By Sarah Van Cleve
November 27, 2017
Domestic violence is an issue that is too often swept under the rug. When it is brought to light, the conversation often centres around physical violence, even though domestic abuse can manifest in many different forms.
“If you were to ask most people to visualise what a [domestic abuse] survivor looks like, they’ll start talking about broken bones, black eyes, cuts, and bruises,” says Kelly Coyne, vice president of domestic shelters for Safe Horizon. “And while that’s definitely a reality of domestic violence, I’d say, more often than not, abusive relationships really start with power and control issues.” And sadly, this type of abuse can be hard to spot, and even harder to get people to pay attention to.
“When you hear stories about physical violence, that’s shocking and everyone can understand why that’s getting attention,” Coyne says. “But these more nuanced things [non-violent forms of abuse] are really what allows that relationship to keep going.”
To help change the conversation and clear up potentially dangerous misconceptions, here are some lesser-known types of abuse that don’t involve violence.
One of the most common types of domestic abuse is one partner seeking control over the other, whether that’s restricting their activities, who they interact with, or other aspects of their life.
“Often, [the abuser’s] first step is to establish control over the other person, which allows the relationship to continue,” Coyne says. Controlling behaviour is a form of abuse all on its own, but it can also be a warning sign that a relationship will take on other types of abuse, as well.
“It slowly starts adding up into where this person is inserting themselves into every part of your life,” Coyne says.
When an abuser is looking for ways to leverage power over their partner, money is often an easy place for them to gain control. This might mean that the abuser is controlling all of the money and financial information for their partner, or that they’re taking financial control in more nuanced ways.
“They sabotage their employment, or interfere with their ability to get financial resources — that’s something that we hear really often,” Coyne says. Abusers will use tactics such as restricting transportation or childcare so that their partners can’t get to their jobs, or will call their workplace excessively to interfere with their work, she says. These are ways that abusers will exhibit economic power over their partners without overtly controlling their money.
Technology has made it easier than ever for abusers to control their partners. Abusers may require their partners to share their passwords and online information with them, which they can then use to harm their partner.
“We see people either going [into their partner’s social media accounts] and writing things that may be upsetting or embarrassing or harmful to a person… or reaching out to their friends or family, either posing as the survivor or trying to get information about them,” Coyne says.
Revenge porn and outing private personal information are other examples of technological abuse that partners will either threaten or commit in order to control the partners, she says
Sadly, technology has also made it made it much easier for abusers to keep tabs on their partners at all times. “There are so many ways to keep track of what someone is doing,” Coyne says. Abusers can use anything from online banking transactions to Snapchat maps to the Find My Friends app (which is automatically installed on iPhones) to stalk partners.
Even if a survivor is careful about hiding their location through all of these methods, geolocation features may give away their location without them realising it, or an unknowing friend may post their location while innocently adding a geotag to their social media post. All of these tools make it much easier for abusers to see where their partners are, and to follow them throughout their daily life.
When an abuser threatens suicide or personal harm if their partner leaves or reports them, that’s another sign of emotional abuse, according to Love is Respect, an advocacy organisation against teen and young adult dating violence. Saying things like, “If you leave, I’ll kill myself,” is a way for an abuser to control the relationship and force their partner to stay. If your partner truly is suffering from a mental illness or suicidal thoughts, encourage them to seek appropriate professional help, but know that it is not your fault, and you should not be manipulated to stay with them or keep quiet about abuse.
Even if your partner doesn’t hit you, excessive anger can still result in abusive behaviours. Damaging or destroying your possessions in rage is a type of physical abuse. Out-of-control anger that results in a partner insulting or screaming at you is also abusive.
Using Children Against Their Partner
Abusive relationships in which children are involved are often more nuanced, and provide abusers with more avenues for abuse. Not only might an abuser threaten to take the children, either through kidnapping or custody battles, but they also might use the children in subtler ways, Coyne says. Oftentimes, abusers will turn children against the other parent or manipulate their perspective.
“The children are used in ways that cause harm to both the children and the survivor, in ways that aren’t always obvious to other people,” she says.
Withholding STI Information
Sexual abuse has many different forms that go beyond what we typically think of as assault or coercion. One lesser-known type of intimate partner violence is when someone withholds their STI status. If a partner knows that they have an STI and consciously withholds that information, or actively seeks to pass the disease onto their partner, that’s abuse. This can be another means of control, as they seek to keep their partner from leaving or cheating. By passing along an STI, abusers aim to make their partners “undesirable,” so that they won’t have sex with someone else.
Using male privilege as a means of control in a relationship is another type of abuse, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Male abusive partners in heterosexual relationships will rely on rigid gender roles as justification for their controlling behaviour, and treat female partners like servants or as the lesser partner in the relationship.
“They start really diminishing the role of the abused person in the relationship,” Coyne says. If your partner consistently insults or degrades women in front of you, or does not allow you to have an equal part in the relationship, this is a red flag for abuse.
Abuse By Immigration Status
Abusers of immigrant partners have added tactics at their disposal, especially if the partner is undocumented. They will control their partners by threatening deportation, interfering with immigration paperwork, or restricting their partner from learning English, according to Women Against Abuse, one of the nation’s largest domestic violence advocate and service providers.