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
- 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