Defining an Abusive Intimate Relationship

Domestic violence refers to abuse in an intimate relationship. Defining "abuse" or even "intimate relationship" is not as easy as one might first think.

An intimate relationship is one in which two people, of any sexual orientation or identity, are dating, living together, married, or separated. Basically, the two people are well known to each other and have, or have had, emotional ties to each other. In many cases, they will also have economic, family, and other ties.

Abuse is difficult to define, because it involves not only the behavior, but also the behavior's meaning to the people involved, its intent and its effect.

There are some behaviors which everyone in our culture would agree are abusive: physical battering, rape, and threats to kill are the most obvious. Beyond that, however, there is considerable variation among subcultures and individuals about what kinds of behavior are abusive. For instance, would you consider calling someone degrading names abusive? Or forbidding them to leave the house? Is a slap in the face abusive? How about threatening to get rid of the cat?

Think for a minute about your own definition of abuse. When you have given it some thought, jot down no more than one or two sentences.

Possibly, you found yourself saying, "It depends." We suggest it depends on the effect on the victim, and the patterned or repetitive nature of the behavior. A systematic and consistent pattern of abusive or violent behavior which results in one person being constrained in her or his freedom to think, make decisions, or act constitutes domestic violence, battering, or "intimate terrorism."

"Red flags" to notice include: a person experiences terror with their partner, feels unsafe at home, or is physically injured; a partner is consistently controlling a person's actions, speech, and/or relationships.