What is Domestic Violence?

What is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, and emotional abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence can vary dramatically; however, the one constant component of domestic violence is one partner’s consistent efforts to maintain power and control over the other.

Domestic violence is an epidemic affecting individuals in every community, regardless of age, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality. It is often accompanied by emotionally abusive and controlling behavior that is only a fraction of a systematic pattern of dominance and control. Domestic violence can result in physical injury, psychological trauma, and in severe cases, even death. The devastating physical, emotional, and psychological consequences of domestic violence can cross generations and last a lifetime.

It is not always easy to determine in the early stages of a relationship if one person will become abusive. Domestic violence intensifies over time. Abusers may often seem wonderful and perfect initially, but gradually become more aggressive and controlling as the relationship continues. Abuse may begin with behaviors that may easily be dismissed or downplayed such as name-calling, threats, possessiveness, or distrust. Abusers may apologize profusely for their actions or try to convince the person they are abusing that they do these things out of love or care. However, violence and control always intensifies over time with an abuser, despite the apologies. What may start out as something that was first believed to be harmless (e.g., wanting the victim to spend all their time only with them because they love them so much) escalates into extreme control and abuse (e.g., threatening to kill or hurt the victim or others if they speak to family, friends, etc.). Some examples of abusive tendencies include but are not limited to:1

  • Telling the victim that they can never do anything right
  • Showing jealousy of the victim’s family and friends and time spent away
  • Accusing the victim of cheating
  • Keeping or discouraging the victim from seeing friends or family members
  • Embarrassing or shaming the victim with put-downs
  • Controlling every penny spent in the household
  • Taking the victim’s money or refusing to give them money for expenses
  • Looking at or acting in ways that scare the person they are abusing
  • Controlling who the victim sees, where they go, or what they do
  • Dictating how the victim dresses, wears their hair, etc.
  • Stalking the victim or monitoring their victim’s every move (in person or also via the internet and/or other devices such as GPS tracking or the victim’s phone)
  • Preventing the victim from making their own decisions
  • Telling the victim that they are a bad parent or threatening to hurt, kill, or take away their children
  • Threatening to hurt or kill the victim’s friends, loved ones, or pets
  • Intimidating the victim with guns, knives, or other weapons
  • Pressuring the victim to have sex when they don’t want to or to do things sexually they are not comfortable with
  • Forcing sex with others
  • Refusing to use protection when having sex or sabotaging birth control
  • Pressuring or forcing the victim to use drugs or alcohol
  • Preventing the victim from working or attending school, harassing the victim at either, keeping their victim up all night so they perform badly at their job or in school
  • Destroying the victim’s property

It is important to note that domestic violence does not always manifest as physical abuse. Emotional and psychological abuse can often be just as extreme as physical violence. Lack of physical violence does not mean the abuser is any less dangerous to the victim, nor does it mean the victim is any less trapped by the abuse.

Additionally, domestic violence does not always end when the victim escapes the abuser, tries to terminate the relationship, and/or seeks help. Often, it intensifies because the abuser feels a loss of control over the victim. Abusers frequently continue to stalk, harass, threaten, and try to control the victim after the victim escapes. In fact, the victim is often in the most danger directly following the escape of the relationship or when they seek help: 1/5 of homicide victims with restraining orders are murdered within two days of obtaining the order; 1/3 are murdered within the first month.2

Unfair blame is frequently put upon the victim of abuse because of assumptions that victims choose to stay in abusive relationships (see common myths about victims of domestic violence here). The truth is, bringing an end to abuse is not a matter of the victim choosing to leave; it is a matter of the victim being able to safely escape their abuser, the abuser choosing to stop the abuse, or others (e.g., law enforcement, courts) holding the abuser accountable for the abuse they inflict.

 

Dynamics of Abuse

Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence. There is NO “typical victim.” Victims of domestic violence come from all walks of life, varying age groups, all backgrounds, all communities, all education levels, all economic levels, all cultures, all ethnicities, all religions, all abilities, and all lifestyles.

Victims of domestic violence do not bring violence upon themselves, they do not always lack self-confidence, nor are they just as abusive as the abuser. Violence in relationships occurs when one person feels entitled to power and control over their partner and chooses to use abuse to gain and maintain that control. In relationships where domestic violence exists, violence is not equal, even if the victim fights back or instigates violence in effort diffuse a situation. There is always one person who is the primary, constant source of power, control, and abuse in the relationship.

Every relationship differs, but what is most common within all abusive relationships is the varying tactics used by abusers to gain and maintain power and control over the victim. Nearly 3 in 10 women and 1 in 10 men in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner [or former partner] and reported at least one impact related to experiencing these or other forms of violent behavior in the relationship (i.e., feeling fearful, concern for safety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), need for health care, injury, crisis support, need for housing services, need for victim advocacy services, need for legal services, missed work or school).3

Physical and sexual assaults, or threats to commit them, are the most apparent forms of domestic violence and are usually the actions that make others aware of the problem. However, regular use of other abusive behaviors by the abuser, when reinforced by one or more acts of physical violence, make up a larger scope of abuse. Although physical assaults may occur only occasionally, they instill fear of future violent attacks and allow the abuser to control the victim’s life and circumstances.

The illustrations found here (power and control wheel) and here (post-separation power and control wheel) are particularly helpful tools in understanding the overall pattern of abusive and violent behaviors used by abusers to establish and maintain control over their partners both within and following a relationship. Very often, one or more violent incidents are accompanied by an array of these other types of abuse. They are less easily identified, yet firmly establish a pattern of intimidation and control in the relationship.

As the wheels illustrate, abuse is cyclical. There are periods of time where things may be calmer, but those times are followed by a buildup of tension and abuse, which usually results in the abuser peaking with intensified abuse. The cycle then often starts to repeat, commonly becoming more and more intense as time goes on. Each relationship is different and not every relationship follows the exact pattern. Some abusers may cycle rapidly, others over longer stretches of time. Regardless, abusers purposefully use numerous tactics of abuse to instill fear in the victim and maintain control over them.

Domestic violence affects all aspects of a victim’s life. When abuse victims are able to safely escape and remain free from their abuser, they often survive with long-lasting and sometimes permanent effects to their mental and physical health; relationships with friends, family, and children; their career; and their economic well-being.

Victims of domestic violence experience an array of emotions and feelings from the abuse inflicted upon them by their abuser, both within and following the relationship. They may also resort to extremes in effort to cope with the abuse. Victims of domestic violence may:

  • Want the abuse to end, but not the relationship
  • Feel isolated
  • Feel depressed
  • Feel helpless
  • Be unaware of what services are available to help them
  • Be embarrassed of their situation
  • Fear judgment or stigmatization if they reveal the abuse
  • Deny or minimize the abuse or make excuses for the abuser
  • Still love their abuser
  • Withdraw emotionally
  • Distance themselves from family or friends
  • Be impulsive or aggressive
  • Feel financially dependent on their abuser
  • Feel guilt related to the relationship
  • Feel shame
  • Have anxiety
  • Have suicidal thoughts
  • Abuse alcohol or drugs
  • Be hopeful that their abuser will change and/or stop the abuse
  • Have religious, cultural, or other beliefs that reinforce staying in the relationship
  • Have no support from friends of family
  • Fear cultural, community, or societal backlash that may hinder escape or support
  • Feel like they have nowhere to go or no ability to get away
  • Fear they will not be able to support themselves after they escape the abuser
  • Have children in common with their abuser and fear for their safety if the victim leaves
  • Have pets or other animals they don’t want to leave
  • Be distrustful of local law enforcement, courts, or other systems if the abuse is revealed
  • Have had unsupportive experiences with friends, family, employers, law enforcement, courts, child protective services, etc. and either believe they won’t get help if they leave or fear retribution if they do (e.g., they fear they will lose custody of their children to the abuser)

These are among the many reasons victims of domestic violence either choose to stay in abusive relationship or feel they are unable to leave. For more examples, see “Understanding Why Victims Stay ” below.

Characteristics of an Abuser

Anyone can be an abuser. They come from all groups, all cultures, all religions, all economic levels, and all backgrounds. They can be your neighbor, your pastor, your friend, your child’s teacher, a relative, a coworker—anyone. It is important to note that the majority of abusers are only violent with their current or past intimate partners. One study found that 90% of abusers do not have criminal records and that abusers are generally law-abiding outside the home.4

There is no one, typical, detectable personality of an abuser. However, they do often display common characteristics.

  • An abuser often denies the existence or minimizes the seriousness of the violence and its effect on the victim and other family members.
  • An abuser objectifies the victim and often sees them as their property or sexual objects.
  • An abuser has low self-esteem and feels powerless and ineffective in the world. He or she may appear successful, but internally, they feel inadequate.
  • An abuser externalizes the causes of their behavior. They blame their violence on circumstances such as stress, their partner’s behavior, a “bad day,” on alcohol, drugs, or other factors.
  • An abuser may be pleasant and charming between periods of violence and is often seen as a “nice person” to others outside the relationship.

Red flags and warning signs of an abuser include but are not limited to:

  • Extreme jealousy
  • Possessiveness
  • Unpredictability
  • A bad temper
  • Cruelty to animals
  • Verbal abuse
  • Extremely controlling behavior
  • Antiquated beliefs about roles of women and men in relationships
  • Forced sex or disregard of their partner’s unwillingness to have sex
  • Sabotage of birth control methods or refusal to honor agreed upon methods
  • Blaming the victim for anything bad that happens
  • Sabotage or obstruction of the victim’s ability to work or attend school
  • Their control of all finances
  • Abuse of other family members, children, or pets
  • Accusations of the victim flirting with others or having an affair
  • Control of what the victim wears and how they act
  • Demeaning the victim either privately or publicly
  • Embarrassment or humiliation of the victim in front of others
  • Harassment of the victim at work

Understanding Why Victims Stay

When it is a viable option, it is best for victims to do what they can to escape their abusers. However, this is not the case in all situations. Abusers repeatedly go to extremes to prevent the victim from leaving. In fact, leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence. One study found in interviews with men who have killed their wives that either threats of separation by their partner or actual separations were most often the precipitating events that lead to the murder.5

A victim’s reasons for staying with their abusers are extremely complex and, in most cases, are based on the reality that their abuser will follow through with the threats they have used to keep them trapped: the abuser will hurt or kill them, they will hurt or kill the kids, they will win custody of the children, they will harm or kill pets or others, they will ruin their victim financially—the list goes on. The victim in violent relationships knows their abuser best and fully knows the extent to which they will go to make sure they have and can maintain control over the victim. The victim literally may not be able to safely escape or protect those they love. A recent study of intimate partner homicides found that 20% of homicide victims were not the domestic violence victims themselves, but family members, friends, neighbors, persons who intervened, law enforcement responders, or bystanders.6

Additional barriers to escaping a violent relationship include but are not limited to:

  • The fear that the abuser’s actions will become more violent, and may become lethal if the victim attempts to leave
  • Unsupportive friends and family
  • Knowledge of the difficulties of single parenting and reduced financial circumstances
  • The victim feeling that the relationship is a mix of good times, love, and hope along with the manipulation, intimidation and fear
  • The victim’s lack of knowledge of or access to safety and support
  • Fear of losing custody of any children if they leave or divorce their abuser or fear that the abuser will hurt, or even kill, their children
  • Lack of the means to support themselves and/or their children financially or lack of access to cash, bank accounts, or assets
  • Lack of having somewhere to go (i.e., no friends or family to help, no money for hotel, shelter programs are full or limited by length of stay)
  • Fear that homelessness may be their only option if they leave
  • Religious or cultural beliefs and practices may not support divorce or may dictate outdated gender roles and keep the victim trapped in the relationship
  • Belief that two parent households are better for children, despite abuse

Societal Barriers to Escaping a Violent Relationship

In addition to individual obstacles victims face when escaping violent relationships, society in general presents barriers. These include:

  • A victim’s fear of being charged with desertion, losing custody of children, or joint assets.
  • Anxiety about a decline in living standards for themselves and their children.
  • Reinforcement of clergy and secular counselors of "saving" a couple’s relationship at all costs, rather than the goal of stopping the violence.
  • Lack of support to victims by police officers and law enforcement who may treat violence as a "domestic dispute," instead of a crime where one person is physically attacking another person. Often, victims of abuse are arrested and charged by law enforcement even if they are only defending themselves against the batterer.
  • Dissuasion by police of the victim filing charges. Some dismiss or downplay the abuse, side with the abuser, or do not take the victim’s account of the abuse seriously.
  • Reluctance by prosecutors to prosecute cases. Some may convince the abuser to plead to a lesser charge, thus further endangering victims. Additionally, judges rarely impose the maximum sentence upon convicted abusers. Probation or a fine is much more common.
  • Despite the issuing of a restraining order, there is little to prevent a released abuser from returning and repeating abuse.
  • Despite greater public awareness and the increased availability of housing for victims fleeing violent partners, there are not enough shelters to keep victims safe.
  • Some religious and cultural practices that stress that divorce is forbidden.
  • The socialization of some made to believe they are responsible for making their relationship work. Failure to maintain the relationship equals failure as a person.
  • Isolation from friends and families, either by the jealous and possessive abuser, or because they feel "ashamed" of the abuse and try to hide signs of it from the outside world. The isolation contributes to a sense that there is nowhere to turn.
  • The rationalization of the victim that their abuser's behavior is caused by stress, alcohol, problems at work, unemployment, or other factors.
  • Societal factors that teach women to believe their identities and feelings of self-worth are contingent upon getting and keeping a man.
  • Inconsistency of abuse. During non-violent phases, the abuser may fulfill the victim's dream of romantic love. The victim may also rationalize that the abuser is basically good until something bad happens and they have to "let off steam."

Signs of an Abusive Partner

The following signs often occur before manifestation of full abuse and may serve as clues to one person in a relationship becoming abusive of the other. Think about the following questions and apply them to your partner. If you can identify with one or more of these scenarios or answer “yes” to any of the questions below, you may be with an abusive partner.

  1. Did your partner grow up in a violent family? People who grow up in families where they have been abused as children, or where one parent beats the other, have grown up learning that violence is normal behavior.
  2. Does your partner tend to use force or violence to "solve" their problems?
  3. Does your partner have a quick temper? Do they over-react to little problems and frustration? Are they cruel to animals? Do they punch walls or throw things when they are upset? Any of these behaviors may be a sign of a person who will work out bad feelings with violence.
  4. Do they abuse alcohol or other drugs? Substance abuse does not cause domestic violence, but it can make it worse. There is a strong link between violence and problems with drugs and alcohol. Be alert to his possible drinking/drug problems, particularly if your partner refuses to admit that they have a problem, or refuses to get help. Do not think that you can change them.
  5. Do they have strong traditional ideas about “roles” in relationships? For example, do they think all women should stay at home, take care of their husbands, and follow their wishes and orders?
  6. Are they jealous of your other relationships—anyone you may know? Do they keep tabs on you? Do they want to know where you are at all times? Do they want you with them all of the time?
  7. Do they have access to guns knives or other lethal weapons? Do they talk of using them against people, or threaten to use them to get even?
  8. Do they expect you to follow their orders or advice? Do they become angry if you do not fulfill their wishes or if you cannot anticipate what they want?
  9. Do they go through extreme highs and lows almost as though they are two different people? Are they extremely kind one time, and extremely cruel another?
  10. When your partner gets angry, do you fear them? Do you find that not making them angry has become a major part of your life? Do you do what they want you to do, rather than what you want to do?
  11. Do they treat you roughly? Do they physically force you to do what you do not want to do?
  12. Do they threaten or abuse your pets? There is a strong link between the abuse of animals and perpetrators of domestic violence. In a recent study of victims of domestic violence, 71% reported that their partners killed, harmed, or threatened animals as a means of demonstrating their authority over the victim.

Threats and physical abuse are prevalent in relationship violence, often occurring in an escalating cycle.

Do You Think You Are Being Abused ?

Look over the following questions. Think about how you are being treated and how you treat your partner. Remember, when one person scares, hurts, or continually puts down the other person, it is abuse.

Does your partner…

  • Embarrass or make fun of you in front of your friends or family? Put down your accomplishments or goals?
  • Make you feel like you are unable to make decisions? Use intimidation or threats to gain compliance?
  • Tell you that you are nothing without them?
  • Treat you roughly-grab, push, pinch, shove or hit you? Threaten or abuse your pets?
  • Call you several times a night or show up to make sure you are where you said you would be?
  • Use drugs or alcohol as an excuse for saying hurtful things or abusing you?
  • Blame you for how they feel or act?
  • €
  • Pressure you sexually for things you aren't ready for?
  • Make you feel like there "is no way out'' of the relationship?
  • Prevent you from doing things you want-like spending time with your friends or family?
  • Try to keep you from leaving after a fight, or leave you somewhere after a fight to "teach you a lesson?"

Do You...

  • Sometimes feel scared of how your partner will act?
  • Constantly make excuses to other people for your partner's behavior?
  • Believe that you can help your partner change if only you changed something about yourself?
  • Try not to do anything that would cause conflict or make your partner angry?
  • Feel like no matter what you do, your partner is never happy with you?
  • Always do what your partner wants you to do instead of what you want?
  • Stay with your partner because you are afraid of what your partner would do if you broke up?

If any of these situations are happening in your relationship, talk to someone you trust or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (available 24/7/365): 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).

Without help, the abuse will continue.