Trauma – Types of Abuse

Characteristics of abusive relationships: Abusive relationships exist along a continuum that includes verbal, emotional, psychological, physical, and sexual assault. Verbal abuse is characterized by constant criticism, belittling of one’s abilities and competency, insults, put downs, name calling, yelling, spreading rumors, revealing secrets, stereotyping, making threats against the victim or the children, and other attempts to undermine the victim’s self-image and sense of worth.

In the case of emotional, mental, and psychological abuse the abuser will limit the victim’s access to school, friends, work, and family. This is done through threats, suicide threats, stalking, sabotage, blackmail and destruction of pets or property.  It also includes nonverbal and passive aggressive behaviors that instill fear or panic in the victim such as certain looks, stares, facial expressions, gestures, playing “mind games” and denying or minimizing the abuse.

Physical abuse is usually characterized by slapping, hitting, hair-pulling, biting, arm twisting, kicking, punching, use of objects to inflict pain and injury, choking, and pushing. It shows up very often in abusive relationships and is almost always coupled with verbal and emotional abuse. An abusive relationship can also include sexual abuse such as unwanted fondling; inappropriate touch, rape, intercourse, oral or anal sodomy; attacks on sexual areas of the body; treating a person in a sexually derogatory manner; use of objects or weapons; forced pregnancy or abortion, and the withholding of contraceptive methods. Also, pressuring the partner into being sexual when they don’t want to be, making him or her suffer or feel guilty for saying no, withholding sex to punish the victim, affairs, using guilt and control to get sex, any sexual behavior that is coerced or pressured.

Other forms of abuse such as economic abuse can consist of withholding money, micromanaging or hiding money, keeping items in one account or one name, limiting access to financial information, and making all financial decisions. Relational neglect is another form of abuse which may include not attending to the needs of the partner, and not considering their feedback or opinion.

It is important to note that additional more specific characteristics of abusive relationships exists in the case of domestic violence against teenagers, the elderly, and other marginalized groups such as individuals with disabilities, people from LGBTQ communities, people of color, and individuals who are immigrants. (Estey, 2017)

Dynamics of abusive relationships: The dynamics of an abusive relationship develops in two phases. During the first phase the abuser seduces the victim by using charm, brainwashing, and destabilization. The victim is initially fascinated and taken in by the abuser’s persona, while the abuser prepares to control or absorb the victim to be used for some personal purpose. Victims may be chosen by perpetrators because they reflect back a positive image of the self to the abuser or because they are caretakers who do not ask much for themselves, while abusers ask a lot. They may both be reflecting trauma from their childhood. The abuser acting in the same way his or her parent acted (dominant and abusive) and the abuser cowering and keeping the abuser happy just like in his or her childhood.

During the second phase of the relationships the abuser will start to seize control of the victim’s person and life. The abuser will use dominance to keep the victim in a state of submission and dependence. To the outside world abusers seem outgoing, intelligent, charming, friendly, kind, and generous, while their immediate family and those who are dependent on them endure violence and abuse. The victim’s self-confidence is chipped away over a period of time until he or she is conditioned to submit, not question, not defend his or her self, and start to think like the abuser.

In order to keep the victim close and dependent, the perpetrator engages in what is called trauma bonding; a cycle of violence followed by apologies, expressions of love, promises of reform, and appeals to loyalty and compassion. This goes along with total isolation of the victim from information, material aid, or emotional support so that nothing can interfere with the perpetrator’s power and control.