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Relationship Violence (Defining RV)

Relationship violence is made up of a variety of behaviors and experiences identified by an attempt of one partner in an intimate relationship to gain more power and control over another. According to statistics from the National Center for Victims of Crime, approximately 32% of all college students are victims of domestic violence, and the highest rate of intimate partner violence occurs among women ages 16-24. Relationship violence is often silenced as a private matter for partners or families to navigate alone. This perspective can further isolate a survivor and elevate the power and control held by the perpetrator by limiting support networks and access to resources. CARE is dedicated to supporting survivors; schedule an appointment to talk to an advocate if you need help navigating an abusive relationship.

Defining Relationship Violence

Relationship violence is a pattern of abusive behavior used to exert power and control over a dating partner. Attempts to gain power and control can take several different forms, discussed in the “Possible Forms of Relationship Violence” section at the bottom of this page. Northwestern uses the term dating violence to refer to these behaviors; other terms include intimate partner violence or domestic violence.

Northwestern defines dating violence as:

Intimidation, harassment, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or interference with the personal liberty of any person by someone in an intimate relationship.

Dating partners include, but are not limited to: persons who have or have had a dating relationship and persons who have or have had a social relationship of a romantic or intimate nature.

Additional information on this definition is available on the Sexual Misconduct and Title IX website.

Northwestern policy terms anyone with whom you’ve had an intimate or romantic relationship as a “dating partner,” though this may not fit your definition of someone you “dated.” Hook ups are also intimate relationships and can potentially be unhealthy or abusive. Even friendships can have elements of power and control in them – it is intimate nature of many relationships that can make abusive behaviors particularly dangerous.

Resources for additional information:

Possible Forms of Relationship Violence

Use the following drop-down menu to read more about different forms relationship violence may take. Each section includes some examples in order to help you identify abusive actions. Though they are divided into neat categories here, these separate forms of abuse may interplay so much within an abusive relationship that they wouldn’t be quite so easy to categorize as distinct actions.

Emotional Abuse

It may be synonymous with psychological or verbal abuse/assault, and it may appear alongside other forms of abuse or on its own. Emotional abuse involves actions which attack a person’s sense of identity or emotional well-being in order to control them. Emotional abuse may be contextual and difficult to recognize because of this. For example, joking about a mistake someone has made can be a normal part of a relationship. However, when it is part of ongoing insults, criticism and put-downs, it reinforces a victim's feelings of worthlessness. Other examples of emotional abuse include:
  • Isolating the person from friends, having them question their worth to others
  • Tracking everything the person does
  • With LGBTQ+ partners, threatening to "out" them
  • Threatening to turn friends against the person
  • Threatening suicide
  • Withholding emotion or using the silent treatment
  • Blaming their partner for everything
  • Keeping someone from studying or doing things they enjoy
  • With physical abuse, may look like blaming partner for their own abuse
  • With sexual abuse, making threats unless they get what they want
  • With economic abuse, spending money on the person and making them feel guilty for it

Economic Abuse

It may also be called financial abuse. Economic abuse involves using someone’s money, spending behavior, or financial situation to control them. Economic abuse can include:
  • Using the victim's credit cards or meal plan
  • Ruining someone's credit
  • Paying for things the victim needs and using that to manipulate the victim
  • Making someone feel guilty about their financial status
  • Stealing money
  • Not paying bills
  • Making someone feel guilty for not having a job, or not allowing them to work
  • Coercing someone into sharing expenses, such as an apartment or car

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse involves one partner assuming control over aspects of the sexual relationship, such as the specifics of what sexual activity they engage in, when it occurs, and how concerns of pregnancy or STI’s are handled. In a healthy relationship, a person's sexual boundaries are always respected. A romantic relationship doesn’t diminish personal autonomy and one’s right to make decisions about their sex life. Sexual abuse may include:
  • Pressuring someone to have sex or to engage in sexual activities
  • Forcing someone to have sex, or into specific sexual activities they do not want
  • Making threats of harm to make someone engage in sex
  • Manipulating someone into having sex, through false promises, emotional pleas, or alcohol and other drugs
  • Making any unwanted sexual contact, or attempting rape
  • Not allowing someone to use birth control or protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections
  • Forcing someone to have an abortion -- or not allowing them to have one
  • Forcing someone to watch pornography
  • Forcing someone to act out pornography or act out fantasies
  • Using STI's as a tool of manipulation or threats

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse can include any unwanted contact with your body or physical damage to you or your possessions, pets, or loved ones. It doesn’t always have to be painful or leave a bruise. In conjunction with emotional abuse, the threat of being physically abused can be a powerful way to control someone. Physical abuse can include:

  • Hitting or slapping
  • Pushing, grabbing, or choking
  • Restraining the person
  • Burning the person
  • Hurting pets
  • Damaging the person's property
  • Throwing things at or near the person
  • Using weapons

Digital Abuse

From the National Domestic Violence Hotline, digital abuse is the use of technology and the Internet to bully, harass, stalk, intimidate, or control a partner. This behavior is usually a form of verbal or emotional abuse conducted online. Digital abuse can include: 
  • Controlling who the person follows or is friends with on social media 
  • Sending insulting or threatening messages or emails 
  • Using social media to track the person's activities or whereabouts 
  • Purposeful humiliation in posts online 
  • Sending, requesting, or pressuring the person to send unwanted explicit photos, videos, or messages 
  • Stealing or pressuring the person to share account passwords 
  • Posting or sharing the person's explicit photos without consent 
  • Using any kind of technology to monitor the person's activities and whereabouts 
  • Looking through the person's phone without permission 
  • Constantly texting the person or making them feel like they can’t be separated from their phone 

Reproductive Abuse / Coercion

From The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), reproductive coercion and abuse is the behavior intended to maintain power and control related to reproductive health by someone a partner. Reproductive abuse or coercion can look like: 
  • Pressuring a partner to use or not use forms of contraception 
  • Sabotaging or interfering with use of contraceptive methods such as birth control or Plan B 
  • Enacting coercive behavior (threats or violence) if a person does not comply with their partner’s wishes regarding a pregnancy decision 
  • Pressuring a person to become pregnant when they do not wish to become pregnant 
  • Sexual violence and coercion can be forms of reproductive abuse or coercion, including forcing or pressuring a partner to have sex without a condom, intentionally exposing a partner to a sexually transmitted infection (STI), and other forms of violence

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