Abusive Behavior vs. Normal Behavior: What's the Difference?

February 14, 2019 Kristen Milstead

Abusive behavior is often confused with healthy behavior in relationships. How do you know if you're being abused or not? Learn the differences at HealthyPlace.

What is the difference between abusive behavior and normal behavior? What counts as verbal abuse?  The idea itself seems pretty straight-forward. Yet everyone has said things in anger they regret. Everyone has also had their feelings hurt by the words of others. But are those words abusive? How can we tell the difference?  

I would argue that there is an intention behind abuse that differentiates it from other non-abusive words or behavior that may otherwise offend or hurt ("Verbal Abuse Turns Love Into a Tool of Abuse"). 

With this in mind, abusive behavior can be described as the use of any form of communication to intentionally inflict psychological or emotional harm on someone, to manipulate his or her behavior, or influence that person's emotions in a negative way.

False Equivalencies: Abusive Behavior Compared to Normal Behavior

Here are a few scenarios where two types of behavior in a relationship may look equivalent but are not ("Verbal Abuse Disguised as Love"). The first behavior described is abusive behavior and the second is not.

  1. Berating repeatedly or verbally attacking a partner vs. raising your voice during an argument: Verbal attacks are attempts to humiliate or make the partner feel as if something is intrinsically wrong with him or her. It doesn't have to include name-calling and can be more passive, such as teasing someone about something to intentionally hurt them. A raised voice may not be ideal, but it can be a normal reaction to a stressful situation under some circumstances. 

  2. Putting down something that is very important to a partner vs. disagreeing with a partner's opinion or idea. Putting down something that matters to a partner is an indirect attack on the partner or an attempt to isolate the partner from the person or thing. It's meant to either make the other person feel bad or control him or her. Respectful disagreement on various opinions is healthy and expected. 

  3. Refusing to talk about something that is a problem in the relationship vs. asking for a break from a conversation to cool off. Asking for a break to cool off if you are feeling as if a discussion is no longer productive is healthy. It's not even in the same ballpark as refusing to talk about an issue. That's called stonewalling and communicates a message of inequality to the partner that his or her concerns are unimportant.

  4. Accusing a partner of cheating without cause vs. asking a partner about a new suspicious behavior after there has been a breach of trust. Checking up on, monitoring, and questioning partners excessively is a method of slowly eroding their independence and inducing learned helplessness. In contrast, a partner who has been betrayed may need time to trust again and needs to feel safe enough to ask questions about something that doesn't feel right until that trust is restored.

  5. Intentionally misleading a partner vs. little white lies that spare a partner's feelings. When one partner gaslights the other or lies about important events, this demonstrates a sense of entitlement and lack of respect for the partnership. It can also seriously disturb the other partner's sense of reality. Almost everyone, however, tells small lies that could be considered harmless, such as not telling a partner that you don't like his or her new haircut. According to Healthline, we all tell 1.65 of these small lies per day on average.1 

  6. Withholding affection or giving the silent treatment vs. saying "no" or setting boundaries. Using body language and the absence of communication to send a message that something a partner has done isn't acceptable is cruel and manipulative. Finding things unacceptable that violate your values and clearly communicating that is not a personal affront to anyone else--it is a healthy expression of the self.

  7. Gossiping or spreading lies or rumors about a partner vs. talking to a friend or therapist to gain support or let off steam. Some abusers try to manipulate a partner into staying silent about the abuse by claiming the partner is "gossiping" if they tell an outsider. It's not gossip if you need to talk about what's happening to gain support. Interestingly, some of those abusers may also actually lie and gossip about their partner to keep others from suspecting that they are abusive.

  8. Telling a partner he or she is crazy or abusive for engaging in healthy relationship communication or self-care vs. engaging in healthy relationship communication or self-care.  Abusers may try to make you believe that if you engage in any of the behaviors on the healthy end of the spectrum, you, yourself are being abusive. They may also suggest that you are blowing their behavior out of proportion because their own behaviors are actually normal. 

Some abusers know quite well that the ambiguity inherent in our communication lets them get away with their own verbal abuse ("I didn't mean it that way--you're too sensitive"), and also lets them flip the script and claim that you are actually the one in the wrong, that something you are doing is "disrespectful" or you are "attacking" them. 

This is not normal. This is itself a form of emotional abuse.

When Abuse Is Described as Romance

There is another way that abusers may pass their abuse off as normal behavior. They may claim something they did that was abusive was actually a behavior that should demonstrate how much they actually love you. 

In this video, I'll provide you with some examples of what abuse disguised as "romance" may look like.


  1. Healthline, "Pathological Liar: How to Cope with Someone's Compulsive Lies." Accessed February 13, 2019.

APA Reference
Milstead, K. (2019, February 14). Abusive Behavior vs. Normal Behavior: What's the Difference?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 23 from

Author: Kristen Milstead

Kristen is a survivor of narcissistic abuse. She has a Ph.D. in Sociology and is the author of a toolkit, "Taking Your Life Back After a Relationship with a Narcissist," which is available for free on her website, Fairy Tale Shadows, a blog with the mission of promoting awareness about hidden abuse and empowering other survivors. Find Kristen on Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and on her website. 

January, 7 2023 at 2:43 pm

So if my partner desires sex, but has recently been verbally abusive by insulting me or expressing disgust at me during sex, I can tell him that makes me upset or hurts my feelings and that I dislike it and need it to stop, but since he requested sex, denying him sex on those grounds is now the act of cruelty? Help me understand. It sounds like saying "no" because I dislike the way I'm treated during sex, and outside of sex for that matter is considered cruel. But not being in the mood....whatever that means.... because of the verbally abusive things he's saying is totally ok! As long as I eventually have sex with him, according to some random standard, but not when I want, when he asks, as long as I'm in the mood? This is completely unclear in a way that actually makes things worse. I think it would benefit all women to clarify what constitutes ACTUAL withholding of sex. Last I checked, I can withhold sex and physical affection for ANY reason. This new trend I'm reading literally everywhere that somehow women must meet some quota of sex/hugs/whatever or they're being cruel to men is dangerous and psychotic.

Dr Musli Ferati
February, 24 2019 at 11:26 am

Behavior presents the original performance that manifest apparently the emotional and mental state of any person during its interpersonal relationship and global mental functioning, as well. So, it ought to observe with attention each daily behavior of any person, in order to distinguish normal vs abusive behavior. Indeed, we didn't yet have the objective parameter that determines mental wellbeing in front of mental disorder. Therefore, our behavior remains the most exact indicator of mental health, respectively mental illness. Beside this firmness argument, our behavior moderate the fluctuation of our emotional discharge building, in the same time our mind set. As you underlined, we might improve interpersonal behavior and by this useful conclusion we would consolidate our mental statement, as precursor of global life welfare. After these eight contradictory remarks, we should accept the ultimate suggestion that if we want to have got normal behavior, we must respect every member of social milieu, even we didn't agree with others opinions. Abusive behavior is naive covering for our strong antisocial structure of personality, with detrimental outcomes for personal, occupational and social performances.

Lizanne Corbit
February, 18 2019 at 3:41 pm

I think this is such an honest, and helpful read. I especially love the inclusion on when abuse is described as romance. This is such an important, but often confused or overlooked thing. Giving ourselves informed boundaries, helps us to also hold healthy boundaries.

February, 18 2019 at 5:03 pm

Hi Lizanne. I'm so glad that you found the article helpful. I agree that romance/passion and abuse becomes very blurry because we already have these scripts available to us in our pop culture. Boundaries are definitely key! -Kristen

February, 18 2019 at 5:03 pm

Hi Lizanne. I'm so glad that you found the article helpful. I agree that romance/passion and abuse becomes very blurry because we already have these scripts available to us in our pop culture. Boundaries are definitely key! -Kristen

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