Relationships are challenging, and some couples deal with problems by resorting to aggressive and controlling behavior. This has made violence a common occurrence in American families, affecting almost 20 percent of all intimate relationships and marriages. Violence can happen to anyone—partners of all ages, cultures, and backgrounds; couples who are married or unmarried; in heterosexual or same-sex relationships; wealthy and poor; religious and nonreligious. Often, subtle acts such as threats escalate to violence, which will put someone in physical and emotional danger. Violence can make victims feel stressed, depressed, and helpless, and give them low self-esteem. No one should have to endure this kind of experience.
Here are some statistics about intimate partner violence from a 2010 report by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control:
- Nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States.
- 1 in 7 women and 1 in 25 men have been injured by an intimate partner.
The following statistics are from the US Department of Justice:
- 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men report having experienced severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner.
- 16% of women and 7% of men have experienced sexual violence from an intimate partner.
- 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year, and 90% of these children are eyewitnesses to this violence.
Types of violence and abuse of power.
Despite what many people believe, violence does not take place because a partner loses control over their behavior. Abusers in intimate relationships are able to control their behavior, and they carefully choose when to abuse or manipulate the people closest to them. They control themselves when it is to their advantage to do so, but they will resume their violent behavior when no one outside the family is there to witness it.
There are many types of abuse in relationships. One common type of abuse is characterized by coercion and control and may include monitoring of behavior, jealousy, retaliation, and physical and/or emotional abuse. Another type of abuse is characterized by aggressive behavior and is usually referred to as situational couple violence.
Physical and sexual abuse.
This type of abuse occurs when physical force is used against one partner in a way that injures them or places them in danger. Furthermore, any situation where a partner is forced to participate in sexual activity is considered sexual abuse.
Not all abusive relationships involve physical violence. Many people suffer from emotional abuse, which can be equally, if not more destructive than the physical type. The aim is to break down a person’s emotions and feelings of self-worth, making them think that if they leave the relationship, they will have nothing left. Emotional abuse includes, but it is not limited to, shaming, intimidation, controlling behavior, and yelling.
An abuser will often aim to control you and your money. Common behaviors include withholding your money or credit cards, controlling your finances, restricting you to an allowance, taking your money, and preventing you from working.
How abuse works in relationships.
Humiliation:One partner will abuse their power and do anything they can to lower their partner’s self-esteem. They often use name calling and shaming and make the other person feel like they are difficult or worthless, minimizing the chance of their partner leaving the relationship.
Domination:Abusers will often treat their partners like a child or a servant because of their need to feel in charge of the relationship. This need will make them do anything in their power to control their partner’s behavior and tell them what to do and how to do it, without any questions.
Threats:Abusers often threaten to hurt or kill their partners, their children, or other people to keep them from leaving. They may also try to manipulate their partners by threatening to commit suicide; this, too, is a form of abuse.
Intimidation:An abuser may use various intimidation methods to scare their partners into submission. Intimidation methods include body language like gestures or destruction of belongings in front of their partners as a message that violent consequences will follow if they don’t obey.
Isolation:Through isolation, the abuser aims to increase their partner’s dependency on them by cutting them off from the outside world, including their family and friends.
Denial and blame:Abusers often blame their abusive and violent behavior on other factors, such as a bad day, a bad childhood, or even their partners. This is how they shift the responsibility for the abuse to their partner, making them feel that the abusive behavior is somehow the victim’s fault.
How do I know if I am in an abusive relationship?
It may not always be obvious. Many people don’t believe a relationship is abusive if there is no physical violence, but a relationship can be considered abusive even without physical violence. Any relationship that includes emotional, sexual, physical, or financial abuse is considered abusive, and most of the time, the victims believe it’s their own fault and blame themselves.
Your relationship may be abusive if you
- Are afraid of your partner much of the time.
- Avoid certain topics out of fear of upsetting your partner.
- Believe that you deserve to be hurt.
- Feel helpless.
Other signs of abuse are if your partner
- Humiliates you.
- Criticizes you.
- Treats you badly.
- Has a bad temper.
- Threatens you.
- Forces you to do things you don’t want to do.
- Is excessively jealous and controlling.
Common signs of abuse in other people’s relationships can be seen if they
- Talk about their partner’s jealousy and control.
- Seem anxious to please their partner.
- Frequently miss work, school, or other social occasions with no explanation.
- Show signs of physical violence, like bruises or scars.
- Are depressed, anxious, or suicidal.
Coaching for abusive relationships.
A relationship that involves violence and abuse of power has an imbalance of power and control. If a relationship coach is inexperienced, it can make relationship coaching an unsafe environment for the person experiencing the abuse. Relationship coaching holds both partners accountable for solving the problems in their relationship, but, if done incorrectly, this can make the victim feel like it’s their fault and may re-traumatize them. Relationship coaching can also give abusers the chance to retaliate against their partners after coaching sessions in reaction to what was said. Let’s have a look at the most common mistakes in coaching for abusive relationships:
Addressing the response instead of the abuse itself:Coaches must remain neutral to see both sides in sessions in order to avoid assigning blame. However, applying this method to an abusive relationship means that both partners will take equal responsibility. An abusive relationship has an imbalance of power and control, and the abuser has more responsibility than the victim for the problems in the relationship. Thus, they are the one who should be held accountable for stopping their behavior. Inexperienced coaches who assign equal responsibility by holding a neutral stance will put the victim at a further disadvantage and will make them feel more invalidated and helpless.
The abuser usesrelationship coachingto further manipulate their victim:Abusers may use relationship coaching to further manipulate their victims. It is no surprise that most abusers put on a charming façade for the relationship coach, fooling them into thinking that they are the victims. The abuser may use sessions to further maintain their power and control by minimizing the abuse, blame-shifting, and projecting. Inexperienced relationship coaches may not recognize these behaviors and thus may cause harm unintentionally.
Abuse may escalate outside therelationship coachingenvironment:It is possible that the abuse could escalate outside the environment of the sessions and victims could be physically and emotionally punished for things they disclose to the coach. This is why it is important for an experienced coach to recognize these issues and immediately take the victim aside to make a safety plan.
Relationship coaching doesn’t work when one person doesn’t want to change.
Relationship coaching is based on the idea that beneficial change occurs when both partners are willing to change, but coaching cannot work when there is a victim willing to change themselves and an abuser who never plans to make any real changes.
Effective relationship and marriage coaching, among other things, will
- Establish a safe and comfortable environment.
- Eliminate all forms of abuse (physical, emotional, and verbal).
- Teach how to accept responsibility for one’s own behavior, recognize when anger is escalating, and employ techniques to deescalate.
- Teach time out.
- Teach safety plans.
Violence and abuse of power are typically used in a relationship to control the victim, which is often a hidden burden for families. Victims often keep it hidden because they feel shame or fear the worst. This problem does not respect boundaries of race, age, or social class. Although this problem tends to be hidden, family, friends, colleagues and society in general can play an important role in eliminating these incidents. It is an important step toward helping to prevent and eliminate abuse by recognizing the risk factors, such as jealousy, control, or aggression. If you believe that you or someone you know is in danger, you should call the authorities or a hotline.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
Dytch, A. J. (2012). Assessing Partner Abuse in Couples Therapy
Gurman, A. S., Lebow, J. L., & Snyder, D. K. (2015). Clinical handbook of couple therapy. New York: The Guilford Press
National Criminal Justice Reference Service | NCJRS, 2011,