What is Abuse?

Before we can talk about abuse in polyamory, we need to talk about what abuse is. Before starting this post, I did some googling on what is abuse, and the definition of abuse. Many of the definitions didn’t really apply to abuse within relationships. For instance, the Oxford Dictionary online defines abuse as:

1 Use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse: the judge abused his power by imposing the fines

1.1 Make excessive and habitual use of (alcohol or drugs, especially illegal ones): at various times in her life she abused both alcohol and drugs

2 Treat with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly: riders who abuse their horses should be prosecuted

Only the last definition would apply to this discussion, and it is both too narrow and too vague.

I did find several definitions for abuse which do fit the idea of abuse within relationships. Not surprisingly, most of these are focused on abuse-as-domestic violence.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline:

Domestic violence doesn’t look the same in every relationship because every relationship is different. But one thing most abusive relationships have in common is that the abusive partner does many different kinds of things to have more power and control over their partners.

Segen’s Medical Dictionary:

The violation of one’s human and civil rights, or action or deliberate inaction that results in neglect and/or physical, sexual, emotional or financial harm. Abuse can be perpetrated by one or more people (either known or not known to the victim) or can take the form of institutional abuse within an organisation; it can be a single or a repeated act.


Abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional or verbal; it is intimidation or manipulation of another person or an intrusion into another’s psyche; the purpose is to control another person. It is generally a long term pattern of behavior although specific short term interactions can be labelled abusive.


Domestic violence is about one person in a relationship using a pattern of behaviors to control the other person. It can happen to people who are married or not married; heterosexual, gay, or lesbian; living together, separated, or dating.

A common thread running through most of these definitions is the intent to control. Segen’s doesn’t mention control or power over someone, but trying to control someone*—taking away their right to self determination—definitely comes under the heading of “violating human or civil rights.”

So for our purposes here, we will be defining abuse as:

“Actions or behaviors intended to control or gain power over another, especially within a close or intimate relationship.”

Abuse can occur within any kind of romantic or sexual relationship, within familial relationships and even within friendship. This blog series will be focusing on abuse in polyamorous relationships.

*I do want to make a distinction between abuse and consensual kink. In consensual kink a dominant does not try to control or try to get power over their submissive. Rather, the submissive chooses to give control to the dominant.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series. It is related to Polyamory and Mental Illness.

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron.