Abuse in Intimate Relationships: Defining the Multiple
Dimensions and Terms

Vera E. Mouradian, PhD
National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center
Wellesley Centers for Women
Wellesley College

The term "intimate relationships" is used here to be maximally inclusive of any romantic and/or sexual relationship between two non-biologically-related people, including dating or courtship relationships, relationships in which the romantic partners live together in the same household (cohabiting), relationships in which two people have children in common but are no longer formally romantically or sexually involved with one another, and marital relationships. Ideally such relationships are loving and supportive, protective of and safe for each member of the couple. Unfortunately, some people, while fulfilling these nurturing, positive needs of their partners at least some of the time and at least early in their relationship's development, also behave abusively, causing their partners (and often others as well) substantial emotional and/or physical pain and injury. In extreme cases, abusive behavior ends in the death of one or both partners, and, sometimes, other people as well. Non-lethal abuse may end when a relationship ends. Frequently, however, abuse continues or worsens once a relationship is over. This can happen whether the relationship is ended by just one of the partners or, seemingly, by mutual consent.

There are several types of abuse that occur in intimate romantic relationships. It is frequently the case that two or more types of abuse are present in the same relationship. Emotional abuse often precedes, occurs with, and/or follows physical or sexual abuse in relationships (Koss et al., 1994; Stets, 1991; Tolman, 1992; Walker, 1984). Sexual and non-sexual physical abuse also co-occur in many abusive relationships (Browne, 1987; Mahoney & Williams, 1998; Walker, 1984), and, as with emotional abuse, sexual and non-sexual abuse often are combined elements of a single abusive incident (Bergen, 1996; Browne, 1987; Finkelhor & Yllo, 1985; Russell, 1990; Walker, 1984).

As discussed by Tolman (1992), it may be somewhat artificial to separate emotional abuse from physical forms of abuse because physical forms of abuse also inflict emotional and psychological harm to victims, and both forms of abuse serve to establish dominance and control over another person. However, it also is possible for any one of these types of abuse to occur alone. In fact, emotional abuse often occurs in the absence of other types of abuse. Therefore, despite some conceptual and experiential overlap, the various forms of abuse also are separable conceptually and experientially. Moreover, for better or worse, they are often treated separately by the research community, although that practice is changing as research on these topics matures and progresses. The categories of abuse that occur in intimate romantic relationships include:

Emotional Abuse (also called psychological abuse or aggression, verbal abuse or aggression, symbolic abuse or aggression, and nonphysical abuse or aggression). Psychological/emotional abuse has been variously characterized as "the use of verbal and nonverbal acts which symbolically hurt the other or the use of threats to hurt the other" (Straus, 1979, p. 77); "behaviors that can be used to terrorize the victim. . .that do not involve the use of physical force" (Shepard & Campbell, 1992, p. 291); the "direct infliction of mental harm" and "threats or limits to the victim's well-being" (Gondolf, 1987), and ". . . an ongoing process in which one individual systematically diminishes and destroys the inner self of another. The essential ideas, feelings, perceptions, and personality characteristics of the victim are constantly belittled." (Loring, 1994, p. 1).

Psychological/ emotional abuse is considered an important form of abuse because many women report that it is as harmful or worse than physical abuse they suffer (Follingstad, Rutledge, Berg, Hause, & Polek, 1990; Walker, 1984) and because of its role in setting up and maintaining the overall abusive dynamic of the relationship (Boulette & Anderson, 1986; Dutton & Painter, 1981; Dutton & Painter, 1993; Loring, 1994; NiCarthy, 1982, 1986; Romero, 1985). Behaviors regarded as psychologically and/or emotionally abusive include, but are not limited to:


Insulting the partner

Swearing at one's partner or calling him or her names

Belittling or ridiculing the partner; insulting the partner

Belittling or berating one's partner in front of other people

Putting down the partner's physical appearance or intellect

Saying things to upset or frighten one's partner; acting indifferently to one's partner's feelings

Making one's partner do humiliating or demeaning things

Demanding obedience to whims

Ordering the partner around/treating him or her like a servant

Becoming angry when chores are not done when wanted or as wanted

Acting jealous and suspicious of the partner's friends and social contacts

Putting down one's partner's friends and/or family

Monitoring the partner's time and whereabouts

Monitoring one’s partner’s telephone calls or e-mail contact

Stomping out of a room during an argument or heated discussion

Sulking and refusing to talk about an issue

Making decisions that affect both people or the family without consulting one's partner or without reaching agreement with one's partner

Withholding affection

Threatening to leave the relationship

Doing something to spite one's partner

Withholding resources such as money

Refusing to share in housework or childcare

Restricting the partner's usage of the telephone and/or car

Not allowing one's partner to leave the home alone

Telling one's partner his or her feelings are irrational or crazy

Turning other people against one's partner

Blaming the partner for one's problems and/or one's violent behavior

Preventing the partner from working or attending school

Preventing the partner from socializing with friends and/or seeing his or her family

Preventing the partner from seeking medical care or other types of help

Throwing objects (but not at the partner)

Hitting or kicking a wall, furniture, doors, etc.

Shaking a finger or fist at one's partner

Making threatening gestures or faces

Threatening to destroy or destroying personal property belonging to one's partner

Threatening to use physical or sexual aggression against one's partner

Driving dangerously while one's partner is in the car as a conscious intentional act to scare or intimidate

Using the partner's children to threaten them (e.g., threatening to kidnap)

Threatening violence against the partner's children, family, friends, or pets

(These examples are based on items from various instruments used to measure emotional aggression in romantic and family dyads including those by Follingstad et al., 1990; Hudson & McIntosh, 1981; Marshall, 1992a, 1992b; NiCarthy, 1982, 1986; Pan, Neidig, & O'Leary, 1994; Shepard & Campbell, 1992; Stets, 1991; Straus, 1979; Straus & Gelles, 1986; Straus, Hamby, Boney-McCoy & Sugarman, 1996; Tolman, 1989).

Economic Abuse. This could be considered a subcategory of emotional abuse since it serves many of the same functions as emotional abuse and has some of the same emotional effects on victims. However, it can be distinguished by its focus on preventing victims from possessing or maintaining any type of financial self-sufficiency or resources and enforcing material dependence of the victim on the abusive partner (that is, this behavior is intended to make the victim entirely dependent on the abusive partner to supply basic material needs like food, clothing, and shelter or to supply the means to obtain them). The desire to isolate the victim from other people can be one of the motives for economic abuse as well, however (See Social Isolation category below). Behaviors that could lead to the material dependence of a victim of abuse on her (or his) abuser (some of which are already listed under the larger Emotional Abuse category) include but are not limited to, when the abusive party:

Makes monetary or investment decisions to which the partner might object that affect both people and/or the family without consulting the partner or without reaching agreement with the partner

Withholds resources such as money or spends a large share of the family budget on him- or herself leaving little money leftover for purchase of food and payment of bills

Refuses to share in housework or childcare responsibilities so the partner can work

Restricts the partner's usage of the family car or other means of transportation

Does not allow the partner to leave the home alone

Prevents or forbids the partner from working or attending school or skills training sessions

Interferes with work performance through harassing and monitoring activities like frequent telephone calls or visits to the workplace (in the hopes of getting the partner fired, for example).

Social Isolation. This also could be considered a subcategory of emotional abuse since it serves many of the same functions as emotional abuse. It can be distinguished by its focus on interfering with and destroying or impairing the victim's support network and making the victim entirely or largely dependent on the abusive partner for information, social interaction, and satisfying emotional needs. Socially isolating the victim increases the abuser's power over the victim, but it also protects the abuser. If the victim does not have contact with other people the perpetrator will not be as likely to have to deal with legal or social consequences for his behavior and the victim will not be as likely to get help, including help that may lead to an end to the relationship. Abusive behaviors that could lead to the social isolation of a victim of abuse (some of which were already listed under the larger Emotional Abuse category above) include:

Acting jealous and suspicious of the partner's friends and social contacts;

Putting down the partner's friends and/or family

Monitoring the partner's time and whereabouts

Restricting the partner's usage of the telephone and/or car; not allowing the partner to leave the home alone

Preventing the partner from working or attending school

Acting in ways that are aimed at turning other people against the partner

Preventing the partner from socializing with friends and/or seeing his or her family

Preventing the partner from seeking medical care or other types of help; threatening the lives or well-being of others with whom the partner might have contact.

Physical Abuse (also called physical aggression or abuse; intimate partner violence or abuse; conjugal, domestic, spousal, or dating or courtship violence or abuse). Physical aggression in the context of intimate relationships has been defined as "an act carried out with the intention, or perceived intention, of causing physical pain or injury to another person" (Straus & Gelles, 1986). This is behavior that is intended, at minimum, to cause temporary physical pain to the victim, and includes relatively "minor" acts like slapping with an open hand and severe acts of violence that lead to injury and/or death. It may occur just once or sporadically and infrequently in a relationship, but in many relationships it is repetitive and chronic, and it escalates in frequency and severity over time.

Physical abuse includes, but is not limited to:

Spitting on

Slapping or hitting with an open hand

Spanking (non-playfully)


Pushing; shoving; grabbing

Arm twisting or bending

Hair pulling

Hitting or punching with a fist

Throwing objects at the partner

Hitting with hard or sharp objects

Kicking; biting (non-playfully)

Throwing or body slamming the partner against objects, walls, floors, vehicles, onto the ground, etc.

Pushing or shoving or dragging a partner down stairs or off any raised platform or height

Cutting; scalding or burning

Forcing a person out of a moving vehicle

Holding down or tying up the partner to restrain the partner against his or her will

Locking a partner in a room, closet, or other enclosed space

Choking or strangling

Beating up

Attempting to drown

Threatening with a weapon

Attempting to use a weapon against a partner

Actually using a weapon against a partner

(These examples are based on items from various instruments used to measure physical aggression in family dyads and on research on domestic and dating violence, including Gondolf, 1988; Gray & Foshee, 1997; Hudson & McIntosh, 1981; Makepeace, 1986; Marshall, 1992a, 1992b; Pan, Neidig, & O'Leary, 1994; Shepard & Campbell, 1992; Straus, 1979; Straus & Gelles, 1986; Straus, Hamby, Boney-McCoy, & Sugarman, 1996; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).

Sexual Abuse. (This category includes marital rape and rape by a dating or cohabiting partner. NOTE: The behaviors listed in this category also can be directed toward people other than romantic partners and would fall under broader definitions of sexual assault, incest, and rape as well. For more information on this topic, click here to view the Rape and Sexual Assault Overview article by Dean Kilpatrick or here to view Mary Koss’s article on Rape Prevalence, or see Patricia Mahoney’s article on Marital Rape or articles by Kim Slote and Carrie Cuthbert on intimate partner sexual assault across cultures in the International Perspectives section of this web site) Sexual abuse includes behaviors that fall under legal definitions of rape, plus physical assaults to the sexual parts of a person's body, and making sexual demands with which one's partner is uncomfortable (Marshall, 1992a; Shepard & Campbell, 1992). It also had been defined as including ". . . sex without consent, sexual assault, rape, sexual control of reproductive rights, and all forms of sexual manipulation carried out by the perpetrator with the intention or perceived intention to cause emotional, sexual, and physical degradation to another person" (Abraham, 1999, p. 592).

Sexual abuse includes, but is not limited to:

Demanding sex when one's partner is unwilling

Demanding or coercing the partner to engage in sexual activities with which the partner is uncomfortable

Coerced penile penetration of any kind (oral, vaginal, or anal)

Physically coerced sexual acts of any kind (e.g., through threats with or use of weapons or threats or use of other means of inflicting bodily harm)

Using an object or fingers on one's partner in a sexual way against his or her will

Use of alcohol or drugs on one's partner to obtain sex when the partner was (and/or would be) unwilling

Physical attacks against the sexual parts of the partner's body

Interference with birth control

Insistence on risky sexual practices (such as refusal to use a condom when a sexually transmitted disease is a known or suspected risk)

Forced or coerced participation in pornography

Forced or coerced sexual activity in the presence of others, including children

Forced or coerced prostitution or non-consensual sexual activity with people other than and/or in addition to the partner

Forced or coerced sex with animals

Forced or coerced participation in bondage or other sadomasochistic activities

(These examples are based on items from various instruments used to measure sexual aggression in romantic dyads and on research on rape, sexual abuse and sexual abuse in marriage, including Koss & Gidycz, 1985; Koss & Oros, 1982; Marshall, 1992a, 1992b; Molina & Basinait-Smith, 1998; Pan, Neidig, & O'Leary,1994; Shepard & Campbell, 1992; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000; Walker, 1984; Wingood & DiClimente, 1997).

Stalking. (also known clinically as obsessional following. This type of behavior also can be directed toward people with whom the perpetrator has not been romantically involved and can involve motives other than sexual or "amorous" ones -- notably anger, hostility, paranoia, and delusion. See Mindy Mechanic’s article on Stalking [Link] for additional information on this problem). Stalking has been defined variously as: ". . .knowingly and repeatedly following, harassing, or threatening. . . [another person]" (Fremouw, Westrup, & Pennypacker, 1997, p. 667); "unsolicited and unwelcome behavior [that is] initiated by the defendant against the complainant, [that is] at minimum alarming, annoying, or harassing, [and that involves] two or more incidents of such behavior. . ." (Harmon, Rosner, & Owens, 1998, p. 240); ". . . a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated visual or physical proximity; nonconsensual communication; verbal, written, or implied threats; or a combination thereof that would cause fear in a reasonable person (with repeated meaning on two or more occasions)" (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000); and "the willful, malicious, and repeated following and harassing of another person that threatens his or her safety" and "an abnormal or long term pattern of threat and harassment directed toward a specific individual" (Meloy & Gothard, 1995, pp. 258 & 259).

As a form of intimate partner abuse, stalking is frequently associated with separation or the end of a romantic relationship. However, some of the behaviors classified under the emotional abuse, economic abuse, and social isolation categories listed above that occur in both intact and ended relationships qualify as stalking behaviors as well. Walker and Meloy (1998) have suggested that, with regard to intact intimate romantic relationships, stalking is an "extreme form of typical behavior between a couple [that has escalated to the point of] monitoring, surveillance, and overpossessiveness, and [that] induces fear" (p. 140). Results from the National Violence Against Women Survey (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998) indicate that many women who are stalked by intimate partners (36%) are stalked by their partners both during and after their relationships end.

Stalking includes, but is not limited to, behaviors such as:

Secretly following and/or spying on the partner

Hiring someone else to follow or spy on the partner

Verbally threatening the partner (implicitly or explicitly) through telephone calls or messages on telephone answering machines, written or electronic correspondence, or in person

Sending cards, letters, gifts or other packages, etc. to the partner's home or office or leaving such things at the partner's home, office or on or in the partner’s vehicle inappropriately (i.e., inappropriately given the status of the relationship)

Appearing in places the partner frequents and waiting for the partner to catch a glimpse of him or her

Threatening to damage or destroy the partner's personal property

Damaging or destroying the partner's personal property

Stealing from the partner

Accosting the partner or someone close to the partner

(Fremouw, Westrup, & Pennypacker, 1997; Harmon, Rosner, & Owens, 1998; Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998, 2000; Walker & Meloy, 1998).


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