Domestic Abuse: Understanding Emotional Abuse and Violence in Relationships

Millions of people experience domestic abuse every year. Our guide covers how to recognize the signs of an abusive relationship and find help.

Medically reviewed by:
Last updated: Apr 24th, 2023
Domestic Abuse

On average, 20 people per minute experience domestic physical violence in the U.S. — this amounts to over 10 million individuals annually. Domestic violence devastates families and causes emotional, physical, and psychological harm. While anyone can be a victim of domestic violence, certain factors such as personality, socioeconomic status, culture, and environment can raise the risk of intimate partner violence perpetration.

IPV is an insidious cycle that affects nearly every part of a person’s life. It’s linked to diminished resources, higher rates of depression, suicidal behavior, and thousands of deaths per year. Despite these concerning statistics, domestic violence is underreported, with only 34% of IPV victims receiving treatment for physical injuries. Understanding and recognizing the signs of domestic violence is an important first step in stopping the cycle of abuse and potentially saving a victim’s life.

Jump to

Jump to:

Understanding intimate partner violence

Domestic violence in a relationship is called intimate partner violence (IPV). The leading motivation behind IPV is maintaining an imbalance of power to assert control over the other person. There are many forms of IPV, including physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, financial abuse, and coercive control. Manipulation, feelings of love and loyalty, and a false sense of hope that an abuser can or will change or does not intend to hurt them are signs of trauma bonding — a psychological response to repeated and regular abuse.

Because IPV often isolates the victim, they seek comfort and safety from the same person that abuses them, making it very difficult to escape the situation. From an outside perspective, it can be difficult to understand why a trauma-bonded victim remains in their relationship. It’s important to remember that our innate tendency to rationalize dissonance in situations can make it extremely difficult for trauma-bonded victims of abuse to recognize, accept, and escape the cycle. Regardless of whether or not a trauma bond exists, it is critical to understand that the abuse is never the victim’s fault. However, others can make them feel responsible for their situation. Abusers knowingly choose their actions and have complete control over their behavior.

Victims of IPV

IPV can happen at any age, and violence that begins in adolescent relationships is called teen dating violence (TDV). Millions of teens experience TDV every year, with 1 in 12 high school students reporting physical violence, sexual violence, or both. The risk of TDV increases in vulnerable teenage groups, such as females, LGBTQ+, or gender-questioning adolescents.

While adult men and women experience some forms of IPV at similar rates, women are more likely to be victims of severe injury, sexual violence, contraction of STDs, and stalking. Women are also more likely to develop PTSD and utilize victim resources, such as domestic violence hotlines and shelters. Due to underreporting and undertreatment, it can be hard to precisely quantify the scale of domestic violence (particularly IPV) against males. Statistics regarding men’s experience with IPV may be much greater than depicted, as men are less likely to report and seek help for abuse due to cultural views, denial, or fear of stigmatization.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV):

  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience some type of physical violence at the hands of their intimate partners, such as pushing, slapping, and shoving.
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe IPV, such as stalking, sexual violence, or injury.
  • 1 in 10 women have been raped by their partner.
  • 40% of lesbians and 60% of bisexual women report experiencing IPV.
  • 25% of gay men and 37% of bisexual men report experiencing IPV.
  • Data on IPV against transgender individuals is limited, though some studies suggest between 30% and 50% of transgender people experience IPV in their lifetime.

Types of IPV: Recognize the signs

Intimate partner violence takes many forms and is not limited to one type of abuse. Many victims experience two or more types of IPV in an abusive relationship. Recognizing the signs of an abusive relationship by understanding how abusers maintain an imbalance of power and force the victims to be dependent on them is the first step in breaking the cycle.


Physical abuse includes pushing, hitting, kicking, choking, shoving, punching, pinching, slapping, or biting. It also includes using physical force to make the victims perform certain acts, such as substance use, sexual acts, or any other act that the abuser forces the victim to do. Property damage, reckless driving, the use of a weapon, detaining or trapping, withholding medical care, and abandonment are all forms of physical abuse.

If you have experienced any of the above, you are in a physically abusive relationship and may be in serious danger. Physical abuse can become lethal and, in many cases, fatal. Data regarding homicide as a result of domestic violence is inconsistent, but the CDC estimates that 1 in 5 homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. An analysis of the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System found that over 6,300 people were killed by their intimate partners between 2003 and 2015. The risk of IPV-related homicide increases by 500% if the abuser has a gun.


Sexual violence and abuse is a form of physical abuse that involves the abuser forcing the victim to participate in or perform nonconsensual sexual acts. Sexual abuse extends to rape, sexual manipulation, restraining the victim during sex, and verbal abuse involving sexual insults. Abusers may also force the victim to take on additional sexual partners without their consent and force sex on the victim when they are least willing or after physically abusing them.

Sexual violence is a serious crime with severe physical and mental consequences. It is not as uncommon as you might think, with 1.5 million rapes perpetrated against women and 800,000 sexual assaults against men annually. Depression, PTSD, flashbacks, pregnancy, and STIs are common effects of sexual violence. Victims of sexual violence may cope with substance use, self-harm, develop eating disorders, or contemplate, attempt, or die from suicide as a result of their trauma.


IPV does not have to be physical or sexual to be deemed violent. Emotionally abusive relationships involve many forms of coercive control and attempt to emotionally and mentally cripple the victim. 95% of men who are physically abusive to their partners are also emotionally abusive. Some tactics abusers employ include:

  • Humiliation
  • Degradation
  • Withholding affection
  • Giving ultimatums
  • Name-calling
  • Constant criticism
  • Making you doubt others
  • Controlling who you see
  • Trying to isolate you
  • Accusing you of infidelity or lying
  • Destroying your self-esteem
  • Requiring permission to do things
  • Threatening violence
  • Monitoring phone or Internet use

It’s estimated that 1 in 10 men and women have experienced coercive control from an intimate partner. Emotional abuse also often accompanies other types of abuse, such as sexual or physical abuse, which can intensify the trauma from the relationship. Emotional abuse can have long-term mental impacts, such as depression, PTSD, and suicidal ideation. It can create a strong distrust of others that lasts long after the abusive relationship is over, making it difficult to have or maintain a healthy relationship.


Though some experts prefer to group emotional and psychological abuse, subtle differences between the two are worth noting. While emotional abuse seeks to destabilize the victim's confidence and self-worth through coercive control, verbal abuse, and manipulation, psychological abuse seeks to destabilize the victim’s sense of reality and make them question their sanity, a tactic called gaslighting. Some examples of gaslighting include:

  • Questioning the accuracy of the victim’s memories of recent events
  • Pretending to forget things
  • Pretending to have not heard the victim
  • Deliberately ignoring or refusing to listen to the victim
  • Changing or diverting the subject
  • Belittling the victim’s feelings or needs
  • Claiming the victim is overreacting, is too sensitive, or is crazy

Gaslighting often begins as subtle, small distortions of reality that can add up to serious emotional and mental harm. Victims of gaslighting often experience the following:

  • Frequently second-guessing themselves
  • Heightened feelings of confusion
  • Excusing their partner’s behavior
  • Avoiding family and friends
  • Losing confidence in their capabilities
  • Feeling like “something is off”
  • Apologizing to their partner for everything

Intimidation tactics such as stalking are also psychological abuse, as it causes the victim to live in a state of prolonged fear, anxiety, and suspicion. It involves following the victim wherever they go, watching the victim, and repeatedly calling or leaving messages. Stalking affects 14% of women and 5% of men; and can escalate into physical and sexual violence.


Abusers may attempt to assert control over their victims by withholding money, controlling how they spend money, or preventing them from working, going to school, or seeking employment. This is to make the victim financially dependent on the abuser and prevent escape. IPV has caused victims to lose 8 million days of work collectively, adding up to $8 billion in yearly losses. If your partner has a history of withholding resources or preventing you from working, you may be in an abusive relationship.

The cycle of violence and abuse

Intimate partner violence is rarely a one-time event, but a cycle that is only broken when the victim escapes, or the abuser is stopped. IPV can also result in the death of the victim at the hand of the abuser or by suicide. Escaping IPV is a race against time, as the violence and abuse may intensify as the cycle repeats itself. Learning about IPV as a cycle and how it makes it difficult for victims to leave is imperative in destigmatizing domestic violence. IPV victims face criticism and even blame for not leaving their situations sooner or choosing to remain with their abusers. However, manipulation, mental destabilization, and forced dependency can make it difficult for victims to leave voluntarily.

Tension building

In this part of the cycle (which can take months or years to build up to in some cases), the abuser may begin to show frustration and anger over even the smallest trigger. As the tension mounts, the abuser gets progressively more angry and violent. They may also employ other abuse tactics, such as accusing the victim of infidelity, verbal abuse, gaslighting, and others. The victim may try to calm the abuser but feel as though they are walking on eggshells. They may also try to nurture the abuser by cooking, gifting, or showing more affection in an attempt to de-escalate the situation.


When the tension reaches a boiling point, the abuser commits an act of violence, whether sexual, verbal, or physical. The severity of the attack varies depending on how long the abuse has been going on. Typically, the crisis will become worse and worse as the cycle repeats. The victim is most likely to leave the relationship at this point.


Seen in many, but not all, abusive relationships, the honeymoon phase involves abusers attempting to manipulate victims into staying with overt displays of remorse, affection, and declarations of love. The abuser may also make lavish promises, involve family members, blame external factors or substance use for their actions, and want to resume intimacy. These tactics are called love bombing and are used as incentives for the victim to remain in the relationship. The victim, in a vulnerable state and seeking safety and love, may take this as a sign that the abuser is willing to change. The honeymoon phase is temporary (lasting days, weeks, or months), but the victim may not see it as such. They may drop any pending charges, forgive the abuser, and return to the relationship, believing the abuse to be over.

Breaking the cycle

Some resources depict the cycle of domestic violence revolving around denial, while others believe the center of the cycle to be love, fear, and hope. The truth is that each relationship is different, and the victim’s reasons for staying in a relationship may vary. However, the cycle of abuse has proven to be insidious and doesn’t stop on its own. Victims should never be blamed for the abuse and need to be provided the resources, education, and support to escape the situation safely.

Risk factors

Anyone can be a victim of IPV; however, certain individual, societal, and community factors raise the risk of IPV perpetration in a relationship. The list below details more information on what may increase the risk of someone becoming an abuser.

Individual risk factors

Low self-esteem, substance use, low income, low education, prior violent offenses, belief in male dominance, misogyny, history of aggression in youth, being young, feeling insecure, history of aggression, antisocial behavior.

Societal risk factors

Gender inequality, traditional gender roles, income inequality, poor education, health, and social structure.

Community risk factors

The area has high violence, crime, poverty, unemployment rates, and few IPV resources. The person has poor community engagement, low community support, or access to illicit substances.


Just as IPV perpetration is multifaceted and has multiple factors, prevention of IPV can also be seen this way. Improving communities with diminished resources, low education, and high crime rates may be part of the solution. Creating safe methods for victims to seek help and providing refuge for IPV victims is another way communities can combat IPV. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers strategies to address IPV at every level.


If you or someone you know is a victim of IPV, below is a list of resources that can help:



Innerbody uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (2021). National Statistics. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Risk and Protective Factors for Perpetration. CDC.

  3. United Nations. (2020). What Is Domestic Abuse? United Nations.

  4. Rachel, a Hotline Advocate. (n.d.). Identifying & Overcoming Trauma Bonds. National Domestic Violence Hotline.

  5. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Domestic violence against women: Recognize patterns, seek help. Mayo Clinic.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Preventing Teen Dating Violence. CDC.

  7. Huecker, M., & Smock, W. (2022). Domestic Violence. StatPearls Publishing.

  8. Brown, T., & Herman, J. (2015). Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Abuse Among LGBT People. UCLA.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Fast Facts: Preventing Intimate Partner Violence. CDC.

  10. Velopulos, C. G., Carmichael, H., Zakrison, T. L., & Crandall, M. (2019). Comparison of male and female victims of intimate partner homicide and bidirectionality-an analysis of the national violent death reporting system. The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, 87(2), 331–336.

  11. RAINN. (2022). Effects of Sexual Violence. RAINN.

  12. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (2015). Emotional or Psychological Abuse. NCADV.

  13. Origins Behavioral Healthcare. (2019). Is there a difference between emotional abuse and psychological abuse?. Origins Recovery.

  14. National Domestic Hotline. (n.d.). What is Gaslighting?. National Domestic Violence Hotline.

  15. District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department. (n.d.). The Cycle of Violence.

  16. Domestic Violence: It’s Everybody’s Business. (2020). Step by Step Guide to Understanding the Cycle of Violence.

  17. Cleveland Clinic. (2023). What Is Love Bombing? 7 Signs To Look For. Cleveland Clinic.

  18. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Intimate Partner Violence: Prevention Strategies. CDC.