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"It is extremely important for young adults to be able to recognize warning signs of a problematic relationship, before an abusive situation escalates."

Recognizing Abuse


College provides an environment for many students to explore intimate relationships with casual partners or serious relationships. In the confines of these relationships, however, inexperienced partners may not have the tools and experience needed to identify troubling behaviors. The earliest expressions of abuse aren’t always physical. Controlling habits can begin with manipulative comments or angry outbursts either in-person or over phone, text or social media.

Healthy relationships are based on the following to create a nurturing and loving environment:

  • Mutual Respect: Listening non-judgmentallyValuing each other’s opinions
  • Trust and Support: Respecting each other’s personal space and time
    Overcoming issues of jealousy and resentment
  • Honesty: Accepting responsibility for yourself
  • Fairness and Equality: Being willing to compromise
    Seeking goals that satisfy both partners
  • Separate Identities: Having friends outside the relationship
    Exploring your individual identities
  • Good Communication: Being honest with your feelings to yourself and your partner
    Communicating openly and truthfully
  • Forgiveness: Forgiving past mistakes
    Admitting your own mistakes and apologizing
  • Fighting Fair: Being willing to compromise
    Listening to each other
    Not assuming things
    Not criticizing each other

Unhealthy or abusive relationships often use the following to gain power and control:

  • Isolation: Controlling where you go and who you see
    Making you believe they are the only one who cares about you
    Limiting activities outside the relationship
  • Intimidation: Making you afraid to use certain looks, actions or gestures
    Destroying property, abusing pets, displaying weapons
  • Physical and/or Emotional Abuse: Hitting, pushing, slapping or kicking you
    Putting you down
    Playing mind games
    Making you feel guilty
  • Threats: Making threats to hurt you, family, friends, belongings, or pets
    Threatening to leave or commit suicide
  • Forcible Sex: Manipulating or making threats in order to get sex
    Getting you drunk or drugging you to get sex
  • Minimizing and Denying: Being unwilling to take responsibility for the abuse
    Making light of the abuse
    Blaming the abuse on you

Tables adapted from Teen Relationship Equality Wheel and Teen Power and Control Wheel from the Centralized Training Institute, Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, 2009. *Source: Schwartz, Jonathan P., Linda D. Griffin, Melani M. Russell, and Sarannette Frontaura-Duck. (2006). Prevention of Dating Violence on College Campuses: An Innovative Program. Journal of College Counseling (pp. 90-96)

It is extremely important for young adults to be able to recognize warning signs of a problematic relationship, before an abusive situation escalates. The most common indicators of high-risk emotional or physical abuse are below:

Emotional Abuse

  • Tone: Seemingly harmless statements can transform into threats or insults if your partner uses a disparaging or aggressive tone.
  • Language choice: A partner blames you for things or uses coarse language, such as swear words, while speaking to you.
  • Jealousy: Your partner seems suspicious of your interactions with other people. Your partner attempts to control your interactions, isolate you, or monitor your communications with others.
  • Controlling statements: Your partner issues commands or often says you "must" or "have to" do something.
  • Pejorative language: Your partner addresses or describes you with insulting names or adjectives, such as "stupid" or "idiotic".
  • Threats: Your partner attempts to control you with "or else" statements or negative consequences if you don’t comply with their wishes. Your partner might threaten you with physical, emotional, or verbal abuse.

Physical Abuse

  • Violence: Your partner uses unwanted and forceful contact. This can include anything from wrist grabs to strikes against your body.
  • Threatening body language: Your partner uses forceful movements, such as lunging toward you, glaring at your, or aggressively invading your personal space.
  • Damaging property: Your partner has lost their temper and damaged items around the house, such as smashing dishes.

Getting Help for Abusive Relationships


If you’ve identified that your partner exhibits the controlling or aggressive behaviors listed above and you are too afraid to bring these issues up safely within your relationship, it’s time to get help. Victims often realize the dangers of their situation after it’s too late; the dynamic between the abuser and abused is strategically created to discourage the victims to acknowledge or address the problem.

Intimate partner abuse and violence is never okay. It is more common than you may think and it is wholly within your power and your rights to get out safely.

  • Contact a support line: If you’re unsure how to get away from an abusive partner, contact a support hotline for assistance. Love Is Respect and the National Domestic Abuse Hotline both provide 24/7 phone assistance.
  • Try not to blame yourself: Self-blame is extremely common in abusive relationships. It can be easy to feel trapped in your situation. However, your partner’s abusive actions are absolutely not your fault or a sign of weakness on your part. Keep this in mind as you seek help.
  • List safe places: Know where you can go in case you need to get away from an abusive partner. This might include a campus counseling center, a trusted friends’ dorm room, a survivors’ shelter, or a residence hall staff office.
  • Document hostile communications: It can be emotionally painful to save threatening messages that your partner sends. However, voice messages, emails, IMs, and other hostile communications can be immensely useful to demonstrate a history of assault when you speak with counselors or authorities.
  • Get counseling: Virtually all college campuses have on-site counselors who are trained to help with relationship assault and domestic violence. If you can’t find a way to contact a campus counselor directly, ask a residence advisor, professor, or academic advisor to help you explore these resources.
  • Call the police: If you are being threatened with assault, attempt to reach a safe place and call the police immediately.