Love is complex. There is no such thing as a “perfect” relationship, and all couples fight. But how do you tell when a relationship becomes abusive?

Wilting flowers showing in any relationship it is important to know the difference between love and abuse.
In any relationship, it is important to know the difference between love and abuse.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

1. Does Your Partner Control Your Relationship? It’s Abuse, Not Love.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an “Abuser’s main objective in an intimate relationship is to dominate and control their victim.” Abusers will use various tactics for maintaining control, including:

  • An abuser may threaten you.
  • An abuser may intimidate you using aggressive looks and gestures. An abuser may intimidate you by destroying your property, or threatening someone/something you love with physical violence.
  • An abuser may stalk you.
  • An abuser may isolate you from loved ones by controlling what you do, where you go, or who you spend time with.
  • An abuser may gaslight you by trying to convince you your feelings aren’t valid, you’re delusional, or you’re overreacting.
  • An abuser may threaten you with loss of time or access to the children to control your actions or use your children as pawns otherwise.
  • An abuser may make all big decisions for you and without you. Acting as if it is their right. An abuser may control how you spend money.
  • An abuser may use emotional abuse.

Every relationship is unique, regardless of abusive. Therefore, each abuser may use some, all, or none of the aforementioned tactics, and it can still be abuse. Many abusive relationships are not abusive full time, but rather follow the cycle of abuse:

Diagram depicting how abusive relationships start out with love, and then eventually fall into this cycle.
Many abusive relationships started out with love, and then eventually fall into this cycle. Infographic by Renea Di Bella using information from Marie Stopes South Africa

2. Is the Physical Contact in Your Relationship Abusive or Loving?

Dying leaves showing physical harm in a relationship isn't love, it's abuse!
Causing physical harm in a relationship isn’t love, it’s abuse Photo by Matthew Brodeur on Unsplash

Physical and sexual violence are two types of Intimate Partner Violence. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), according to the CDC, refers to abuse or aggression perpetrated upon you by current or former dating partners or spouses. Physical violence refers to any act of purposeful physical force meant to hurt someone. Sexual violence refers to forcing someone to engage in any physical or nonphysical sexual act when they do not, or cannot, consent. If your partner uses either of these types of violence against you, it is not love, it’s abuse.

Many assume acts of violence like this in any intimate relationship would suggest abuse, but it isn’t always that easy. BDSM can often become a scapegoat for abusers who blame their abusive behavior on rough sex. Within the BDSM lifestyle, people derive sexual pleasure from behaviors most wouldn’t, some of which can include physical violence. The difference is, all physical and sexual acts in a BDSM relationship are consensual. Those who take part in these relationships practice honest communication to draw strict boundaries and formalize consent. BDSM relationships are often loving relationships!

The key here is consent. You have control over anything physical or sexual that happens to you in a relationship. If you feel you’ve lost this control because of physical or sexual acts your partner forces you to engage in, you are in an abusive relationship.

3. Verbal Abuse is Not Love! Language Use is Powerful in a Relationship.

dying flowers showing abuse is not love! Language is important in a relationship.
Verbal abuse is not love! Language use is powerful in a relationship. Photo by Gerrie van der Walt on Unsplash

Even if your partner never harms you physically, their words and actions can still be abusive. Verbal abuse is anything your partner says or doesn’t say, to hurt, humiliate, intimidate, or threaten you. Verbal abuse can include name-calling, degradation, humiliation, and threats.

Verbal abuse is more than a fight. When people who love each other fight, there is usually a solution or compromise. No solution or compromise will prevent abuse. No amount of love or logic will prevent abuse. Verbal abusers use their words to control their victims in the same way physical abusers use physical violence.


Abuse is not love. No one deserves abuse – regardless of their past actions. Breaking out of abusive relationships is difficult, often because of the love that forms between two individuals during the reconciliation phase. Having children with an abuser makes it even more complicated. If you are in an abusive relationship, you are not alone! If this article pushed you to make the brave decision to leave your relationship, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline for support.