Relationships are important in our lives — they are a way for any two or more people to connect. Intimate relationships are often equated with romantic or sexual relationships, but can be any interpersonal relationship that involves physical and/or emotional intimacy. This can include a romantic partner, friends, family, loved ones, or sexual relationships. Since relationships are important in our lives, it’s helpful to think about the types of relationships we currently have, what we seek, and whether or not they are healthy relationships.
What is a healthy relationship?
Healthy relationships involve respect — the respect of each person's autonomy, body, and ability to make decisions about their own life. Other key components are trust and honesty. Being able to believe what a partner or loved one says and being believed without question is part of trusting people in our life. There should be equality in relationships and a mutual decision-making process — see the Equality Wheel to learn more.
A healthy relationship needs to have open communication, where each person feels safe to share opinions — even if both partners don’t agree, they respect their differences. Having the freedom to say no to intimate contact and sex without repercussions is a healthy part of romantic and sexual relationships.
Setting boundaries in life and in relationships allows each person in a relationship to feel comfortable and to know the expectations of the other person. Boundaries can be rigid, porous, or healthy — to understand them more, see Break the Silence's article on setting boundaries. In a healthy relationship there should be space for "me, you and us," with a balance between time independent from one another (time alone, with friends, and engaging in personal interest) and time together as a couple.
An ability to listen, understand, and support a person in a relationship can lead to feeling peace, joy, and fulfillment.
What is an abusive relationship?
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men 18 years and older in the US have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime. In the 2015 US Transgender Survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly 54% of those identifying in the transgender community reported intimate partner violence and 47% shared they had experienced some form of sexual assault in their life.
Abusive relationships are experienced by people from all backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations, ability, age, socioeconomic levels, and cultures. An abusive relationship isn’t something that anyone sets out to have — it doesn’t usually start off feeling abusive and doesn’t feel abusive 100% of the time. No one abusive relationship is identical to another, though they might share some similar characteristics. Abuse can happen in person and online, through messaging or social media.
Power and control are key factors in abusive relationships, which means that someone in the relationship has power over the other and exerts this power in harmful and abusive ways. This could take the form of one person having social power over their partner and making threats to take away their social connections. In an abusive situation, equality and mutual decision-making are missing from the relationship. The person who is controlling could control the amount of time their partner spends engaging in activities outside the home and/or how often they communicate with friends and family.
Emotional or psychological abuse takes the form of name-calling, insulting, demeaning, isolating, disrespect, dishonesty, manipulation, gaslighting, and threats. Being constantly put down and demeaned can impact someone's self-esteem and make it more difficult for them to leave an abusive situation. Not being allowed to engage with friends or family can inhibit one's ability to process the relationship with others and to safely exit an abusive relationship. It can also include cyber stalking, abuse, and control of social media.
Economic abuse is when one person in the relationship controls the money, access to resources or the ability for someone to earn income. This can include someone controlling the other person's financial aid, personal income, or meal plan. This can also mean one partner making the other partner late for work or school to impact their future earning abilities.
An abusive relationship can also include sexual violence. This can be nonconsensual touching of any body parts, coerced sexual contact, rape, and use of sex for control. For some, this means complying with sex to avoid further abuse or to de-escalate an abusive situation. Controlling someone's birth control and/or condom use can involve sabotaging birth control methods, demanding sex without a condom, or stealthing (secretly and nonconsensually removing a condom during sex). Sexual violence in an intimate relationship can also mean taking consensual or nonconsensual intimate photographs and threatening to share them with loved ones or on social media.
Abusive relationships can also be physically harmful, including threats of violence, stalking, physically harming pets, slapping, pushing, punching, twisting arms/fingers/etc, biting, strangulation, kicking, or using a weapon, just to name a few. A relationship can be abusive even if it does not involve physical violence. Many abusive relationships never have any physical violence.
An abusive relationship doesn’t have to include all of these types of abuse, but has some of these elements. There are other forms of relationship abuse shown in the Power and Control Wheel. Relationships aren’t just healthy or abusive — they exist on a spectrum from healthy to abusive. It can be helpful to understand this spectrum to determine where a relationship falls and what areas of improvement are possible and what cannot be overcome.
How do I end a relationship?
Ending a relationship is difficult whether healthy, unhealthy, or abusive. Many people have ended a relationship and then regretted that decision and re-engaged. This is hard for everyone because there is typically some love and good in that relationship, no matter if it is healthy, unhealthy, or abusive. Each person has to make the decision that is right for them — those who experience abuse must take into consideration many factors: safety, financial constraints, and retaliation, to name a few. If you are considering ending a relationship, it can be helpful to process your decision with friends, family, or a counselor at the Wellness Exchange or Counseling and Wellness Services.
In an abusive relationship, there is often a cycle of violence that can make ending the relationship challenging. This cycle includes the building of tension that leads to an incident of abuse, which could be verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual. After an incident occurs, there is a reconciliation when the person who causes harm apologizes, provides excuses, blames the other person, denies the incident, or minimizes the situation. This stage leads to a relatively calm "forgive and forget" attitude, where no new major incidents of harm occur, called the honeymoon phase. This phase does fade away and returns to a building of tension to the next incident of harm. It is very rare that an incident of abuse is an isolated situation.
How can I support a friend or loved one?
Not everyone will experience relationship abuse, but chances are they might know someone who has been in an abusive relationship at some point in their life. It is helpful to be a person they can trust and listen to without judgment or giving advice. Oftentimes, people who experience an abusive relationship worry about the judgement of others — both due to the stigma of being in an abusive relationship and as a result of the emotional abuse they experience in that relationship. They are judged for everything they do and don’t do.
Encouraging someone to leave an abusive relationship may make sense to the person giving this advice, but there are many reasons why someone stays in an abusive relationship, and leaving safely can take time and planning. The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when the person being harmed leaves or attempts to leave — therefore, advising someone to leave can be complicated. Providing information about their resources and rights, and a safe place to process their situation can be the most supportive thing for someone in an abusive relationship.
The support person is not there to fix the situation but to listen, support, and empower the person in the abusive relationship to decide what is best for them. Engaging in reflective listening and normalization can allow someone to feel connected, supported, and less alone. Reflective listening means saying things like, "It sounds like you are feeling…" or "It seems like you want to…" Repeating back what the person says to ensure you have the correct information helps a person feel heard.
Confidentiality is important in supporting a person who is in an abusive relationship — not only because of trust, but also because sharing information with others can “out” the person in the abusive relationship to their abusive partner. This might compromise their safety and wellbeing in the relationship, especially if they are attempting to leave. This includes not sharing location information on social media. The person who is experiencing abuse should be in control of who is aware of their situation, and a support person should get their consent to share information with anyone.
Have patience. Remember that it's hard to be in an abusive relationship and to know what to do. It can be challenging to be a supportive friend or loved one throughout this process — you need to take care of yourself, as listening to trauma and worrying about a loved one can take a toll both mentally and physically. Contacting the the Wellness Exchange or Counseling and Wellness Services (CWS) to meet with a counselor can be a way to process your role as a support person and to maintain confidentiality.
This is just a brief overview about relationships and includes some examples, but not all. More information is available through the National Domestic Violence Hotline, LoveIsRespect; by connecting the Wellness Exchange or CWS to further explore; or through the various trainings, groups, and workshops available within NYU.
Call the Wellness Exchange Hotline at (212) 443-9999 or chat via the app anytime and ask for a Crisis Response Counselor (CRC). They can talk through your medical, mental health, and legal options and meet with you in person. Available 24 hours a day, every day.
Immediate Safety Concerns
- If you have experienced physical or sexual violence and are in imminent danger, you can call 911 for an emergency response. This is an individual choice — some do not feel that contacting police is the safest option, even in a crisis.
- If you are injured and need immediate medical attention, you can call 911 for medical care or go to your nearest emergency room.
NYC hospitals are only required to contact police for life-threatening stab wounds and burns, as well as any slight gunshot wound. If a child experiences or witnesses relationship violence/abuse, mandated reporters may have to consult with the Administration for Children Services about the child's safety. Otherwise, hospitals are not required to report relationship violence. They can assist you in safety planning and connect you to resources.
- If it is safe to do so, reach out to the the Wellness Exchange. A Crisis Response Counselor can help you understand your options and can safety plan with you. The Wellness Exchange is a confidential resource that can be reached 24/7 at (212) 443-9999 or through the Wellness Exchange app — or at firstname.lastname@example.org for non-emergencies. If you are at an NYU global site, we have established local Wellness Exchange phone numbers you can call.
- NYU Campus Safety can assist with understanding the police reporting options and safety. NYU Campus Safety is a private resource and may share information with a limited number of people in the university who need to know.
- If you are unsure whether your relationship is abusive or are considering ending an abusive relationship and would like to speak with someone, you can contact the Wellness Exchange or make an appointment with a counselor at Counseling and Wellness Services.
Whether or not someone stays in an abusive relationship is an individual decision based on many factors. Leaving an abusive relationship can be a dangerous time; therefore, no one should make that decision for the person experiencing the harm. It can be helpful to develop a safety plan if a situation starts to escalate to violence.
Safety Planning Ideas
- If you have access to a phone, you can call:
- The Wellness Exchange 24/7 hotline at (212) 443-9999 (Wellness Exchange phone numbers for global sites)
- National DV Hotline at (800) 799-7233 / (800) 787-3224 (TTY)
- NYC Safe Horizon Hotline at (800) 621-HOPE (4673)
- Consider where the escalation of violence occurs. The kitchen can sometimes have more "weapons," or the bedroom might contain a gun. Avoid being in these places when an abusive person is becoming threatening or violent.
- If someone is becoming violent, take off any scarf or necklace to avoid being strangled. Protecting the head and neck can be important in avoiding more serious injuries.
- Review phone apps to determine if someone has a tracking device or remote access. The Family Justice Center in New York City can scan phones and other technologyto determine if they have any monitoring technology downloaded on them.
- Identify a supportive friend, family member, or neighbor who can check in with you and stay connected.
- Ask a friend to walk with you to and from class.
- Know where NYU Campus Safety is (561 LaGuardia Place in Manhattan or 6 MetroTech in Brooklyn) and walk to their office if you have safety concerns while on campus. Campus Safety can explore police and Title IX reporting, as well as share information on no contact orders and orders of protection. Note: Campus Safety is a private resource and they will share information with a limited number of people in the university who need to know.
- Consider talking to an RA, RHD, or other residential life staff member to discuss a change of housing or let them know your concerns. As a reminder, all residential life staff are a private resource and they will share information with a limited number of people in the university who need to know.
- Keep important documents or a bag of personal items with friends or a neighbor in case you need to flee quickly.
- Develop a code with a friend or neighbor to relay when help is needed. This might be calling a friend and saying a random word, or having a neighbor listen for a certain knock on the wall (which can be especially important if phones are taken or broken in a violent situation).
- Think of realistic reasons to leave the home at various times of day, in case you need a quick excuse to leave a situation that feels unsafe.
- Those who experience abuse and violence already do many things to remain safe. Consider meeting with a counselor or call the Wellness Exchange to speak with a Crisis Response Counselor, who can help build a safety plan or discuss relationship violence at any stage. Additionally, you can call/chat with the National DV Hotline or Safe Horizon’s Hotline.
Office of Equal Opportunity Title IX
OEO Title IX is available to support and investigate situations of sexual misconduct, relationship violence, and stalking. The Title IX office is a private resource, which means that information related to a report of misconduct will only be shared with a limited number of people who need to know in order to assist the investigation, resolution, and related issues.
Reaching out to Title IX does not necessarily mean that an investigation will happen — they will first provide information about options and resources. They will support the student's decision whether or not to move forward in an investigation or administrative process — though there are certain situations where they may choose to move forward without a complainant's involvement based on the factors of the report. A student has the right to ask questions before sharing their narrative to the Title IX office. Additionally, some situations may meet the definition of an abusive relationship but may not be a violation of the Title IX policy. This can be disappointing to students, but it doesn’t mean that the situation isn’t abusive or harmful to the individual — it means that it hasn’t risen to a level that can be investigated. Title IX can still offer academic and safety support.