Healthy Relationships and Recognizing Abuse

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Healthy relationships can be formed between you and your friend, you and your family members, or you and your romantic partner. A healthy relationship embraces love, trust, respect and mutual care for the people involved.

When individuals are in a healthy relationship, they feel free to be themselves and express their thoughts and opinions without fear of retaliation from their loved one. In a healthy relationship, you will feel better about yourself and you will feel safe.

Content warning: This page contains information about relationship violence.

Confidential RSVP counselors available 24/7
Email or call 314-935-3445 (Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.)

24/7 emergency via Provident WashU at 314-935-6666, WUPD at 314-935-5555, or SARAH peer counseling during the academic year at 314-935-8080.

Things to keep in mind when forming a relationship

  • Healthy relationships are built on honesty, respect, trust and communication. Evaluate your relationship based on these building blocks.
  • Healthy relationships take time and effort to achieve. Both partners should work together to create a healthy relationship. Each person has to be willing to be open, grow and change.
  • You are worthy of a healthy relationship that includes honesty, respect, trust and communication. You should not settle for a relationship that does not include these ingredients.

Recipe for a healthy relationship

  • Respect: A healthy relationship embraces mutual respect and the desire to learn about the other person and their values. Respect means listening to the other person and trying to understand the other’s point of view. No one should make decisions for the other person.
  • Honesty: In healthy relationships, partners are comfortable admitting their mistakes and can expect forgiveness.
  • Trust: When you trust, you can count on each other and be assured that the other person will be there for you. Trust is the best cure for jealousy.
  • Communication: A strong relationship involves listening to others and really “hearing” them. Partners communicate thoughts, feelings, wishes, requests and needs. Good communication is the key to avoid misunderstandings.

Understanding abusive relationships

Abuse is any behavior that is designed to control and subjugate another human being through the use of fear, humiliation, and verbal or physical assaults. While not physical in nature, emotional abuse includes a wide variety of destructive behaviors, such as constant criticism, financial deprivation, verbal threats, intimidation, manipulation and refusal to ever be pleased. Emotional abuse wears away at the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept. It creates scars that may be far deeper and more lasting than physical ones.

No one intends to be in an abusive relationship, but individuals who were verbally abused by a parent or other significant person often find themselves in similar situations as an adult. If a parent tended to define your experiences and emotions, and judge your behaviors, you may not have learned how to set your own standards, develop your own viewpoints and validate your own feeling and perceptions. Consequently, the controlling and defining stance taken by an emotional abuser may feel familiar or even comfortable to you, although it is destructive. Recipients of abuse often struggle with feelings of powerlessness, hurt, fear and anger. Ironically abusers tend to struggle with these same feelings. Abusers are also likely to have been raised in emotionally abusive environments and they learn to be abusive as a way to cope with their own feelings.

Types of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can take many forms. These are the general patterns:


  • Direct aggressive forms of abuse include name-calling, accusing, blaming, threatening, and ordering. The one-up position the abuser assumes by attempting to judge or invalidate the recipient undermines the equality and autonomy that are essential to healthy adult relationships.
  • Indirect aggressive abuse may even be disguised as “helping.” Criticizing, advising, offering solutions, analyzing, proving, and questioning another person may be used to attempt to belittle, control or demean rather than help.


  • Invalidating occurs when the abuser refuses or fails to acknowledge reality. For example, if the recipient confronts the abuser about an incident of name calling, the abuser may insist, “I never said that,” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” etc.
  • Withholding or “silent treatment” includes refusing to listen, refusing to communicate and emotionally withdrawing as punishment.
  • Countering occurs when the abuser views the recipient as an extension of himself or herself and denies any viewpoints or feelings which differ from his or her own.


  • When minimizing, the abuser may not deny that a particular event occurred, but they question the recipient’s emotional experience or reaction to an event, suggesting the recipient’s emotions and perceptions are faulty and not be trusted.
  • Trivializing occurs when the abuser suggests that what the recipient has done or communicated is inconsequential or unimportant.

How can you take care of yourself?

  • Don’t blame yourself and don’t excuse your partner’s behavior.
  • Refuse to be abused. Leave the area if you don’t feel safe.
  • Think about ending the relationship for your own health.
  • Think about your safety and create a plan. In case you need to get to a safe place, always carry enough money when you are out.
  • Call a crisis helpline or women’s shelter for advice.
  • Seek help from friends, family or your health care provider.

How can you help people you know?

  • Gather information about emotional abuse and the resources available. You don’t have to solve the problem, but you can provide support and information.
  • Recognize that emotional abuse has as much, if not more, of an impact on an individual’s overall health and well-being as physical violence.
  • Assure them that you believe them and that you take emotional abuse seriously.
  • Do not blame them or make excuses for their partner.
  • Ask them how you can help.
  • Help them to recognize their strengths and feel better about themselves.
  • Respect their decisions and provide support if they stay. An individual may not want to leave a partner, even if you think that is what is best.

Resources for Relationships

SARAH is a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week peer counseling resource hotling during the academic year at 314-935-8080 that offers counseling, resources, and referrals on rape, sexual assault, abuse, relationships and more. SARAH is completely student-run, anonymous and confidential, and is open to all members of the Washington University community.

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Abusive relationships can happen

Unfortunately, abusive relationships are present on college campuses. If you are worried that you or a friend might be involved in an abusive relationship, please read our information to better understand the situation.

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