The Definition of Abuse: A Domestic Violence Education

February 23, 2012 Kellie Jo Holly

A domestic violence education is more than understanding the definition of abuse. Maybe so simple that abuse victims think it could not apply to them.

What is the definition of abuse? What counts as domestic violence? People search for versions of those questions thousands of times each month. Are there really so many people who do not know any definition of abuse?

I don't think so. I think victims continue searching for the definition of abuse because they want to believe their loved one does not abuse them. Victims would rather believe that they, in fact, are as crazy as their abusive relationship makes them feel. They want the definition of abuse to be something other than what they read on that last website.

No matter what I think the definition of abuse should be, I want to be a part of the solution that validates, however painfully, an abuse victim's fear that their partner abuses them.

What Is Defined As Abuse?

The definition of abuse is:

a repetitive pattern of words and behaviors designed to keep an intimate partner under the abuser's power and control.

That's the short version. Abuse victims searching for the definition of abuse may not truly understand what those words mean. Abuse victims are not stupid! They may not understand the definition because the idea that their lover would want to control, manipulate or have power over them seems like a bucketful of nonsense.

It isn't until later, when reading the definitions of abuse for the different types of abuse, that victims come to understand the gross misuse of power and pain wrapped up in the few words comprising the definition of abuse.

So, the definition of abuse must be broken down into the different types of abuse so victims can recognize the abuses they suffer and then assimilate those abuses into their own definition of abuse. At some point, the deeply disturbing definition of abuse given above will make sense. For now, let's break it down.

Definitions of Abuses Used To Control

Verbal abuse is:

A repetitive pattern of words and body language that includes hurtful jokes, abusive anger, accusing and blaming, denial, withholding, judging and criticizing, name calling, and undermining. There are several other verbal abuse techniques to effectively control the victim and his or her behavior, thoughts and feelings.

Emotional abuse is:

a repetitive pattern of words and actions that include verbal abuses plus gaslighting, which is a technique used to confuse the victim's emotions, resulting in the abuser's control over the victim's feelings.

Mental abuse is:

A repetitive pattern of words and actions that include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and brainwashing, which is a technique used to gain control over a victim's thoughts.

Spiritual abuse is:

A repetitive pattern of words and actions made up of verbal, emotional and mental abuse that undermine the victim's spiritual beliefs, which results in the abuser gaining control over a victim through "the word of God" or diminishing of the victim's belief in a higher power, both types serve to gain control of the victim's belief system.

Financial abuse is:

A repetitive pattern of words and actions that diminishes or extinguishes the victim's power over their financial situation, which allows the abuser to gain control over the victim through fear of becoming homeless (or worse) should he or she leave the relationship.

Physical abuse is:

A repetitive pattern of actions that physically hurt or restrain the victim so the abuser can gain control over the victim's precise state of being. I would argue that there does not need to be a "repetitive pattern" of physical assault to define it as abuse. However, abusers are crafty and can use play as an excuse to hurt their victim. In that case, a few repetitions of playful injury is enough to define it as abuse.

Sexual abuse is:

A repetitive pattern of words and actions relating to sex and gender that harm the victim physically, emotionally or mentally. Examples of sexual abuse range from general insults about the victim's gender to rape.

The Sweet Definition of Abuse We Cannot Ignore

The abuser occasionally takes a break from abusing their victim. When the abuser can sense their victim is about to leave them, the abuser will:

  • straighten up,
  • apologize,
  • remind their victim about what good times they’ve had together and
  • wax poetic about how much their love can withstand because they’re meant to be together,
  • how sorry they are for being a jerk and
  • promise that it will never ever happen again.

But it does happen again because the abuser cannot pretend to be a kind and loving human for long. However, these breaks in abuse (honeymoon periods) are enough to keep the victim a victim. The victim believes the sweet face is their abuser's true face when, in reality, the sweet face is the lie.

The abuse plus not-abuse-but-still-abuse equals:

a repetitive pattern of words and behaviors designed to keep an intimate partner under the abuser's power and control.

Do those words look familiar? That is the definition of abuse.

More Definitions of Abuse:

APA Reference
Jo, K. (2012, February 23). The Definition of Abuse: A Domestic Violence Education, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, December 1 from

Author: Kellie Jo Holly

December, 28 2017 at 11:18 am

After reading this and of course many other posts like this I am scared and confused. I re united with my "first love" about 6 months ago after being alone for 8 years. We've known each other for 30 years and straight off the rekindling bat he told me that I had always been the love of his life. I believed it as I had always carried a torch for him and the reason we split up all those years ago was outside influence.
We moved realy fast and we are now married. About 2 weeks after our very romantic wedding he started drinking profusely. When drunk he started verbally abusing me. Accusing me of having feelings for male friends and forcing me to break contact with them. He also forced me to limit the contact with my children's father to arrangements pertaining to the children.
When he got sober he would be sorry and told me that he waa acting this way because he had been raped as a boy and that those images haunted him. He explained that he waa drinking to forget. He also blames his father for making him aggressive through physical and verbal abuse as a child.
This pattern continued to a point were he got so drunk that he cut himself after falling. I drove him to the ER and he got stitches. The next morning I told him that I wantes to leave as I cannot handle this kind of behaviour and because I have children to think about. He then started accusing me of not supporting him in his efforts to change and that I don't care for him. He called his father who came and basically told him to stop his nonsense and build a life with me. He proceeded to call the pastor and made an appointment with him as well.
At this point he is telling me that God will help "us" get through this. In the meantime I have realized that he has been abusing me even when he was sober. For instance he would keep me awake long after we went to bed to discuss some issues he had percieved. While he did not drink after the last incident he is failing to understand that I am hurting. He wants me to act normal while waiting for the outcome of his sessions with the pastor. I do believe in God and I know His power to change anything. What I am worried about is the fact that my husband is still trying to force his way on me.
I had a bad dream tonight and awoke from it crying. He jumped out of bed and went to the living room where he immediately started sending me text messages saying that he didn't know that he had such an effect on me and that he was sorry for disturbing my sleep again. I explained that my dream had nothing to do with him and that it was part of the normal sleep cycle. He went on and on on text saying that we should have read the Bible straight away and that it was his fault. ...causing yet another sleepless night. I have trouble falling asleep after being fully awake for a few minutes.
What I am asking is can someone like this change? Is it possible that my resistance to acting "normal" is of my own doing? Am I being difficult and unforgiving?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

January, 1 2018 at 10:51 pm

Hi Rachel,
Thank you for your comment. I understand all too well the complexity of your feelings and how hard it is to articulate them, so well done for reaching out.
Like every relationship, abusive or otherwise, your situation is complicated, and there are no clearcut answers to your questions. Your husband might stop drinking, seek help, go to therapy or he might continue to emotionally abuse you and later turn violent towards you and your children. Unfortunately, the statistics suggest that the latter is more probable, so I would suggest you start formulating an escape plan now. Make sure you have somewhere to go, some money stowed away, and contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for support (
There is no excuse for the verbal and emotional abuse he is subjecting you to, and there is nothing he can say that will justify it. There is always a reason why someone is abusive (see: What Makes a Person Abusive?), and sadly childhood abuse is something you will read about a lot if you look into the psychology of domestic violence. Whatever the circumstances, the problem is his to deal with, not yours. However much he tries to reframe his behavior as a "relationship issue," it's not -- it's HIS issue, and it's not one you need to stick around to help him with. You not to blame for his behavior. You are not being difficult or unforgiving, you are realizing that it's not acceptable for him to treat you this way.

Kellie Holly
August, 19 2013 at 6:48 pm

Beta maria, reading back into your comments of late, I suggest that you call the National Domestic Violence Hotline ( and find some support in your area. Your husband or soon-to-be husband's behavior is VERY dangerous and abusive.
I'm concerned that you are not reaching out for help in the best place here in the comments section. You would be better served by a resource in your area where you could receive the help you need. Call the NDVH to start.

Kellie Holly
August, 19 2013 at 6:45 pm

When it comes to sex and intimate touching, "normal" depends on the participants. In your case, because you have told him to stop it, he SHOULD respect your feelings and stop doing those things. I would think a "normal" husband would respect his wife's wishes and NOT force himself upon her as yours does.
If your husband really wanted to know about you, to understand you, he could first stop disrespecting you and then open up a conversation about what's going on with your intimate relationship. It is normal to discuss what he likes/what you like. It is NOT normal for him to force himself upon you - it is emotional and sexual abuse.
The yelling and not allowing you to sleep is verbal abuse at the very least.
Beta maria, do you live in the United States?

Beta maria
August, 15 2013 at 7:18 am

If a partner keeps groping at me if i sit on the sofa over and under clothes or if i sit and watch a film pushes his hand behind my knickers when i all i am doing is sitting next to him. Is that disrespectal and degradeing to me? Is that what a wife must put up with? What is normal in a husband and wife situation? Should a man only touch a womans bust on bare skin undet clothes when they are making love and not whenever he feels like it? Whats normal please? When i tellhim not too he yells at me saying im cold and not affentionate. I like hugs but he keeps doing that to me and it makes me feel like i am not respected and thst my private space is being imposed upon. Ive spoken to him about this and told him not too but he ingnores me and shoves his hamds under my bra and i feel really depressed when he does it. It makes me feel so dirty. I ask him.not too and tell him why and he still does it even straight after ive said no. But regardless of weather im happy or sad about it. Is it normal for a husband to keep touching his wife like that? He shouts at me for hours and wont let me sleep.

Beta maria
August, 12 2013 at 9:34 pm

Thank you for your reply. He also pushes his finger in under the cheek bone on my face and he has been hitting my arms and shoulders and pushing the side ofmy face. It doesnt really hurt. He tells me im pretty but also tells me im stupidand a witch etc. He says that its my fault because i turn away from him when he keeps trieimg to kiss me ( a lot) ( even when ive kissed him back he still needs more) also that its my fault for not setting a wedding date. If he knewthat i was his he says he would not be angry. That ive made him a monster.

Beta maria
August, 11 2013 at 10:28 pm

If my partner grabs the sides of my mouth and pinches to get me to talk when hes angry should i leave him?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Holly
August, 12 2013 at 5:50 am

Beta maria, grabbing and pinching is physical violence. You experienced domestic violence at the hands of your partner. I recommend that you create a safety plan and understand that the violence is likely to INCREASE over time. It is safer for you to leave now than to stay another day, but no one can tell you when to leave or even if you should - that decision is yours alone.

holli mayi
May, 17 2012 at 10:08 am

i been with my boyfriend for a year and a half and mean time he has pushed me sometimes, grabbed my neck, pinched me, also grabbed my hand hard and later on said i don't brush my teeth, grabbed my shoulder and dragged me away, he also said my dad was annoying, he gives everyone attitude including his mother. He also kicked my itouch and when i tried to pick it up he kicked it again and pushed me. I feel like am brain wash because a lot of the things i dont remember and i know it occurred i dont know if its my body that chooses not too or if he has brain wash me, but we have had more good time then bad but am i in an abusive relationship? or am over reacting? i need to know if i end the relationship or not

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Holly
May, 17 2012 at 2:38 pm

Holli, yes you are in an abusive relationship. Not only is there physical violence, but you mention that he denies your account of "what happened". This means there is mental abuse also. You are not over-reacting. Healthy men do not need to grab your neck, pinch, push or any other type of physical violence.

March, 1 2012 at 5:09 am

Be sure to check out the Stockhlom Syndrome and Biderman's Chart of Coercion with relationship to DV and PTSD. These really clarify the cycle of violence and explain how fast control can be gained.
Keep after is a topic that is avoided in the counseling/therapy world.

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