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What is an abusive relationship?

Most people are aware that physical violence by a spouse or partner is abusive behaviour. Physical abuse may be the first thing we associate with terms like “intimate partner violence,” “spousal abuse” and “battering.” It is crucial to remember that sexual assault, sexual abuse and threats of violence within a relationship are also forms of physical abuse.

But abuse isn’t always physical. There are other types of abuse that occur within intimate partner relationships. This month, we spoke to Dr. Janice Du Mont, a scientist in the Violence and Health Research Program at Women’s College Research Institute, about different types of abuse.

“People typically focus on physical violence. Of course acts of physical violence are important, and that includes a whole range of behaviours such as slapping, hitting, kicking, beating and also acts of sexual assault and rape,” Dr. Du Mont says. “In fact, intimate partner abuse generally refers to any action within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological or sexual harm to those involved. The most common type of abuse is emotional and psychological abuse.”

Emotional and psychological abuse includes things like frequent insults, belittling, constant humiliation, and destroying or damaging a partner’s possessions. It can also include harming or threatening to harm someone close to you and threatening to take away children. Financial abuse, such as preventing someone from knowing about or accessing the family income, is also a form of abuse.

“These types of abuse may include controlling behaviours as well, such as trying to isolate a woman from family and friends, or closely monitoring her every movement, as well as restricting her access to financial resources, employment, education and sometimes even medical care,” Dr. Du Mont says.

Friends and loved ones may notice signs that someone is experiencing these types of abuse.

“They may find that the person is increasingly isolated from friends and family, or they may notice that a woman doesn’t have the resources she used to have, or insufficient resources to live,” Dr. Du Mont says. Other signs that someone may be in an abusive relationship include suddenly missing school or work more often, and unexplained injuries.

For someone in a relationship, fear can be an indicator of abuse.

“If you’re feeling afraid of your partner all or most of the time, that’s probably a red flag,” Dr. Du Mont says. “Or if you’re embarrassed by your partner’s behaviour, or you avoid situations or conversations because you’re afraid of making your partner angry.”

Statistics Canada’s 2009 General Social Survey – the most recent General Social Survey focusing on victimization – looked at several types of abuse in relationships. Six per cent of Canadian women and men with a current or former partner reported that a partner had physically or sexually abused them in the preceding five years. Physical and sexual violence included pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, kicking, biting, hitting, beating, choking, threatening with violence, threatening with a gun or knife, or forcing someone into sexual activity.

Those statistics include both male and female victims, but there were marked differences in the way men and women were affected by abuse. The survey showed that women were more likely than men to be repeatedly assaulted, and were more than twice as likely as men to be injured in an assault. Women were three times as likely as men to be the victims of more serious forms of violence, such as being beaten, choked, threatened with a gun or knife, or sexually assaulted by a partner or former partner.

A much larger proportion – 17 per cent of Canadian women and men with a current or former partner – reported emotional, psychological or financial abuse by a partner. The survey found that this type of abuse most commonly took the form of put-downs or name-calling to make a partner feel bad.

Physical abuse was often accompanied by psychological abuse. Two-thirds of Canadians who experienced physical or sexual violence also reported emotional or financial abuse.

Abuse within intimate partner relationships is not just widespread, but also has no geographic or societal boundaries.

“It is a global issue that occurs across all socioeconomic, religious and cultural groups,” Dr. Du Mont says. “Globally, the  burden of intimate partner violence is overwhelmingly borne by women.”

The World Health Organization’s report on violence against women, released in June 2013, found that 30 per cent of women around the world have experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner, making intimate partner violence the most common type of physical violence against women. The report also found that intimate partner violence had far-reaching health effects. Women who had been physically or sexually abused in a relationship had double the risk of depression and double the risk of having an abortion, compared to women who had not been abused by a partner. They were also 16 per cent more likely to have a low birth weight baby, and, in some regions, were 50 per cent more likely to acquire HIV.

Women in Ontario who are experiencing abuse, or who want to learn more about intimate partner violence, can get help and information from the following sources:

The Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Care Centre

The Ontario Network of Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Treatment Centres


This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed: September 2013

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