What is Abuse?

Updated: Jan 16

Years ago, I sat with the ADA from the Queens Special Victims Unit, and he asked me, "When did she disclose?"

Confused, I answered, "Huh? When did she what?"

Patiently he clarified, "When did she tell that she was being abused?"

This was my introduction to a whole new vocabulary.

Words I had never heard before came at me from all different kinds of people: my pastors, social workers, lawyers, advocates, police officers, and therapists.

Then I began researching sexual abuse in depth. And, those books had So. Many. New. Words.

Fast forward to now - it has been years since I began learning about sexual abuse dynamics - and I use all those formerly-new-words all the time.

Sometimes, when I speak about abuse, I recognize the look on others' faces, the look I wore years ago when I first heard these terms.

In light of this, I am beginning a list of words & phrases to define in order to inform those that are new to reading about abuse. I will also include what I generally mean when I use these words on this website. So, if there are any words or phrases you would like defined or explained feel free to send me a message and I will add them to the list of future articles to post.

The First Word We Will Define Is Abuse.

The most basic understanding of the word abuse is to misuse someone or something.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains the word abuse was first used in "Late Middle English" meaning between the years 1100 CE to about 1500 CE. It shows up then "via Old French from Latin abus- ‘misused’, from the verb abuti, from ab- ‘away’ (i.e. ‘wrongly’) + uti ‘to use’."

So, literally to misuse or wrongly use.

But, of course abuse is much more complex than its definition.

Abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional, neglectful, and/or psychological, spiritual, financial etc. These abuses often overlap. For example, physically abusing someone will not only cause physical damage, it will cause emotional and psychological harm as well.

If the physical abuser relates to the victim in a spiritual context, as in, the abuser is the victim's pastor, priest, rabbi, teacher in a religious school, religious parent, and/or a spiritual mentor / authority, or uses religious teachings or Bible verses to control, then spiritual abuse has also occurred.

There are no neat boxes to classify abuses. Abuses bleed into each other and regardless of what type or types of abuse occur, the damage will be holistic.

Basically this means that abuse does not cause localized damage. It takes its toll on the body, mind, spirit, and everything encompassed within those elements.

It is important to remember that not all abuses that you experience or that may be disclosed to you will be criminal offenses. Do you know what types of abusive behaviors are illegal in your state? For example, many places do not recognize emotional abuse as criminal activity.

To illustrate this, look up the recent change in Ireland's domestic violence laws. Irish law now recognizes that emotional and psychological abuse intending to or resulting in the erosion of the victim's "self worth and agency" are types of non-violent abuse, that are as "harmful" as physical violence.

A key aspect of abuse is the gaining and maintaining of control. In an abusive relationship this can manifest as shaming or as striking the victim. However, and this is a key aspect to understand abusers and abuse dynamics, it may also look like tenderness, concern, love, gift giving, and/or apologies. If being tender for months is the way to maintain control then acting tender is what the abuser will do. If threatening the victim's life one evening is what will maintain control then that is what the abuser will do. Both abusive actions and caring behaviors are woven together by the abuser to control the victim.

So, when I use the word abuse on this website, I most commonly mean a pattern of harmful mistreatment within the context of a relationship that is characterized by the gaining and maintaining of control by the abuser towards the abused.

For Reflection

How would you define abuse?

What is the relationship between power / control and abuse?


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