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Many tropes involve interpersonal abuse of some sort, from Abusive Parents to Bastard Boyfriend to Domestic Abuse to Financial Abuse to many of the Sexual Abuse Tropes. What, though, is abuse in Real Life? How is it recognized as such, and how does it differ from healthy (or even unhealthy but non-abusive) interpersonal interactions? While providing an entirely exhaustive treatment of abuse has both been done elsewhere and is beyond the overview of TV Tropes, this article exists to provide a short summary defining abuse itself, the most common types of abuse, warning signs of abuse, and to dispel some common myths (found in tropes or otherwise) about various types of abuse.
What is abuse?
Abuse is an individual act of harm and/or a pattern of harmful acts between individuals that have some sort of perceived interpersonal connection. If no interpersonal connection exists, the harmful or criminal act is not, technically, abuse. For example, if a stranger punches you in a Bar Brawl, it is definitely an assault and a crime, but it is not abuse, because no interpersonal relationship or ongoing contact exists. (Note "perceived" there: as noted later, there are some forms of abuse that only require the abuser to perceive interpersonal connection where none actually exists)
The perceived interpersonal relationship aspect and ongoing contact is what often makes abuse as traumatizing of an experience as it is. Again using the Bar Brawl example, while you may be traumatized and injured from being punched, you can be fairly sure you won't be punched again at least for a while. In an ongoing situation of Domestic Abuse, on the other hand, you can never be sure it won't happen again (and reassurances that it won't are often worthless). In the case of a stalker or someone wanting to commit a hate crime, you cannot convince them that you or what you are is not somehow connected to their life, which leaves you a target for ongoing abuse.
You can also write off the bar brawler as a drunken jerk who was 100 percent at fault, whereas if you are being abused continually, you may even develop sympathy for your abuser or blame yourself, despite your being no more at fault than as if you'd been targeted by a random stranger.
What are some common myths and misconceptions about abuse?
- "I deserve it/it's my fault." No one deserves to be abused in any way. Someone engaging in abuse is not looking out for someone, not helping someone, not "disciplining." They are hurting the person they abuse, for anything from their own mental issues to some form of gain for them. This misconception connects to the next one...
- "I could have/should have prevented this." The only way to prevent abuse is to not interact with the abuser and even that is not foolproof. This cannot be stressed enough: nothing YOU do or do not do can change or stop an abuser's conduct.
- "Things will be different in the future." Abuse is a set pattern that is incredibly hard to change and that can only change with major work on the abuser's behalf. Some situations could resolve with abuse ending (e.g. if the abuse is precipitated by substance use or by triggers or the abuser having been abused and the abuser recognizes this AND gets treatment for it rather than blames the victim) but these situations are rare. Not only are they very rare, they are also the result of the abuser being reflective and repentant as opposed to the victim trying to appease the abuser.
- "It could be worse. Therefore it is not abuse." This is a very common one. Especially in regard to forms of abuse such as emotional abuse and financial abuse, a victim may think that being made to feel suicidal or being forced to hand over all of their income is not "abuse" because it isn't something like daily beatings or rapes. Keep in mind that abuse comes in many forms, and is defined by its effect of an interpersonal relationship becoming unbalanced and controlled by one individual to the harm of the other. If a victim keeps thinking "It could be worse", it will probably get worse as the abuser takes more liberties with them. Abuse should be stopped as soon as it is identified, like cancer.
- "Only women and children can be abused, Domestic Abuse is the only abuse." Abuse can happen in ANY interpersonal relationship. In Domestic Abuse alone, you can have men abusing women, women abusing men, men, women, or both abusing children, adult children abusing parents, and/or siblings abusing each other. GLBTQIA couples are also not immune to Domestic Abuse. Nor is Domestic Abuse the only context in which abuse can happen, there are other contexts:
- Bullying/mobbing (physical or emotional abuse in the context of workplace and/or education)
- Sexual harassment/sexual abuse in the context of workplace or education
- Financial coercion (financial abuse in the context of work or education)
- Bullying (physical, emotional, or financial abuse between children)
- Child on child sexual abuse
- Religious/spiritual abuse (the use of a religious or spiritual context to perpetuate control and abuse of victims by religious leader(s))
- "Abuse requires the people involved to know each other." Generally, it does - which is part of its dynamic in most cases - but note "perceived" connection. Stalking and harassment can occur without the victim knowing their abuser in any meaningful way (the abuser perceives a relational connection that does not exist), and some forms of emotional abuse (specifically that that takes place online, hate crimes, and hate speech) can also happen in this manner (the connection is proximity and the abuser perceives a connection that the abuser does not want when none actually exists)
What are the primary kinds of abuse?
Physical abuse is the stereotype of Domestic Abuse. It is nonsexual violence or the threats of it by the abuser against the victim. It can include everything from "minor" verbal threats, pinches, shoves, slaps to horrific beatings, torture, and murder. It almost always also includes emotional abuse, sometimes includes sexual abuse, and has a very nasty tendency to escalate - a fancy term for getting far, far worse. As in, the person who starts out shoving you away from him or her or slapping you may, over time, be the person who kills you.
Emotional abuse is far more insidious and far less obvious than physical abuse in most cases, and the most common form of abuse. It consists of tactics to make the victim feel worthless, threatened, fearful, crazy, helpless, confused... and entirely controlled by and dependent on the abuser. Whereas physical abuse hurts the body, emotional abuse hurts the mind and emotions. An emotionally abused victim may suffer from stress, may be misdiagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses or actually develop them as well as develop physical illness, suffer from reduced societal and career opportunities, and even be Driven to Suicide - all of the effects of physical abuse including death are effects of emotional abuse as well.
Exactly What It Says on the Tin, sexual abuse encompasses sexually abusive acts. Rape (and the various forms of dubiously consensual sex that are just as much rape as stereotypical rape), forced sex of any sort, child molestation, forced sex work, sexual harassment. Almost always contains strong elements of emotional abuse as well - in fact, it could be argued that sexual abuse is a combination of physical and emotional abuse, and is often found with both.
Financial Abuse is abuse centered around either the control of money as a means of control and/or around forcing the victim to engage in financial behaviors that profit the abuser at the expense of the victim. It can include anything from taking all profits from the victim's work or income, forcing the victim to work beyond the victim's capacity, exploiting the victim's financial resources, outright stealing from the victim and/or selling their possessions, or forcing the victim to commit crimes for financial reasons. Emotional abuse is often a very large part of it simply because emotional abuse enables financial abuse to exist.
Religious abuse is, simply put, physical, emotional, sexual, and/or financial abuse either codified by a religious system (No Real Life examples allowed, but the Corrupt Church, Path of Inspiration, Religion of Evil, Scam Religion are some tropes that describe some aspects of this + fictional versions) or practiced by members of a religious system using religious justifications for either practicing or covering up abuse (such as the pedophile priest scandals). Often one of the most absolutely crushing forms of abuse to victims, because religion and spirituality is both important to and often an all-encompassing part of life to those most likely to be victimized, and finding out that one's religious leaders (or worse, one's religion itself) is a fraud constructed solely to harm people is often almost as traumatizing an experience as abuse itself.
What are some major warning signs of abuse?
There are many warning signs of abuse (many specific to the specific type of abuse), which you can find in the resources available online, but out of those, there are some that are almost always signs of abuse occurring, to the point that if you see them happening to you or to someone else, you should almost always suspect abuse.
- Total control of one person or group of persons by another person or group of persons. This is a major warning sign of emotional abuse (which often underlies all abuse) and it enables all forms of abuse. If a religion imposes it, it's almost always a sign of religious abuse afoot. In fact, it is arguably the most obvious warning sign of abuse ever to exist. The only times this could arguably not be a sign of abuse is if it is the limited result of a Total Power Exchange or Gorean kink relationship - and even there it should be watched very, very carefully for development into abuse.
- Sudden development of anxiety, depression, or especially fearfulness and/or timidity, especially concurrent with a new relationship, new job, new friendship, or other new interpersonal interaction.
- Fear of an individual, place, situation, or organization. If something is terrifying someone or "keeping them in line" there may be a very bad reason why.
- Unexplained, repeated wounds, injuries, or scars - or injuries with very flimsy explanations are often a sign that physical abuse is occurring.
- Suicidal behavior or feelings are a warning sign of abuse often enough that abuse should at least be considered as a reason, specifically in cases which the suicidal person is living in a situation controlled by others (living with family or a member of a restrictive religious group for example). This is often dismissed assuming that the family member(s) or group is always supportive rather than the source of problems - it shouldn't be.
- Acting out sexually in ways that are out of character or age-inappropriate. This is often one of the biggest warning signs of sexual abuse, though there can be other explanations why. It can also be indicative of other forms of abuse, e.g. a financially abused person doing sex work for money or an emotionally abused person seeking "love" even if it is from total strangers.
- Odd or extreme financial behaviors such as donating huge amounts of money to a religious or self-development organization, being unaware of how much income one has and unable to ask about it, working to a degree that risks health or safety, taking out massive loans (especially of predatory types like student or payday), or suddenly engaging in embezzlement or theft. While all of this behavior could have other explanations, it could be indicative of either direct Financial Abuse (the abuser is making the victim do it) or of a victim desperate to escape physical or emotional abuse and willing to make any sacrifice to do so.