010 at 12:48 PM

    The first step in bringing about a change wherein we are aiming at eliminating something(which is partner abuse in any form) is accepting the fact that it exists!Until this acceptation by society happens,there can be no laws or campaigning done to eliminate this from the society as a whole…people should lear to take this as something that is a bane to our society,not something that happens rarely and is to be brushed under the carpet…

  • N.Lester

    March 31st, 2010 at 3:14 PM

    With the growth of non-physical abuse also comes the emergence of gender-independent abuse…we now hear a lot more of women abusing their male partners in ways other than physical and this is something that is not often discussed,thereby painting the wrong picture of women being the sole victims.

  • rae

    April 1st, 2010 at 7:20 AM

    Do you think there are generally indicators very early on in a relationship that a partner is likely going to be abusive toward his spouse at some point in time?

  • Leslie Larson

    April 2nd, 2010 at 8:33 AM

    Absolutely there are early warning signs.

    Abusers can really turn on the charm and sweep someone off their feet, so it is not uncommon for an abuser to pressure a person to get into a relationship, take it to the next level, etc. So if someone is pushing for fast involvement, that could be the first sign. Also, notice early on if their is harsh or critical language about a person’s ex-partner or about the other gender (i.e., man-bashing, misongynistic attitude). A good rule of thumb is if the person totally bad-mouths their ex and takes no responsibility for their part in a failed relationship, there’s something wrong with this picture.

    Another early red flag is possessiveness or pronounced jealousy. An abuser may say that they love you so much they can’t help but be jealous, but the jealous reactions and demands may be the excuse for exerting control on the partner’s comings and goings, who they spend time with, who they contact on Facebook, etc.

    Which leads to the next phase: making it more and more difficult to have contact with or spend time with anyone but the abuser. It may be outright rules and demands, or it might be more passive-aggressive, such as getting sullen and moody if the partner wants to spend time with other friends or make plans that don’t include the abuser.
    Some of these controlling/possessive behaviors may include checking partner’s phone, email and Facebook page; criticizing partner’s friends, calling them “a bad influence” or worse; criticizing partner’s dress, such as saying they’re dressing to attract others, or worse; questioning partner’s whereabouts or schedule.

    Another sure early warning sign is verbal abuse. When someone starts calling you names or putting you down, take it very seriously. It is an indication of the lack appreciation and respect that they have toward you now and for as long as you allow.

  • me

    February 13th, 2015 at 9:53 AM

    I was friends with my bf for 5 yrs before we started dating, and he treated me like a queen. When we started dating I got pregnant within weeks. I thot I was having a baby with my best friend. Then he accused me of cheating, and asked me if the baby was his. After that followed punches to my face, bloody noses, my hair pulled out of my head, pushing or tripping me and getting choked. He broke my glasses that I am blind without. I was in the hospital a lot with kidney infections because he would not let me use the bathroom. Or leave the bedroom. I peed my pants almost everyday. Sometimes I peed my pants twice before id get a chance to change them. On a regular basis,3-4 times a week He would chase me with the car as I ran on foot ducking into peoples yards hiding in ditches and bushes. One morning I woke up and he had a ligature around my neck, and when he pulled it tight thats when I awoke. Unable to scream I tried to shout, he is trying to kill me! And for some reason he let go and I ran outside with no shoes. He had been watching me sleep and felt that I was faking it. He cheated on me, then treated me as if I was cheating, he punished me for any attention I got from anyone. Just a simple hello from a passerby and I knew he was gonna hurt me for it. Calling me every horrible name in the book. He didnt care about our baby, when I was halfway in the car and he sped off leaving me rolling down the road because I tried to hang on for my life. He would make me drive and scream in my face so violently that I was incapable of driving I would tremble so badly and so hed drop me off in an area I was unfamiliar with. No coat or shoes in December, and I curled up behind a dumpster and someone saw me and called the cops. I was treated for hypothermia and my bf accused me of meeting someone and having sex with them for a place to stay the night. The cops would get called and I was so fearful that Id deny eye-witness reports, and the cops couldnt arrest him. I slept in a shelter one night I escaped from him, and again accused of having sex w someone. I had few clothes because hed cut them all up or poured bleach on them. And Id fish them out of the dumpster so I could wear them anyway. Every day he would coerce me to have sex. If I didnt go along with it, I would suffer the verbal abuse, accusations, and more beatings. I never saw my friends or family. And when I did I wished they would realize I was being abused, but instead they thought I was abusing drugs. Due to my lack of hygenic care, erratic behavior, and weight loss during pregnancy. I was trying to send the message across without being detected that I wanted to leave to my mother, and when it didnt translate, I started sobbing and my mother left . I just wanted to end my life, but I was pregnant. She was the only thing I lived for. I managed to make it to 1 appt and they asked me if I was in an abusive situation as part of their protocol, I said no. If I had said yes they immediately involve CPS, and take your baby if you dont leave your abuser. Which seems like the right thing to do, but I was so fear-stricken that I protected him. And I never went to another prenatal visit again. Then one day while he was sleeping so deeply I was able to get his phone. I called my sister who immediately bought me a ticket, she didnt know what was going on bit that I couldnt wait to visit. I never dared to speak ill of him. Even after I left the state the next morning. Ive still never spoke about it, out of shame. Humiliation, and accountability. I fear people will blame me for staying in that situation. I feel responsible for what happened because I shouldve left instantly. My baby was born, healthy and happy. Never cried much,a very very good baby. Shes 2 1/2. Thats my story. The first time ive ever told it. my sister saved me. She never questioned or judged me. Just took care of everything I needed.

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