The Ambiguity of Abuse

By Emily

A few years back, I thought I might have been in an abusive relationship, or at the very least, in a relationship where incidents of abuse had occurred.

The only problem was that I didn’t know who was doing the abuse.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what happened in that relationship, and I’ve had the privilege of being able to receive counselling for it. Therapy and research have clarified that some pretty ugly things happened, that both myself and my then-partner behaved in hurtful ways, but that none of it ultimately fit any definition of abuse*.

Though a relief in many ways, this conclusion has also been greatly troubling. It bothers me that I found myself in a position where the lines between an unhealthy relationship and outright abuse became so blurred. It bothers me that I was able to confuse my situation with something more serious. More than anything, it bothers me that it could have been the other way around, and that a situation of abuse could have just as easily been mistaken for normal behavior.

And I guess that’s the thing – abuse isn’t always obvious.

When we think of abuse, typically we think of the physical. We think of bruises, of broken dishes, and holes punched through walls. In a lot of ways, we think of the most extreme signs that something is wrong. The reality is that abuse can start out in much more subtle ways, and that these early stages can often go unrecognized even by the partner(s) experiencing the abuse.

Beyond the physical, there are emotional and psychological tactics that abusers will use to control, intimidate, and isolate their partner(s). Although not limited to, this can include:

  • Verbal abuse: constant put downs, insults, humiliation or ridicule of partner(s) at home and/or in public
  • Emotional abuse: constant criticism, blame, lying and deception, gaslighting, and extreme emotional swings (happy one moment, outraged the next)
  • Financial abuse: stealing money or making financial decisions without consulting the partner(s) or gaining their permission, controlling all finances without letting the partner(s) have access to financial information, trying to make the partner(s) financially dependent, or trying to make the partner(s) solely responsible for all finances
  • Sexual abuse: forcing or pressuring to have sex or have sex in a particular way, insisting on unsafe sexual practices, refusing sex and/or affection as a way to punish the partner(s), constant criticism or ridicule of the partner(s)’s sexual performance
  • Threats & Intimidation: destroying or threatening to destroy partner(s)’s property/possessions, threatening to harm or kill the partner(s), outing or threatening to out the partner(s)
  • Isolation & Control: restricting the partner(s)’s freedom, controlling or limiting the partner(s)’s contact with friends and relatives, controlling or limiting the partner(s)’s access to external support and resources (constantly checking partner(s)’s phone and/or computer)

The longer that an abusive relationship goes on, the more frequent and severe the abuse tends to become. But that means that an abusive relationship can go on for a very long time before any of these behaviours become obvious, and the abuser will have done all they can in order to make their partner(s) unable to leave.

Though threats and intimidation are a component of this, one of the most powerful weapons an abuser can use against their partner(s) is self-esteem. If an abuser can succeed in making their partner(s) feel worthless, or that the abusive behaviour is normal or even deserved, then it becomes much more difficult for the partner(s) to seek out or accept support.

Unfortunately, our own societal biases can contribute to this normalization of abuse. Just as we typically jump to the physical indicators of abuse, we frequently subscribe to the notion that abusers and victims can only look like or be certain people. While there are statistics that indicate higher rates of violence committed by certain groups, the reality is that abuse can occur regardless of age, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical attributes, and stature.

Abuse can occur within queer and same sex relationships just as much as within heterosexual relationships. Men can be victims of abuse just as much as women. A small, femme individual can abuse a large, masculine individual. Just because an abuser or victim does not fall into “the usual” demographic does not mean that the abuse is any less real.

It is important, however, to be able to distinguish between abusive and unhealthy relationships. A disagreement or an unintentionally hurtful comment are not the same as abuse. Recognizing the difference was where I struggled in my previous relationship.

To help with this distinction, I have included a link to a document with further information on abuse in LGBTQA+ relationships. Regrettably, the document includes some outdated terms for trans individuals, but the information and resources are nonetheless useful for identifying whether or not a relationship is abusive, and what to do if it is.

If you feel that you may be in an abusive relationship, there are supports available.

  • Lesbian, Gay, Bi & Trans Youthline – offers free support for youth aged 26 and under Call: (1-800-268-9688) Text: (647-694-4375) or Chat:
  • Family Violence Info Line – 24 hour support toll-free (310-1818) or via Chat:

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.

If you feel that you may be committing acts of abuse in your relationship, there are also supports available. Talking to a counsellor and seeking professional help are important first steps to stopping the abusive behaviour.


*This is only my experience. I cannot speak to how my former partner may have felt about things while they were happening or how they may feel about things now. Though we each contributed to it, their experience was nonetheless different from my own.


About Emily 

Emily is an honours graduate with a Bachelor of Education, Secondary from the University of Alberta. She identifies as a queer woman somewhere along the asexual spectrum, and has amassed a considerable number of resources over the years pertaining to education, queer youth, and sexual health. She hopes to one day be a community sexual health educator, and is currently working on a book of poetry just in case.


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