According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, roughly 1 in 4 adult women and 1 in 9 adult men have been victims of violence at the hands of intimate partners. The sobering statistics illustrate that domestic abuse is hardly a rare or an isolated phenomenon — it happens with tragic frequency.
While physical violence is a clear sign of abuse, toxic and abusive relationships can manifest in other insidious ways, including verbal and financial abuse. One of a social worker’s critical roles is to help identify these types of abuse and to provide support services to those in need.
Note: This article discusses physical and sexual abuse, and while descriptions are not graphic, the content may be disturbing to some readers.
What Is Abuse in a Relationship?
Abuse in a relationship comprises a pattern of toxic behaviors that exist in an intimate or romantic relationship. More specifically, abuse in a relationship involves one partner behaving in a malicious or manipulative way, with the ultimate aim of gaining power and control over the other partner.
Domestic Abuse vs. Other Types of Abuse
Although child and elder abuse can occur in the context of domesticity, here the term “domestic abuse” refers to abuse in a relationship involving power dynamics between two intimate partners.
It may also help to clarify that abuse in a relationship is different from stalking, wherein the abuser and the abused may have little or no relationship or shared life together.
Statistics About Abuse in a Relationship
Although abuse in a relationship has long been a hidden issue, it’s far more common than many are aware.
- According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “On average, 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States.” This equates to more than 10 million individuals in a year.
- About 1 in 10 women have been raped by an intimate partner.
- According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, as many as 99% of cases of domestic abuse also involve financial abuse.
These troubling statistics make clear that abuse in a relationship is all too common and that it can assume many different forms.
Types of Abuse: Physical Abuse
One of the most prevalent forms of abuse in a relationship is physical abuse.
Signs of Physical Abuse
A number of signs point to physical abuse, starting with visible injuries. Social workers are trained at identifying the physical marks that violence and abuse leave behind as well as the efforts to conceal those marks (such as long, layered or baggy clothing, especially worn out of season). Social workers may also identify psychological and behavioral signs, such as sudden changes or abrupt shifts in how the abused person acts or speaks.
Effects of Physical Abuse
Those who are physically abused by an intimate partner may exhibit several symptoms, both in the short term and in the long term. The most common symptoms of physical abuse include the following:
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Changes to appetite and eating habits
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Sexual dysfunction
- Drug or alcohol abuse
Role of a Social Worker
Social workers are trained to identify subtle indications of physical abuse, even among those who are reluctant or unwilling to speak out about their experience. Additionally, social workers have the resources to get physical abuse victims to a safe place, such as a women’s shelter. They may also be able to provide legal resources and mental health care.
Learn more about the nature of physical abuse:
- S. Office on Women’s Health, Effects of Violence Against Women. Find out more about the long-term toll that physical abuse can take, including the impact on mental well-being.
- com, “The Effects of Physical Abuse.” Consider some ways that physical abuse can occur in a marriage.
If you’re in a relationship marked by physical abuse, help is available. In an emergency, or if you feel like your life is in danger, call 911. Otherwise:
- Call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233, and also consult its resources for victims and survivors.
- If you know someone who’s trapped in a physically abusive relationship, visit the U.S. Office on Women’s Health to learn how you can help.
Types of Abuse: Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse in a relationship can refer to any effort to pressure or coerce someone into doing something sexually. In instances of sexual abuse, the abuser may use shame, guilt, intimidation or fear to achieve something. Note that sexual abuse may also encompass other kinds of abuse, from verbal assault to physical violence.
Signs of Sexual Abuse
Many common indicators of a sexually abusive partner exist, including the following:
- Asking the victim to dress in a particular way
- Manipulating the victim into performing specific sexual acts
- Insulting the victim with sexually explicit nicknames
- Demanding sex even when the victim is sick, physically hurt or fatigued
- Ignoring or disregarding the victim’s feelings about sex
Effects of Sexual Abuse
Sexually abusive relationships can yield a number of long- and short-term effects on victims, including depression and anxiety, as well as PTSD and struggles with drug or alcohol abuse.
Additionally, those who are sexually abused may come to associate sexual intimacy with negative experiences; as a result, they may have a difficult time maintaining healthy, happy, intimate relationships. They may also simply lose their interest in all forms of sexual activity.
How a Social Worker Can Help
Social workers are trained to identify even subtle signs of sexually manipulative relationships. They can counsel victims on if and when they need to seek shelter or legal protection. Additionally, social workers can help those who have been sexually abused find the mental health resources they need for healing and restoration.
To find out more about sexual abuse in a relationship, consider these resources:
- S. Office on Women’s Health, Am I Being Abused? Study some hallmarks of abusive or unhealthy relationships.
- Verywell Mind, “The Cycle of Sexual Abuse and Abusive Adult Relationships.” Find out how childhood sexual abuse can impact adult relationships.
In an emergency, or if you feel like your life is in danger, call 911. Additionally, many resources are available to those who are in sexually abusive relationships:
- Call the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network’s confidential hotline at 800-656-HOPE to speak with a counselor.
- Consult this New York Times article to find out about helping a friend or loved one who’s been sexually abused.
Types of Abuse: Verbal Abuse
Verbal abuse is sometimes referred to as mental or emotional abuse. Victims of verbal abuse often go unnoticed because of the absence of physical symptoms like bruises or scratches. However, verbal abuse can have an acute effect on victims’ self-confidence and long-term well-being. Crucially, verbal abuse often escalates into physical abuse.
Signs of Verbal Abuse
Abuse isn’t the same as a disagreement; all couples have verbal fights or arguments. The difference is that an argument in a healthy relationship shouldn’t devolve into name-calling or belittlement — and arguments shouldn’t happen daily.
Verbal abuse, meanwhile, involves behavioral patterns in which the abuser may:
- Use words to try to humiliate the victim
- Frequently yell or scream
- Start an argument but then place blame for it on the victim
- Dredge up unrelated issues or accusations
- Seek credit for sticking to one’s words rather than resorting to physical violence
Effects of Verbal Abuse
Living with this kind of verbal toxicity can have a long-term impact, including the following:
- Chronic pain
- Shame and guilt
- Second-guessing memories and past events
- Feeling unwanted or unworthy of love
How Social Workers Can Help
A social worker can help delineate patterns of toxic behavior and offer both the mental health and the legal resources needed to escape verbal abuse.
To learn more about verbal, mental and emotional abuse, consider the following:
- S. Office on Women’s Health, Emotional and Verbal Abuse. Take a closer look at what this type of abuse entails.
- Healthline, “What Is Verbal Abuse? How to Recognize Abusive Behavior and What to Do Next” Review examples of what verbal abuse can look like.
If you feel your life is in immediate danger, call 911, as verbal assault can lead to physical violence. Those who fear that verbal abuse puts them in harm’s way can also seek help from the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.
Types of Abuse: Financial Abuse
Financial abuse is defined as controlling some or all aspects of a person’s finances and/or ability to work. (Exceptions include instances of custodianship; for example, someone may be granted legal authority to control an elderly relative’s finances.)
Signs of Financial Abuse
A financial abuser may act in many ways, including the following:
- Sabotaging the victim’s opportunities to gain employment
- Forbidding the victim from working outside the home
- Controlling how money is spent
- Denying direct access to shared bank accounts
- Forcing financial crimes (like writing bad checks or creating fraudulent tax documents)
- Running up large debts on shared accounts without the victim’s permission
- Compelling the victim to work in the family business, potentially without pay
Effects of Financial Abuse
Financial abuse can have a devastating effect on victims. Without access to their own finances (and potentially with bad credit as well), victims may have a difficult time finding shelter, providing for themselves and their children, or otherwise extricating themselves from abusive relationships.
How Social Workers Can Help
Social workers can provide the legal resources that financial abuse victims need to gain their freedom and to secure protections for their children. Additionally, social workers can provide mental health interventions.
Find Out More
For additional insight into financial abuse, consult these resources:
- Verywell Mind, “How to Identify Financial Abuse in a Relationship.” Learn about the red flags for financial abuse.
- S. Office on Women’s Health, Financial Abuse. Take a closer look at the effects that financial abuse can have.
- Bustle, “Financial Abuse Is Experienced By 20% Of Adults — Here’s How to Spot the Signs.” Get help identifying the signs of this kind of abuse.
For help recovering from financial abuse, consider these resources:
- Bankrate, “Starting Over: How to Rebuild Your Finances After Experiencing Financial Abuse.” Get guidance on the right financial steps to take.
- The Ascent, “How to Overcome Financial Abuse.” Get more information about recovering from financially abusive behaviors.
How Can a Domestic Violence Social Worker Help?
A social worker’s role is to improve people’s lives, including intervening to mitigate harmful relationship or interpersonal problems. A domestic violence social worker specifically focuses on helping those who have been victimized by different kinds of abuse at the hands of their spouse or romantic partner. Domestic violence social workers advocate for the physical, emotional and financial well-being of the victim.
What Domestic Violence Social Workers Do
A domestic violence social worker can help in many ways, including the following:
- Offering assistance if someone’s safety is at risk because of abuse in a relationship
- Providing screening, risk assessment and crisis intervention for those who believe they’re being abused
- Making referrals as necessary to other providers, such as mental health care professionals, lawyers or financial counselors
- Advocating for their clients and connecting them to community resources
- Performing community outreach for abuse prevention and awareness
Becoming a Victim Advocate
To learn more about becoming a social worker who advocates for domestic abuse victims, review these resources:
- The Balance Careers, “Victims Advocate Jobs Profile.” Take a look at the requirements of becoming a professional victims advocate.
- Houston Chronicle, “Reasons for Becoming a Domestic Violence Social Worker.” Consider potential reasons for getting into this type of advocacy work.
Why Social Workers Are Important
Social workers play a significant role in counseling and protecting victims, helping them to ascertain the abuse’s extent and to take the steps they need toward restoration. A social worker’s role may also extend to legal, financial and mental health rehabilitation.
By advocating for victims of abuse, social workers play an important public health role, helping mediate the awful impact of cyclical abuse on women and children, in particular, while also ensuring that mental health providers are able to provide their services to those who need them to recover from acts of abuse.
The role of the social worker also involves awareness raising. Social workers can be powerful voices that educate communities on what abuse encompasses, what the warning signs are and what options are available to those who are victims of abuse.
Additionally, social workers can play an important part in preventing abuse. For example, a social worker who observes a home in which verbal or emotional abuse is rampant may see warning signs of a potential physical altercation, or even of child abuse. By seeking a quick legal intervention, and coordinating mental health care, the social worker may be able to curtail this abuse before it worsens.
For further insight into a social worker’s role, take a look at these resources:
- S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers. Scan some statistics and figures regarding social work as an occupation.
- Houston Chronicle, “What Does a Social Worker Do?” Learn more about the services that social workers provide.
- KVC Health Systems, “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Social Workers.” Learn more about the ways in which social workers help their clients.
Social Workers are Powerful Advocates
Those who are victimized by abuse can often feel as though they are all alone. One of the best reasons to enlist a social worker is that they provide faithful advocacy when it’s needed most. Social workers can help abuse victims get the care they need, and they can also help break cycles of abusive or toxic behavior. Their work is essential in helping abuse victims find their way forward.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Resources