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Abuse Defined

Kathryn Patricelli, MA Updated: Mar 16th 2016

In the most general sense, the term 'abuse' describes a particular type of relationship between two things. An abusive relationship is one where one thing mistreats or misuses another thing. The important words in this definition are "mistreat" and "misuse"; they imply that there is a standard that describes how things should be treated and used, and that an abuser has violated that standard.

abuse taking placeFor the most part, only human beings are capable of being abusive, because only human beings are capable of understanding how things should be treated in the first place and then violating that standard anyway. Animals in nature, and nature itself may be very violent and destructive at times but in an unconscious, irresponsible sort of way; they cannot act otherwise. Natural violence is not intentional, but all too often, human violence is.

Various types of abuse are possible, including self-abuse and abuse of others. From a practical and social point of view, abuse that harms other people or animals is worse than self-abuse. If people want to abuse themselves or some inanimate thing they own, they mostly harm themselves. If, however, they choose to abuse a being (a person or animal which can feel pain) in a similar manner, they end up harming that being. This is a very bad thing for several reasons: first because it harms that other being, and second because it violates a 'social contract' based on a common understanding, drawn from various religious, ethical and enlightened government principles and traditions, that hold out the idea that human beings are not things to be owned, but rather beings having innate rights and worth as independent creatures who are all roughly equal. Such standards help protect people from arbitrary abuse from people who are more powerful then they are. If it is okay for a strong person to abuse a relatively weaker one "just because," then it is equally okay for an even stronger person to abuse that abuser. There would be no end to the violence under such a scenario. By insisting on the relative equality and rights of all beings (even for owned animals to some limited extent), no one being has the right to abuse another, and abusive violence is minimized. This 'social contract' is an important part of the basis of civilization itself.

Abusive actions one person makes towards another are generally intended to control the victim, or to make the victim submit to the power of that abuser. Such actions are abusive, because it is against the notion of equality of human worth to say that one person should be able to control another against the victim's will.

Keeping these definitions in mind, some actions are easy to identify as abusive, and some are not. For instance, it seems safe enough to say that a spouse should never strike his or her spouse, or put him or her down verbally; such actions are always abusive. It is also easy enough to say that all instances of forced sexual behavior (particularly where children are involved) are abusive, and that neglect of children and dependent elder's well-being is abusive.

It is harder to define abuse in other circumstances, however. It is a parent's duty to teach their children how to behave properly; to not do so would be neglectful. It is highly controversial whether corporal punishment (striking children) is an acceptable method for disciplining children. It doesn't seem reasonable to say that all instances of corporal punishment are always abusive. Some parents who use corporal punishment may do so for very legitimate reasons and under appropriate circumstances. However, it is equally clear that some parents do cross the line into true abusiveness with their corporal punishment practices. Seeking out the consensus opinion of respected others in the local community and the nation is probably the best means of determining whether an ambiguously abusive action is abusive or not.

There are individual difference between people in terms of their comfort level with 'abusive' behaviors as well. For example, some couples are very volatile with one another; they may scream and yell at each other and fight constantly. Being subjected to this high-conflict sort of relationship might be an instance of verbal abuse for some more sensitive people. However, if both partners in a high-conflict marriage are adjusted to that high level of conflict and are okay with it, then their fighting may not actually be abusive at all as applied to their individual situation. Similarly, people who willingly and consensually practice sexual bondage in the context of their intimate relationship are not engaging in abusive behavior, until and unless one partner uses it against the will of the other partner. The important thing here is to note that when it is not clear whether a particular behavior is abusive or not, it is best to fall back on whether that behavior feels abusive or not. If it feels abusive, it is likely to be abusive, at least for you, and in any case, you would be justified in escaping from that abuse. However, the same behavior might not be abusive for another person.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

good web site - cj - Oct 1st 2012

kids can learn about abuse and how not to do it ever they will get into big trouble with the law

confused. - fefey - Nov 8th 2010

i am confused about what abuse really is. would you say a man in his late 30's preying on a 14 year old and attempting to have sex with her was abuse? would you say him htting her was abuse? would you say him demanding oral sex was abuse? what sort of abuse would you call that?

its hard to classify the different types of abuse......i mean when does physical abuse lead to emotional abuse and then mental? where are the boarderlines? when is it just a mistake and when does it become abuse? why is it hard for women to speak up? there are so many questions that need answering.

if anyone would like to speak to me PLEASE contact me through my email. i'll be very grateful.

about the last comment - jayne - Jun 16th 2010

hey uhm i have been abused by my mothers husband as well and i would just like to say get out of there as quickly as you can . it hurts that our mothers dont understand or dont belive but you gota know theres people out ther that can help and that knows what your going thru .

i left home at 14 and now 18 , it sdill hurts but what goes around comes around . belive me it true . now ive got my own life and he hates when my mom is proud of me. you gota prove you can have a life and you can live your dream you just gota tell yourself 'i can do it' buhd gurl you need help, i got help kus i needed it

go to a friends house or a family members house that you trust and can talk to about this and try not let this man get to you kus the more you keep this problem inside the more its going to hurt you...

this will get you down buhd keep your head up your mom will come round and stand your ground , dont be alone with him and if you are get out of the house if your not going to leave your mom thats the only way to do this...

i onestly wish i knew you so i can help you out by face buhd if you need anything im hea for you !!!

keep smiling kus you are beautiful :]


exert from my email - Gary Morasci - Feb 11th 2010

I didn't think you would ever be able to come here again. Just thinking about me probably makes you nausea's. I hope it does. But not in spite, but the fact it would mean you do have some feelings for me. To this day its still difficult not to want you here with me. I know you never want to see me or talk to me  again, I guess I'm holding on to the thought that maybe you had a change of heart and were sorry. This to I know will never happen, but never the less here I am. 
  This is where I add another final goodbye.
You know I miss you and I don't mention Layla cause, I just miss her to much to talk about her.
 Nevertheless Mayan I hope you two have a wonderful Valentines Day .
  P.S. You are right a bought one thing. I do come out of situations the better person.
I know you don't see, or understand what I'm talking about when I refer to a persons behavior directly connected to childhood
emotional trauma or abuse of some fashion. To me its perfectly clear how one creates the other. I can imagine the rage you felt and the outburst that pursued upon reading my last letter. Your pain lives in the past, I didn't cause your pain, but yet you left. You don't believe me do you! Look closely and you will find that your thinking and behavior are designed to keep the pain going. Some refer to this as your pain body. Basically cause emotions are directly connected to the body it is your body's reaction to your mind. The pain body, the dark shadow cast by the ego, is afraid of your consciousness. It is afraid of being found out. It's survival depends on your unconscious identification with it, as well as your unconscious fear of facing the pain that lives in you. But if you don't face it, you will be forced to relive it again and again. The worst part of it all is the fact by not facing it, you are imprinting your pain onto your daughter thus perpetuating this cycle of abuse. 
  I've been in 4 other relationships, all of which ended in much the same way as this one. I just wanted to help them, understand them, and understand themselves. it never worked out, Two of them never heard from again. The other two on 2 separate occasions contacted me to tell me they were coming to K.C. and going to stop by, neither one ever showed up or called. It doesn't matter. Each one in a way I learned from mostly in how closely their life situations matched those in text book fashion. So since I am positive Your no different. You can live the rest of your life joyously with the knowing of how creative and resourceful and extensive without cause or remorse your ability to use and abuse people you openly call your friend. Sorry I think I forgot to

plz give me some help or advice - - Nov 15th 2009

hey  i do not want to say thing cuz this might be read by my bother i just want to know how can i tell if i an being abused i am sorry for my spelling but can anyone help me, i feel like i am being abused by my brother there have been many times when he’s hurt me, i have a very painful memory in my childhood that i can only speak to my close mates about, even then every time i talk about it i burst or feel like bursting into tears, but that only comes up when my brother hurts me or threatens me when I do not do what he wants,  i have put my email on this so i can get some advice off u guys or anyone can give me some help it would be much appreciated

In-Law Abuse - - Mar 3rd 2009

Hope there is room because I need to vent

I was abused by my inlaws and his friends. When I was dating my husband we were very much in love. However he was very rebelious and immature and we started arguing alot. He did some abusive behavior through out our relationship and when I complianed to my inlaws they basically denied acts that were done in front of them. For instance borrowing my car then I didn't see him or the car for a few days. Or he would lend my car to his so called friends without asking me if he could. Then I decided not to lend him the car any more and he would take the keys. I called his friends parents or wifes and told them that none of my husbands friends are allowed in my car even if my boyfriend shows up with the car that means he took it from mre. He also had a drinking problem at that time and he would party in my car with his friends and drive home drunk. He lived with his parents they were very aware of his actions. I told them. Also he got in trouble with the police on a few occasions.

We got engaged seven hard years later. I knew my mother in law and sisters in law were a problem but never did I think I would be so abused by them mentally and verbally. First my husband was and still is so good to me when he matured. My mother inlaw slowly through the years complained about me about every being of me as often as she could . She downed me and my family as often as possible. She would by me beautiful christams gifts and then tell me afterward "you know who butters your bread." Or "don't expect this next year. She constantly bad mouthed my mother and my family in front of my husband and her family.

My sister in law had a three year old daughter lets call her gia. One day I went to the beach with my other sister in law (she has no kids) and we took her sisters daughter gia. It was very hot and I poured water on my niece gia's feet. Gia picked up sand and threw it in my face at point blank range. I had sand up my nose and in my eyes. I was stunned and in shock. People were staring at me and I was embarresed. My sister in law called her neice gia over and said "come her gia and play with me over here" she did not repremand her in any way. We left shortley after that and lisa (my sister in law dropped me off). I was home bewildered at the whole scene playing back in my mind. Then cathy my neices daughter called me to tell me that "lisa explained to her what happened, you know lisa said you poured water on gia" no apology.

During my wedding plans my sister inla was lisa was over weight told me she was embarrased to try on bridesmaids dresses with the other girls. So I took her alone. I figured she was pretty and that if I liked her in a dress that would be the one I choose for all the girls. Well the first dress she tried on I loved. It was the color I wanted, the material and she looked beautiful in it. When we left she told me she didn't like it. So the next time we went I took all the girls including her. We were in the waiting room and my cousins were just looking at dresses on the rack. They tried on dresses and I did not like any. I was stuck on the first that my sister inlaw tried on a week before. My cousins went to their home and me and my two sister in laws went to my mothers house. I could tell lisa was angry. Then my husband showed up and he looked mad. He sat down and said so tell me what happened and lisa explained how my cousins had some nerve to look at dresses in the waiting area. That one of my cousins were fatter then the other. Etc etc. I was misserable. After all was said and done I stuck to my guns and chose the first dress I liked on her. She called me up a few days later and said she will not be in my bridal party. She started complaing that when my husband got in trouble years back she came to his aid and spent money to look for him. And she thought I was too concerned with my wedding and that I should give her the money she spent on him. Again I had no answer I just froze. You see they all used to stick up for him and his friends. I never liked them. They were people my husband and his family grew up with. They all condoned his behavior back then.

Our wedding was coming soon and we needed an apartment. So I looked. My husband wouldn't help. His sister called me said that I insulted her mother and made her cry because I told her we are not taking her rental upstairs from her. Even though I said it nicely to my mother in law that I think it would be best if we were on our own. My sister in law called me often to try to convince me to take the apartment. And I know they were pursuaing my husband. I stuck to my guns and said no. Each time she called me I tried harder for another apartment. Finally I got one. We had problems there and my husband went back to his immature days. I told my inlaws that he didn't come home at night or came home drunk and very late. They said I should be lucky he came home since their daughters husband stays out for a day or two. I was preganant and working full time. Again I called my inlaws to tell them he wasn't paying his share of the rent and bills and I had to lie to the landlord. They came to house a few days later and said "well he is complaing that you don't cook dinner for him that is why he doesn't come home. I also told them that he knocked down the front door because he didn't come home till 7 am and I was in the shower and he knocked it down to get in. A few days before that I locked it on purpose because he didn't come home. I wanted to take all his plates of un eaten dinner out of my fridge and just throw it on the floor. But I knew I would have to clean it up. Well later on my husband demanded we move upstairs from his mother since we started getting roaches. I asked if we could just look for another apartment this time together. He said no its his moms. So they won.

We moved in and she said she will not be giving us any keys since the knocking down of the door incident in our other apartment. My father in law got mad if I locked my door from the inside. While living in his moms rental my son was a baby and learning how to walk he was in his walker and accidentally bumped into my mother in law. I didn't think it was a big deal. He was learning how to walk and she was his grandmother for petes sake. Well the next day we were on the porch again. She had an evil look in her eye. She made a comment and said "if he bumps her again she will throw my son in the pool and drown him, thats right head first in the pool, in the backyard, head first." Again I was in shock. I know she would never she just said it to hurt me and to provoke me. How could I explain this to my husband. He is so protective of his mother no matter what she does how mean they all protect her and act like she had a right to do and say the things she does. I didn't sleep good for days. I was sick to my stomach wondering how I will tell him.

She watched my son while I worked. She would call me in work to tell me that my son was calling her mommy. Meanwhile how could that be since I worked 9-5 and came home at 6 pm and was with my son always.

A month later my husband asked me to go to a funeral with him. A friend of the family to his mothers sister he knew the man since he was little. Someone I never met. I said no because I didn't feel like leaving my son with his mother. He asked me please and I wanted to make our marriage work. When we got home we went to her to pick up our son. She was angry. She started screaming "how dare you go to that funeral you always hated me. You know I don't talk to my sister" she came over to me and put her hands pointing in my face as she was yelling and my husband was yelling at her back. I pushed her hand away from my face and told her how dare you, then I screamed out that she said she would drown my son. My husband was in shock and started crying and we both went upstairs. I told my husband it was over this was not a home. That evening my sister in law lisa came home and my mother inlaw told her what happened. They stormed into my apartment and started yelling at me. Lisa told me your crazy in your head because you grew up without a father and I have a great relationship with my father, they bother proceeded to tell me they wanted me out" she complained that the rent wasn't being paid and wanted me to pay it. How could I at this time she wasn't watching my son anymore and her son was too busy being irresponsible, she knew it before they interfered with where we lived, she knew I was having these problems with them and they pursaided my husband to move there.

Another day I called the cops on my husband for throwing something at me during an argument. My mother in law came up and told the cops I was crazy and grabbed my son and wouldn't give him to me. And one day he ripped up my social security card and threw it ou the window.

I was already planning on leaving so a few days later I took my son and we went to my mothers. I stayed away from my husband however I allowed him to visit our son, he always loved him so much. I wouldn't go back with him until he went to therapy for verbal and mental abuse. We went together and we learned allot about each other. He learned his mother is controlling and he did allot to me to impress his mother or make her feel better about herself. My son is now thirteen, my husband and I are still married and I can say that he is the man that I knew he was inside that immature body. He listens to himself and makes the best choices for us as a family. His mother and sisters tried to cause problems for us when we were looking for a house to buy, but he ignored it and we have our home. He share the bills however since I am unemployed for a year the burden is on him and hasn't complained not one bit.

She tried to cause trouble again recently but he didn't fall for it. I had flash backs and I needed to look you up and write about it.

Thank you

wife abuse - suchi - Oct 18th 2008

people who belittle their spouses by hitting and using abusive foul language are those  who suffer from some complexes and a lot of insecurity.they have to be counselled or atleast the spouse should go to a psychologist to feel better and understand the person better.

- Jeremy - Mar 2nd 2008
My parents separated when I was two, and my mom has been with my step father ever since.  All my life I hated the man, he has broken me down so so many times when I was a child, I have seen him strike my mother many times as well, but I was too afraid to do anything.  I resent the man so much, and when I hear your stories I get that feeling in my stomach, and I think of those terrible memories.  But when those memories are brought forward to my mind I tell myself, "I am so much better then he is, he is an alcoholic coward who can only pick on women and children to make himself feel better".  We need to raise up from these abusive tactics they use on us, prove their words of hate wrong, and don't let it stop us from living.  I am now 19 and currently studying to get a bachelors of fine art degree, something I was told I was to stupid, and too much of a waste of space to get...

I have been there - - Feb 11th 2008
I know what you mean. When I was thirteen my mothers boyfriend who ended up being my stepfather would expose hisself to me and I was afraid to tell my mother and when I finally told her she didn't leave him and didn't beleive me. My advice to you would be to tell your father or another relative. I know it is difficult, but at least you wouldn't have to endure it anymore.

My heart bleeds - Lynn - Feb 6th 2007

I am terribly sorry to hear this is happening to you and your mom doesn't even acknowledge it. My step father did this same thing to me since I was 9yrs old until I got out of the house. They are still together. It wasn't that my mom didn't believe me I don't guess she just didn't want to. I will tell you that if there is any way please get out of the house. Please turn him in. The pain by causing an uproar (that is what you probably think) will cause you so many mental problems in the future. I am now 38 years old and I have a wonderful husband and a great job and so many things that you would think that I would not suffer depression but I do. Please, please email me if you need to. You are not alone honey and you don't have to put up with this anymore. Love, Lynn

Hitting Me - Stephen - Jan 11th 2007
I am 13 and my mom has just slapped me really hard, ive got a red hand mark on may face, she cant control herself and she lashes out on me. She should expect temper tantrums and stuff, but she shouldnt hit me and slap me ... i feel like hitting them too, but i get killed. The only thing i can look to sometimes is coping with and shutting myself in my rom with something sharp.

A reply - Already Grown Up - Aug 25th 2006
I have wondered why parents might ever do something like that. My dad used to leave me alone with a person who swore at me, and who cried and blamed me for it when I made a soud loud enough to break her from her trance. Whenever I told my dad I didn't like it he would just smile and tell me to stop caring. The thing is I have always known he loved me. I think sometimes parents love their children so much that they can't bear to admit they have done something wrong. The longer the abuse goes on, the more the parent can't stand to admit that he or she has done nothing while their child is in horrible pain. And so they continue to deny it, and it keeps getting worse. "I have a quick question concerning this matter.How many parents do you know that would do that???" I don't know. Most parents would never do that... but it does happen. If your question is - "Is this normal? Is this okay?" - the answer is, completely and absolutely, "no." If your question is - "Am I alone?" - You are not alone. There are other people who have gone through similar things and who know how much it hurts, there are people you can talk to, and there are organizations that can help. If you want somebody to talk to... somebody who will take you seriously and who can help you figure out what you want to do, there are some people here you can talk to: 1-800-656-4673. It's called the "National Sexual Assault Hotline," and it's free and it's 100% confidential; nobody else will know anything unless you tell them yourself. You can call them any time of day, any day. The number is also 1-800-656-HOPE. God do I wish I had done something similar while I was still living at home (I've grown up now.) It was so hard to be alone. I don't know if you're going to read this reply, but please do consider it.

reply - Nan - Jul 27th 2006
I kind of know what you mean. I had the same situation but I was younger then you. My mom drink a lot and she didn't believe me. It continue to happen until I stood up for myself and said 'NO' and continue to fight until I got away from the man. Don't allow yourself to be alone with this person. If you know it will be just the two of you find another place to go. Nan

What do I do?? - Ray Bear - Jul 24th 2006
Okay I was sexually abused by my mothers boyfriend at the time a couple years ago.I warned my mother and she rolled her eyes and told me that he wasn\'t like that.Since then they have gotten married.And now it is occuring again 2-3 years later and she is staying with him.I have a quick question concerning this matter.How many parents do you know that would do that???....And another little tip.I am 16 years old. Thank you for listening, Ray Bear

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