But this isn’t all physical abuse: much of the definition of domestic abuse also incorporates emotional, sexual and financial manipulation that can be seen as an attack on someone’s personality and independence rather than their body.
UK law says any controlling behaviour which is: “Designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain,” qualifies as abuse.
In fact the problem of emotional abuse is so serious it has become the focus of a new campaign by Essex Police, which asks unknowing perpetrators to ‘reflect’ on their behaviour and ask whether they could be abusing their partner without recognising it themselves.
But what exactly does constitute emotional abuse? And could someone really be guilty of this without even realising it?
Psychotherapist Abby Rodman told HuffPost UK that it is important to be able to recognise abusive behaviour.
“To be clear a one-off fight with your partner in which you both say things you regret is not emotional abuse,” she said.
“Your spouse forgetting your anniversary two years in a row is not emotional abuse.
“These events may cause some bumps in your relationship but, standing alone, they are not abuse.”
So HuffPost UK asked Rodman, and charities Relate and Refuge, about what signs you should look out for that signal abusive behaviour could be happening in your relationship and that you could be the perpetrator.
1. You frequently criticise the way your partner looks or dresses.
You don’t have to like everything your partner wears, but frequently making them feel bad about their appearance, calling them names, making unpleasant or sarcastic comments that lower a person’s self-esteem qualifies as emotional abuse because it makes them subordinate to you and more dependent on you.
Rodman said: “Seems like everyone is complimenting their new wardrobe, recent weight loss, or latest blogpost? Everyone, that is, except the one person who should be leading the cheering section.
“An emotionally abusive partner is far more invested in tearing you down and keeping you down.”
2. You don’t support long-term decisions your partner is making and won’t let them discuss their plans with others.
One of the biggest parts of having a supportive partner is being able to talk through major life decisions to help you come to a conclusion about your future.
You have a right to disagree with your partner’s plans, but if you are dismissing their opinion or making them doubt their own capabilities and not letting them consult others on the matter, you are isolating them from sources of support.
Rodman said: “Do you share your dreams and plans with your partner? If not, why not?
“Is their excitement about a new project or hobby met with snorts and snide remarks? Healthy relationships are supportive. A non-abusive partner is happy when opportunities come your way.”
3. You regularly create drama as a way of feeling in control.
Few couples can claim their relationships are free of rocky moments or even rocky periods. But when healthy couples find themselves disagreeing they ultimately want to make things better between them, with peace as the end goal.
When you are in an abusive relationship, drama is used as a way to make a person subordinate to your control.
“Emotionally abusive relationships thrive on turmoil.” Rodman said. “They rarely feel peaceful or balanced. If your relationship is consistently chaotic, and you’re exhausted from the emotional mayhem, it’s time for some serious relationship contemplation.”
4. You try to make your partner feel guilty as a way to keep control.
In a similar way to creating drama, intentionally making your partner feel guilty about their behaviour (things they have done in the past or things they are currently doing) is not a recipe for a healthy relationship.
Sex and relationship charity, Relate, state: “This type of emotional abuse can range from outright emotional blackmail (threats to kill oneself or lots of emotional outbursts) to sulking all the time or giving them the silent treatment as a way of manipulating and making them feel like they owe you love.”
5. You find it easy to blame them when things go wrong (even if it’s not their fault).
Granted, from time to time we all find it easier to blame other people and circumstances around us for our problems - it is much easier than admitting we might be at fault.
But if you find yourself blaming (and believing) that your partner is the root of all your problems, and then treating them with contempt, you might need to reassess what you’re actually doing.
“The emotional abuser can’t see or own his or her role [in taking part of the blame], so arguing the point gets you nowhere,” said Rodman.
“All disappointments in an abuser’s life must be externalised. And your partner is the obvious target.”
6. You use sex or affection as a manipulative bargaining tool.
Sexual abuse can often involve using physical intimacy as a tool for bargaining, to coerce your partner into doing something for you or acting in a certain way.
A spokesperson for Refuge explained: “You should not use force or threats to make your partner have sex. You should not make them perform sexual acts with which they are uncomfortable. You should not criticise their performance.
“If you do any of the above, you are using sex to assert your authority and control.”
7. You withhold money from your partner or prevent them from having their own income.
According to Refuge one of the “most powerful ways” you can control your partner is through economic abuse.
Emotional abuse is about control, and this can become particularly pertinent when it comes to financial issues.
Economic abuse involves withholding money from your partner, not involving them in finances, placing debts and bills in their name, preventing them from having their own income or anything else that constitutes “exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain”.
If you want to change your abusive behaviour please visit ‘The Change Project’, a group promotes healthy relationships in families, between individuals, and in the community.
- Refuge- Domestic violence help for women and children - 0808 2000 247
- Visit Women’s Aid- support for abused women and children – or call the National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247
- Broken Rainbow- The LGBT domestic violence charity - 0845 2 60 55 60
- Men’s Advice Linefor advice and support for men experiencing domestic violence and abuse - 0808 801 0327