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It’s common for relationships to have highs and lows. Romantic partners don’t always agree on everything, and it can be healthy to have a heated discussion when working through a difficult issue.

So how do you tell the difference between a healthy disagreement and relationship abuse?

What Constitutes Abuse?

Relationship abuse can be verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual-and in the form of violence, coercion, or control-and whether called domestic abuse, dating violence, or date rape, it’s a big problem. According to a 2008 study published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, nearly 50 percent of college students had experienced abuse in a relationship. But it’s often overlooked and underreported.

Abuse can occur in heterosexual or same-sex relationships, in marriages, and between people who are dating casually or seriously. Abusers and victims can be men or women. Anyone can be abused, regardless of sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, religion, gender, physical ability, or social status.

Abuse in Same-Sex Relationships

Relationship abuse between partners of the same sex or gender can be exactly the same as in a heterosexual relationship. But there’s an extra layer: Abusers may use a partner’s sexual orientation or identity as an additional source of emotional abuse. Some examples include:
  • Isolating a partner from a supportive community
  • Blaming abuse on a partner’s sexual orientation
  • Discounting a partner’s sexual identity and/or ridiculing in public
  • Threatening to “out” a partner
In addition, lesbian, bisexual, gay, transsexual, and transgender people report abuse even less frequently than others-usually due to fears of not being believed, shunned for their sexuality, “outed,” or a belief that services won’t meet their needs.

If you or someone you know has experienced same-sex relationship abuse, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) offers services aimed at “reducing violence and its impacts on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and HIV-affected communities.”

The NCAVP’s free crisis hotline is available
24 hours a day, 365 days a year at:

More information

Dr. Andrew Margolin, a licensed psychologist in Foxboro, Massachusetts, says, “One challenge is that people may have grown up with abuse and it becomes normal. They are more likely to accept an abusive relationship.”

Visible and Invisible: Warning Signs

Sometimes abuse and violence are obvious. Maybe a neighbor’s been fighting with his girlfriend and you’ve seen her with bruises. But often the symptoms are subtle. Our culture tends to minimize violence and even glorify it, so the telltale warning signs may go unnoticed. Here are some common scenarios:

1. My partner humiliates me and calls me names in front of our friends, but isn’t physically hurting me so it’s not abuse.

Abuse doesn’t have to be physical. When a person berates, threatens, or belittles his or her partner-whether in public or privately-it’s verbal abuse.

People who experience verbal abuse often start to believe what their abusers say. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, more than 70 percent of the respondents said they had experienced or observed insults, shaming, lying, or things like “You’ll never find someone else” being said in a relationship.

Tom F.*, a senior at the University of Delaware in Newark, suggests telling friends that they don’t have to be treated poorly. He says, “Inform them that this isn’t normal. Some people don’t realize [when] a relationship is abusive.”

2. My girlfriend or boyfriend is jealous and controlling because she or he loves me.

A little bit of jealousy is normal. But if it turns into resentment and control, it’s emotional abuse. Signs include:

  • Isolating a partner from friends and family
  • Making all decisions
  • Controlling a partner’s every move, for example:
    • Travel and location
    • Time spent with others
    • Clothing and appearance
    • Money
  • Showing extreme jealousy and distrust
  • Threatening to leave the relationship or hurt oneself if there’s a breakup
  • Threatening to hurt-or hurting-friends, family, or pets

Dr. Margolin describes a common process: “What initially felt wonderful turns controlling and possessive.” He says abusers will often apologize and act sweetly after a bout of abusive behavior, but eventually do it again. “It’s a cycle,” he explains.

Rebecca Getson, staff coordinator of the sexual assault prevention program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, says, “Emotional abuse is subtle and pervasive.”

3. My partner hit me once, but was drunk and I deserved it.

No one deserves to be physically attacked or threatened, and it doesn’t matter if someone’s been using alcohol or other drugs. Physical abuse includes:

  • Throwing things
  • Pushing, slapping, kicking, or punching
  • Scratching, pinching, or pulling hair
  • Threatening to use-or using-a knife, gun, or other weapon

It can be hard to understand why someone would stay in a relationship that’s physically dangerous. But as Getson explains, “It’s not like someone slaps you on the first date. Once you’re in the relationship, you may not want to leave because you feel committed or [think] you’re overreacting.”

Sexual Abuse

Myth: Rape can’t happen in romantic relationships.

According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, nearly 1 in 10 women have been raped by an intimate partner. Sexual abuse includes:
  • Unwanted touching or other sexual activity
  • Persuading or insisting that a partner engage in specific sexual acts or view sexually explicit images
  • Circulating intimate photos or other media without permission
It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a casual, serious, or married relationship. No one has the right to coerce or force you to do something sexual that you don’t want to do.

There are many things you can do if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship. The first step is to acknowledge the abuse and reach out.

Kathleen P.*, a senior at California State University Stanislaus, says, “Be there and encourage [your friend] to take a step back. You can [offer] hope that with your help, [he or she] can leave the abusive relationship.”

* Name changed for privacy

 Take Action!

  • Learn the warning signs of relationship abuse.
  • Understand that abuse can be physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual.
  • Don’t make excuses for abusive behavior.
  • Know that abuse is never the victim’s fault.
  • Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, professional, or crisis hotline if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship.

Find Help

Here are some places to find help:

  • Your school’s health and counseling centers
  • Campus police or security
  • Residential assistants or other staff you trust
  • Local police
  • National Domestic Abuse Hotline: 800-799-7233 (TTY: 800-787-3224)

More community resources

How to help a friend

If you notice signs of abuse in a romantic relationship, speak up. If you know the abuser, tell him or her that the behavior is unacceptable and suggest that he or she find help for stopping.
To support a victim of abuse:
  1. Ask how you can help. Sometimes just listening is useful.
  2. Be patient and understanding. It may be hard for the person to talk about what’s happening. You can say something like, “I understand what you’re saying and I’m here for you.”
  3. Be honest about your concerns, but add, “I’m not judging you.”
  4. Suggest resources on and off campus.
  5. Offer help for safely leaving the relationship.
  6. Always be mindful of your own safety and ask for help from professionals.
Mandy B., a sophomore at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs, suggests, “Offer a place to stay and [encourage] reporting the abuse to someone who can help [your friend] get out.”

Kathleen P. a senior at California State University, Stanislaus, says, “Be there and encourage [your friend] to take a step back. You can [offer] hope that with your help, [he or she] can leave the abusive relationship.”

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Get help or find out more
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Hotline: 800-799-SAFE (7233)
TTY: 800-787-3224

Love Is Respect
Hotline: 866-331-9474
Text help: Text “loveis” to 22522

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)

National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (for LGBTQH)
Hotline: 212-714-1141

National Sexual Assault Hotline
1-800-656-HOPE (4673)