What is Relationship Abuse?

Relationship abuse is a pattern of behavior used to establish power and control over another person through fear, intimidation, and power. It often includes the threat or use or violence. Abuse occurs when one person believes that he or she is entitled to control another. It is an effective method for gaining and keeping control, and there are usually no adverse consequences for the perpetrator of the abuse.  When the abuse occurs within an intimate relationship, such as marriage, dating, or family, the abuse is often referred to as domestic violence.

For an example of domestic violence, watch the following dramatization of a real-life abuse story.


Either partner can be the abuser, but the overwhelming majority of relationship violence is perpetrated by men against women. For that reason, this description will refer to the abuser as a male and the victim as a female. Remember, though, that it can go either way.

Physically Assaultive Behavior

Physical abuse often begins with what is excused as trivial contact that escalates into more frequent and serious attacks. It might include any of the following:

  • restraining
  • pushing
  • pinching
  • slaps and punches
  • kicks
  • biting
  • tripping
  • throwing
  • choking
  • severe shaking
  • burns
  • stabbing
  • mutilation
  • breaking bones
  • gunshot wounds

Sexual Abuse in Marriage

Sexual abuse is any type of sexual activity that you do not want or agree to. It is an act of violence, anger, power, and control that stems from one person's determination to exercise power over another.

Idaho's Marital Rape Law

Idaho law defines marital rape as the oral, anal, or vaginal penetration by the perpetrator's penis accomplished with a female under the following circumstances:

  1. Where she resists but her resistance is overcome by force or violence, or
  2. Where she is prevented from resistance by the infliction, attempted infliction, or threatened infliction of bodily harm, accompanied by apparent power of execution; or is unable to resist due to any intoxicating, narcotic, or anesthetic substance.

This definition of marital rape does not apply to penetration or attempted penetration with a foreign object.

Sexual Coercion

 Sexual coercion is being persuaded to have sex or participate in other forms of physical intimacy when you don't really want to.  You may believe that you are freely choosing to have sex.  But in reality, someone or something makes you feel that you have to have sex or that sex is the right choice at the time.  This often happens in unbalanced relationships--where there is unequal power.  One person always "gives," and the other always "takes."  Sexual coercion can take many forms:

  • Pressure.  Your partner may say that sex is the way to prove love or that you can't say no now that you're married.
  • Threat.  Your partner may threaten to hurt or leave you if you won't have sex.  You may feel afraid to say no.
  • Flattery.  Compliments can be sincere.  But if your partner keeps saying things that sound extreme or too good to be true, this may be sexual coercion. 
  • Other forms.  These include put-downs, guilt trips, buying gifts or spending money to make you feel that you "owe" sex.

Violence Wheel

The Violence Wheel helps to link the different behaviors that together form a pattern of violence and shows how the violence is maintained through psychological abuse. It shows the relationship as a whole and demonstrates how each seemingly unrelated behavior is an important part in an overall effort to control.  Following the Violence Wheel is an explanation of each abusive behavior.

Violence wheel graphic


  • Making her afraid by using looks, actions, gestures
  • Smashing things--like punching holes in walls
  • Destroying or giving away her property
  • Abusing pets--or sometimes killing them
  • Displaying weapons

Verbal Attacks / Emotional Abuse

  • Putting her down
  • Making her feel bad about herself
  • Calling her names
  • Making her think she's crazy
  • Playing mind games
  • Humiliating her
  • Making her feel guilty, e.g., calling her "prideful" if she does not agree or comply


  • Controlling what she does, who she sees and talks to, what she reads, where she goes--isolating her from friends and family
  • Limiting her outside involvement--excessive possessiveness
  • Using jealousy to justify actions--sexual jealousy and unfounded accusations of affairs

Minimizing, Denying, and Blaming

  • Making light of the abuse and not taking her concerns about it seriously
  • Saying the abuse didn't happen
  • Shifting responsibility for abusive behavior
  • Saying she caused it

Using Loved Ones

  • Making her feel guilty about the children
  • Using the children to relay messages
  • Using visitation to harass her
  • Threatening to take the children away

Abusing Authority / Spiritual Abuse

  • Using male privilege
  • Treating her like a servant
  • Acting like the "master of the castle"
  • Being the one to define men's and women's roles
  • Demanding obedience, claiming superior righteousness (e.g., because of the priesthood or having served a mission), making all the decisions, demanding forgiveness, telling partner, "You don't have the Spirit," saying that a temple marriage must be saved at all costs, telling her that she is "prideful" if she does not agree or comply.

Economic Control

  • Preventing her from getting or keeping a job
  • Making her ask for money
  • Giving her an allowance--with no participation in developing a budget
  • Taking her money
  • Not letting her know about or have access to family income
  • Coercion and Threats
  • Making and/or carrying out threats to do something to hurt her
  • Threatening to leave her, to commit suicide, to report her to welfare
  • Making her drop charges of abuse
  • Making her do illegal things

Abuse tends to escalate. It often begins with threats and intimidation that may escalate to physical abuse. Finally, it may become life-threatening, with serious behaviors such as choking, breaking bones, or the use of weapons.


The cycle of violence is a pattern made up of three stages--Tension Building, Violence, and Seduction/Honeymoon.  It demonstrates how three emotions --Love, Hope, and Fear--keep the cycle in motion and make it difficult to end a violent relationship.  Relationship abuse usually begins subtly during the dating relationship with manipulative and controlling behavior.

Cycle of Violence graphic


Tension Building

Tension begins to build in the relationship when the abuser starts criticizing, yelling, swearing, and using angry gestures, coercion, and threats--often threats to kill her and her children or her family.


 The woman fears that the threats will become a reality but feels helpless to do anything about it.


Something will happen to trigger the physical and sexual attacks and threats.


The woman hopes that the relationship will change, knowing that it didn't begin like this.


After the violent act, the situation de-escalates. During this "honeymoon period," the abuser might apologize, blame the woman or other circumstances, promise to change, or give gifts.


 In response to this honeymoon period, the woman feels a renewal of love for the abuser. After all, the relationship has its good points. It's not all bad.

Why Do Women Stay in Abusive Relationships?

Abused women experience shame, embarrassment and isolation. A woman may not leave the abuser immediately because:

  • She realistically fears that the abuser will become more violent and may even kill her if she attempts to leave. In reality, women who leave their abusers are at a 75 percent greater risk of being killed by the abuser than are those who stay.
  • She may feel that she does not have the support of her friends and family, particularly if the abuser has isolated her from them.
  • Usually the abuser has all of the economic and social status and the woman knows the difficulties of single parenting in reduced financial circumstances. Leaving could mean living in fear, losing child custody, losing financial support, and experiencing harassment at work.
  • There is a mix of good times, love and hope along with the manipulation, intimidation and fear (see the Cycle of Violence).
  • She may not know about or have access to safety and support.

Barriers to Leaving a Violent Relationship

Reasons why women stay generally fall into three major categories: lack of resources, institutional responses, and traditional ideology.

Lack of Resources

  • Most women have at least one dependent child.
  • Many women are not employed outside of the home.
  • Many women have no property that is solely theirs.
  • Some women lack access to cash or bank accounts.
  • Women who leave fear being charged with desertion and losing children and joint assets.
  • A woman may face a decline in living standards for herself and her child(ren). In the first year after a divorce, a woman's standard of living drops by 73 percent, while a man's improves by an average of 42 percent.
  • Up to 50 percent of all homeless women and children in the U.S. are fleeing domestic violence. Yet there are nearly three times as many animal shelters in the U.S. as there are shelters for battered women.
  • After being in a shelter, many women return to their batterers primarily because they cannot locate longer-term housing.
  • Violent fathers use school records or the presence of children at school to track down the mothers.
  • Abusers may keep or destroy documentation like birth certificates and immunization records, thus preventing or seriously delaying the children's entry into school and the family's receiving welfare benefits or housing assistance.

Institutional Responses

  • Religious leaders may believe in "saving" the marriage at all costs and may counsel the women to be "better wives." Religious women often feel compelled to stay in abusive relationships because of scriptural injunctions to "submit to their husbands," "turn the other cheek," or forgive. LDS women may feel abandoned by God. If they were married in the temple, they may worry that divorcing will be unrighteous.  They may find that ward members are critical of a decision to divorce.
  • Police officers often do not provide support to battered women. They treat violence as a domestic "dispute," instead of a crime where one person is physically attacking another person.
  • Police may try to dissuade women from filing charges.
  • Prosecutors are often reluctant to prosecute cases, and judges rarely levy the maximum sentence upon convicted abusers. Probation or a fine is much more common.
  • Despite the issuing of a restraining order, there is little to prevent a released abuser from returning and repeating the assault.
  • Despite greater public awareness and the increased availability of housing for women fleeing violent partners, there are not enough shelters to keep women safe.

Traditional Ideology

  • Many women do not believe divorce is a viable alternative.
  • Many women believe that a single parent family is unacceptable, and that even a violent father is better than no father at all.
  • Many women are socialized to believe that they are responsible for making their marriage work. Failure to maintain the marriage equals failure as a woman. In the LDS culture, it is very difficult to be divorced in a family-oriented church.
  • Many women become isolated from friends and families, either by the jealous and possessive abuser, or to hide signs of the abuse from the outside world. The isolation contributes to a sense that there is nowhere to turn.
  • Many women rationalize their abuser's behavior by blaming stress, alcohol, problems at work, employment, or other factors.
  • Many women are taught that their identity and worth are contingent upon getting and keeping a man.
  • The abuser rarely beats the woman all the time. During the non-violent phases, he may fulfill the woman's dream of romantic love. She believes that he is basically a "good man." If she believes that she should hold onto a "good man," this reinforces her decision to stay. She may also rationalize that her abuser is basically good until something bad happens to him and he has to "let off steam."

Why Do Abusers Abuse?

Why do abusers abuse? Why do they have such a need for power and control? Some people will tell you that it's because they have a domineering personality, or low self-esteem, or a bad temper, or because they see women as possessions, or because they abuse substances. And although these and other factors may be present, there is a deeper reason.

The manner in which we react to our spouses is often related to the attachment we had with our own parents while we were growing up. Perhaps the attachment was not safe, or maybe our parents were not responsive to our needs or minimized or ignored our needs. In those cases, when we get into a marriage, we may respond to our spouse based on these childhood attachment issues.

Some common attachment needs are:

  • Need for acceptance
  • Need for closeness
  • Need for understanding
  • Need to feel important
  • Need to feel loved
  • Need to have your attachment figure reflect to you the good things about you

If our childhood attachments were not physically or emotionally safe, we may respond in marriage with certain fears:

  • Fear of being rejected
  • Fear of being abandoned
  • Fear of not measuring up, or of being a failure
  • Fear of not being accepted or valued
  • Fear of being unlovable
  • Fear of being controlled

But expressing these needs and fears to our spouse may feel extremely vulnerable, particularly if it was never safe to express our needs or fears in childhood. We may even have become very good at numbing our awareness of our needs and fears. For some people, whenever something happens that touches on that vulnerable place, they may flip up into anger, as a way to defend themselves against these painful emotions. Sometimes this anger becomes abusive.

This explanation is not intended to condone the abuse, and it probably does not apply to every abusive situation. It's just important to know that, without treatment, an abuser won't stop abusing. And sometimes the only way to get the abuser's attention, so that he/she gets help, is to involve the police.

Is Your Relationship Abusive?

The following questions can help you to determine whether your own relationship has characteristics of abuse.

Has your husband or boyfriend. . .

  • Embarrassed or made fun of you in front of your friends or family?
  • Humiliated you in private or public?
  • Withheld approval, appreciation or affection as punishment?
  • Put down your accomplishments or goals?
  • Continually criticized you, called you names, or shouted at you?
  • Ignored your feelings regularly?
  • Made you feel like you are unable to make decisions?
  • Ridiculed or insulted your most valued beliefs, your religion, race, or social class?
  • Used intimidation or threats to gain compliance?
  • Told you that you are nothing without him?
  • Treated you roughly--grabbed, pushed, pinched, shoved or hit you?
  • Wrestled with you? Wrestling with a boyfriend is, at the least, a legal license for free touching and, at the most, a sign of a desire to dominate you.
  • Called or texted you several times a night or shown up to make sure you are where you said you would be?
  • Been very jealous--harassed you about imagined unfaithfulness?
  • Blamed you for how he feels or acts?
  • Insulted or driven away your friends or family?
  • Prevented you from doing things you want--like spending time with your friends or family?
  • Manipulated you with lies?
  • Insisted you lose weight or dress the way he wants?
  • Used drugs or alcohol as an excuse for saying hurtful things or abusing you?
  • Pressured you sexually for things you aren't ready for?
  • Raped you or subjected you to other violent or degrading non-consensual sexual acts?
  • Tried to keep you from leaving after a fight or left you somewhere after a fight to "teach you a lesson"?
  • Taken car keys or money away?
  • Made you feel like there "is no way out" of the relationship?
  • Threatened to commit suicide if you leave?
  • Subjected you to reckless driving?
  • Thrown objects at you?
  • Abused pets to hurt you?
  • Punched, shoved, slapped, bit, kicked, choked or hit you?

Have you. . .

  • Sometimes felt scared of how he will act?
  • Constantly made excuses to other people for his behavior?
  • Believed that you could help him change if only you changed something about yourself?
  • Tried not to do anything that would cause conflict or make him angry?
  • Felt like no matter what you do, he is never happy with you?
  • Always done what he wants you to do instead of what you want?
  • Stayed with him because you were afraid of what he would do if you broke up?

Help is Available

  • BYU-Idaho Counseling Center, (208) 496-9370
  • Family Crisis Center, (208) 356-0065
  • In an emergency, call 911.

A Healthy Relationship

Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-42 lists the following characteristics of a healthy relationship:

  • Persuasion
  • Long-suffering
  • Gentleness
  • Meekness
  • Love unfeigned
  • Kindness
  • Pure knowledge

Healthy Relationship Wheel graphic

The Healthy Relationship Wheel offers a view of a relationship that is based not on power and control, but on equality and non-violence. Compare the characteristics of a healthy relationship to those of an abusive relationship and those listed in the scriptures.

Intimidation Non-threatning behavior Long-suffering
Verbal attacks Respect Kindness
Isolation Trust and support Gentleness
Minimizing, denying, blaming Honesty Pure knowledge
Using loved ones Responsible parenting Love unfeigned
Abusing authority / spiritual abuse Shared responsibility Meekness
Economic control Economic partnership Kindness
Coercion and threats Fairness Persuasion

Other Resources

Should I Stay or Should I Go?  by Lundy Bancroft and JAC Patrissi