Does abusive behavior in a relationship mean a couple should split immediately? Plot twist: Often yes, but not always. Allow us to explain.
The verb ‘to abuse’ is defined as “[to] use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse…[example]: the judge abused his power by imposing the fines” (Oxford Languages, 2022).
Have you ever abused your power in a relationship, even in a subtle way? For example, have you ever tried to convince your partner to do something they didn’t want during a moment when you had leverage over them? Have you ever defensively used the slogan “it’s just in your head” to avoid accountability during a tense moment, even when you know it isn’t really in their head? Have you ever yelled cruel words you later regretted when pushed to the brink of your patience?
All of these examples and many more constitute abusive behaviors. We humans are still imperfect, and our interpersonal skills are still evolving. As such, many of us engage in abusive behaviors from time to time. The implications for our relationships (and whether or not we should be in one) depends on the severity and frequency of our abusive actions as well as what steps we take to make amends and not repeat them, + how successful those steps are.
Abusive behavior exists on a spectrum, and a substantial amount of the general population is prone to occasionally fall prey to bad habits in relationships that equate to abuse. If the abuse is extreme or highly pervasive, then splitting is likely in the couple’s best interest. However, one can display some lower-level abusive behaviors (which it is crucial they unlearn expediently) without being a horrible person who is doomed to be alone or in an unhealthy relationship.
The idea that a relationship is either ‘functional’ or ‘dysfunctional’ is a false dichotomy. Few endeavors involving humans are either ‘this’ or ‘that’. You and your partner may love each other dearly, spend many happy and healthy days together, and still each be dealing with some less savory low-level abusive tendencies that can ruin a day or lead to lapses in judgment and trust from time to time.
Nevertheless, it is important to re-emphasize that if abuse is extreme or pervasive (as in the case of physical attacks, a pattern of repeated lying, or frequent manipulation, for example), the focus should absolutely be on safely exiting the relationship. The intention here is never to condone abuse, but to call attention to less noticeable abusive behaviors in order to focus on calling in healthy behaviors. In many cases, recognizing subtle unhealthy and abusive behaviors can lead to the salvaging and transformation of a relationship.
Many people have grown up witnessing abusive behaviors, and are in the process of unlearning what they internalized. Rather than canceling or ostracizing someone the moment we see the first sign of an abusive behavior, it might be more constructive to open up a conversation about where that behavior comes from and whether and how they can learn a healthier behavior. Of course, this never involves justifying their behavior.
This also goes for ourselves. Because there is so much stigma related to the term ‘abuse’, we may be fearful of or unwilling to look at our own abusive sides and behaviors. By destigmatizing the term ‘abuse’ especially when it comes to its subtler manifestations, we can empower ourselves to take an honest look at the less savory parts of our personalities and put serious effort into changing them for the better.
In this article, we’ll look at a few different types of abuse (physical, sexual, verbal/emotional, mental/psychological, financial, and cultural/identity). We will also consider more carefully how to discern what kinds of abusive behaviors necessitate inner work rather than an immediate breakup, and which should ring alarm bells. We will also provide guidance on how to write your prenup with an eye towards preventing or curtailing abusive tendencies.
Types of Abuse
This is the easiest form of abuse to recognize as abuse. Physical abuse can entail hitting, slapping, kicking, pushing, biting, spitting at, strangling, or physically restraining a partner. Less well-known but equally valid examples include reckless driving and invasions of personal space.
If someone hits their partner, it is quite obvious to most people that the relationship is too abusive to be salvaged. However, allow us to paint a more nuanced picture: Keira and Josh have been together for 3 years. For the most part, their relationship is healthy. They’ve learned a lot from being together, and they frequently discuss their relationship dynamics and account for things they could have done better. However, Keira has a really bad habit: Every so often during arguments, when they are sitting on the bed, she claws at Josh’ thighs in an aggressive way. It doesn’t really injure him, but it is clearly an intrusive physical action taken out of anger. It is physical abuse, but it doesn’t ring alarm bells the same way a pattern of hitting or kicking would. What should Josh do? Should he break up with Keira? That’s his choice and his prerogative. However, a breakup is not the only possible way forward in such cases. Allow us to present an alternative ending:
Keira recognizes that her crossing a physical boundary with anger and aggression is inappropriate, even if it doesn’t truly inflict physical harm. She knows that it is likely a sign that she doesn’t know how to discharge pent-up emotions before they boil over uncontrollably. She is forthcoming in naming the behavior as ‘physically abusive’ and she explicitly tells Josh that she knows this is not ok. She doesn’t shame herself for exhibiting an abusive behavior, but she does enroll in a 4-week anger management class via zoom in which she learns healthier coping mechanisms. Over time, her aggression rears its head less and less frequently. If it ever comes up again, she apologizes profusely and thoroughly revisits the class materials and exercises she learned. Josh and Keira go on to stay together and have a fulfilling relationship that becomes healthier and healthier with time and effort.
What if Keira’s unhealthy pattern were more extreme? What if rather than clawing at his thighs during arguments, Keira had a habit of actually punching or slapping Josh during arguments? In more extreme cases such as this, it would be in both partner’s best interest to split up and for the abusive partner to work on themself separately before trying to get back together or enter a new relationship.
Sexual abuse can involve extreme textbook scenarios like rape or forcing a partner to carry out unwanted sexual acts, but it also include withholding sex as a form of manipulation, insisting on make-up sex after an argument (The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness, 2022), valuing a partner in a committed relationship only for sex, or inflicting harsh criticism related to sex on a partner (eg. that they’re terrible at it ). Marital rape didn’t actually become illegal in all 50 US states until 1993 (Reach Team, 2022), so some people may not even see forced or coerced sex within a marriage as abusive–but it is.
One of the more insidious forms of sexual abuse is guilt-tripping a partner who doesn’t feel like engaging in sexual behavior. This is unfortunately very common. Unlike the more extreme examples listed in the paragraph above, this is something that can be addressed and worked through without a breakup–if the couple names the issue and takes it seriously.
When weaponized, words can do an incredible amount of damage. If one partner makes a habit of inflicting harsh criticism on the other, this constitutes verbal abuse. It can include telling a partner they are worthless, stupid, ugly, or any other number of unflattering accusations (Reach Team, 2022).
Some people have a habit of framing these types of unflattering statements as a joke. Remember that it’s only a joke if both people think it’s funny. If you jokingly call your partner “so stupid” more often than you praise them, it might be more abusive than funny, especially if it continues after the partner expresses discomfort with the joke. Intentionally paying more attention to one’s words and how they make the other person feel is a simple and doable way to course correct this type of abusive behavior.
However, it’s important not to conflate verbal abuse with nagging. Repeated complaints (think “you never do the dishes” and “why are you always late” multiple times per day) may be unskillful and destructive to the relationship, but they do not constitute verbal abuse.
Mental and psychological abuse comes in a myriad of forms. It involves, through various means, wearing away at the victim’s sense of psychological and mental wellbeing. This type of abuse often aims to make the victim doubt their sanity or not trust their own judgment or instincts. For example, some stories involve the perpetrator moving the victim’s car keys, or even their car itself (Reach Team, 2020), as a way to throw them off and/or make them question their sanity. This is often referred to as ‘gaslighting’.
Mental or psychological abuse can also include constantly doubting a partner’s loyalty out-of-turn or accusing them of affairs, getting jealous when they talk to another person of the opposite sex, forcing someone to constantly account for their whereabouts and how they’re spending their time, stopping someone from going to school or getting a job, or (in relevant relationships) threatening to withdraw one’s sponsorship of a partner from overseas who depends on their partner for a visa (TCFRAA, 2022).
Like the other types of abuse, emotional abuse comes in varying shades of subtlety. For example, a partner who would tends towards being dismissive of your feelings in little ways (for example, rolling their eyes and saying “you’re just being paranoid” when you complain that they seemed distant at dinner last night) is practicing a subtle form of emotional abuse, but their intentions may not be bad and they may not be aware that their dismissive behavior is abusive. If such a partner is able to recognize the harm done by their behavior and make an effort to lean in instead of away if their partner picks up on an interpersonal dynamic they might not have considered, the behavior can be rectified.
A person who insists on controlling the finances for the whole relationship (despite their partner’s wishes to the contrary), unilaterally restricts their partner’s spending, opens accounts or accumulates debt in their partner’s name, or keeps their partner from having a job or earning their own money is engaging in financial abuse. At its root, abuse is usually about power and control, and this is particularly evident when it comes to financial abuse (Reach Team, 2022).
An abuser does not always have malicious intentions. Some people who are prone to codependency may wish to support their partners financially because they want to build a relationship structure in which they are entwined with their partner, making it more difficult to separate. Although it’s unhealthy, this type of abuser may not recognize it; they simply see it as taking steps to enhance the level of commitment and seriousness in their relationship. A person like this may not realize that their behavior is actually abusive. If they are able to access education related to codependency or financial abuse, they may be able to restructure their relationship and find a different way to build a sense of security.
Financial abuse is particularly relevant to be aware of when you’re writing your prenup. One way to ensure that your relationship does not become financially abusive is to talk explicitly with your partner about what constitutes financial abuse and then to discuss the financial expectations and division of assets as you write your prenup, with an eye towards financial abuse.
Let’s go back to Keira and Josh, the couple from the beginning of this article. Keira has dealt with her aggression, and guess what? They’re getting married! Josh has a much higher income than Keira. He loves her so much that he doesn’t know what he’d do without her, and he wants to do everything in his power to make sure they never split–including making it financially difficult for her to leave him.
There are a couple of ways in which he might do so. He could encourage a hesitant Keira not to work much and to take care of the course and pursue her passions instead, writing into their prenup that one of his financial obligations is to support his wife financially. In doing so, Keira would become financially dependent on him, taking her off the job market and making it more difficult to exit the relationship securely should it ever come to that. Is this truly abuse? Not necessarily, but it depends.
If Josh’ suggestion is underscored by the subtle intention to keep Keira chained to him even if she wanted to leave, it certainly doesn’t sound healthy. However, let’s say that this is an arrangement that Keira also wants and actively supports, without coercion, and that she is aware of its implications. Josh, for his part, is truly trying to be generous and pragmatic (they really don’t need Keira’s income) and to do what is best for his relationship. He has no intention to subtly ‘trap’ Keira. Their arrangement may be professionally risky for Keira, but it isn’t abusive.
Additionally, Josh could insist on writing into his and Keira’s prenup that he keeps all of his income and does not pay alimony in the case of a separation. If Keira has already become financially dependent on him by that point, she may be de-incentivized to leave even if the relationship is truly no longer working out. This is a form of financial abuse, even if Josh’ intention is just to keep them together because he really, really loves her.
Financial abuse can be prevented or curtailed by writing a fair prenuptial agreement and being aware of arrangements which may be more financially coercive or abusive than beneficial. If you’re thinking about marriage or considering your prenup, check out how Hello Prenup works or read about the basics of a prenuptial agreement. If you’re new to all this, you might also like to learn about some of HelloPrenup’s clauses that you might consider including in your own agreement. For a deeper dive, check out our ultimate holiday prenup guide.
So, remember that some abuse can be subtle and that a person can engage in unhealthy behaviors which may have abusive undertones without necessarily being a bad or dysfunctional person as a whole. Rather than shying away from the term ‘abuse’, we would all do well to confront our abusive behaviors head on, naming them for what they are and taking the necessary steps to build healthier habits instead.
Oxford Languages. 2022. Dictionary. Retrieved from: https://www.google.com/search?q=what+is+abuse&rlz=1C5CHFA_enTH988TH989&oq=what+is+abuse&aqs=chrome..69i57j35i39l2j0i433i512l2j69i60l3.3281j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
Reach Beyond Domestic Abuse. 2022. 6 Different Types of Abuse. Retrieved from: https://reachma.org/blog/6-different-types-of-abuse/
The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness. 2022. Emotional Abuse. Retrieved from: http://stoprelationshipabuse.org/educated/types-of-abuse/emotional-abuse/
Julia Rodgers is HelloPrenup’s CEO and Co-Founder. She is a Massachusetts family law attorney and true believer in the value of prenuptial agreements. HelloPrenup was created with the goal of automating the prenup process, making it more collaborative, time efficient and cost effective. Julia believes that a healthy marriage is one in which couples can openly communicate about finances and life goals. You can read more about us here Questions? Reach out to Julia directly at [email protected].