Answers to questions like, “What is domestic violence?” can help you to understand what constitutes domestic violence and whether you might be in need of help dealing with domestic violence.
What is domestic violence?
There are multiple answers to what is domestic violence. From the perspective of the law, domestic violence involves a felony or misdemeanor crime in which a current or former spouse or romantic partner commits an act of violence against the victim.
Domestic violence can also occur with a current or former household member or with someone with whom the perpetrator has a child.
While domestic violence laws vary from state to state, they tend to include instances in which a perpetrator intentionally causes bodily injury to the victim, commits sexual assault, or causes a victim to believe they will be seriously harmed.
Some states also include stalking or threatening behavior in their definitions of ‘what is domestic violence.’ Child abuse can also fall under the criminal definitions of domestic violence.
The National Conference of State Legislatures provides information about domestic violence laws in each state.
While criminal definitions of domestic violence tend to include acts like physical abuse, stalking, and threats of harm,domestic violence can extend beyond this.
For example, domestic violence can include emotional and verbal abuse or cases of financial abuse that may not always fall under the criminal definition. These different types of domestic violence will be discussed in further detail below.
6 Types of domestic violence
When we are talking about what domestic violence is, it is important to understand that there are different domestic violence types. These include the following:
1. Physical abuse
Physical abuse is an intentional act of applying external force to cause injury to the victim.
Harming children or pets
Using weapons like knives or guns against you
Driving recklessly while you are in the car
Stopping you from leaving the house
Forcing you to use drugs
Preventing you from eating or sleeping
2. Emotional/Verbal abuse
Emotional abuse usually starts by manipulating the partner and then, moving to blackmailing and putting emotional pressure to give in to the abuser’s demands.
Frequent criticizing and insults
Being jealous or distrusting you
Expecting to know where you are and who you are with or talking to at all times
Embarrassing you in front of other people
The abuser also tries to isolate you from friends and family
Controls how you dress
Physically threatens you
Makes accusations that you are cheating
May cheat on you as a punishment
Damaging your belongings or your home,
Engaging in a behavior called gaslighting, in which the abuser denies having said or done certain things or makes you question your recollection of facts.
3. Sexual abuse
Sexual abuse is an abusive sexual behavior. It means to inflict sexual contact forcibly or without the victim’s will.
Forcing you to dress a certain way
Forcing or manipulating you to have sex
Engaging in behaviors like choking or restraining during sex without your permission
Physically hurting you during sex
Bringing other people into your sex life without your consent
Among the above factors, domestic violence facts show that being a victim of abuse oneself is one of the strongest risk factors for becoming an abusive partner.
Abusive behaviors can therefore be learned based upon a perpetrator’s own history of abuse, or the consequences of being an abuse victim may lead to difficulty controlling one’s own anger and emotions.
Other risk factors suggest that domestic violence may be correlated with mental health problems, poor social skills, or poor self-esteem.
Some perpetrators may have negative attitudes toward women, which can increase the risk ofdomestic violence and lead to perpetrators justifying abusive behavior.
Who gets affected by domestic violence?
The truth is that anyone can be affected by domestic violence, including both men and women.
It can also affect people, regardless of age or income. That being said, there are some groups that are more at risk of domestic violence.
For example, research shows that men make up only 15 percent of domestic violence victims, so women seem to be more likely to be victims. However, men may be less likely to report domestic violence than women, so rates of victimization among men may be higher than reported.
Data suggests that about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men experience physical violence at some point during their lives, while 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will experience sexual violence. Bisexual women may be at increased risk of domestic violence when compared to heterosexual and lesbian women.
What prevents partners from reporting abuse?
Unfortunately, victims of abuse may not report what is happening to them. Some reasons for not reportingdomestic violence to police or seeking some sort of help include:
Children who witness an abusive relationship may also wet the bed, suffer from sleep problems, and have difficulty with cognitive functioning. They are also more likely to experience domestic violencewhen they become adults.
What challenges do male victims of domestic violence face?
While domestic violence is commonly viewed as a situation in which a male abuses a female victim, men can also be victims of domestic violence.
When men are the victims, they can experience unique challenges. For example, they may not be believed if they report domestic violence or seek help.
Since shelters are often designed for women, men may even be denied help from domestic violence shelters.
They may also be seen as somehow pathological if they admit to being victims of domestic violence since male gender norms dictate that men are to be powerful, strong, and dominant.
The cycle of domestic violence
Another aspect of understanding what is domestic violence is knowing about the cycle of domestic violence, which occurs in four steps that repeat throughout the course of an abusive relationship.
The first cycle is the tension-building phase, during which an abusive partner becomes frustrated as the result of a stressor, such as a sickness, problems at work, family issues, or fatigue.
Over time, tension builds, and the abusive partner begins to feel angry, powerless, and perhaps paranoid. The victim can typically sense this tension and will attempt to be supportive of placating the abuser.
Next, the abuser moves into the incident of abuse phase, which may involve emotional attacks, such as name-calling. It can also involve threats of harm or an act of sexual or physical abuse.
Following the abuse, the couple moves into the reconciliation phase. The abuser will feel remorse and may even give gifts, make romantic gestures, or behave in an especially kind fashion in order to compensate for abusive behavior.
Some people refer to this as the “honeymoon stage,” and during this period, the victim will begin to feel a sense of bonding with the partner since the abuse has temporarily stopped.
In the final stage, there is a calm period, during which both partners try to keep the peace. The abusive partner will likely apologize for the abusive behavior but may blame others, minimize the abuse, or justify the behavior because of some outside factor, like stress at work.
Unfortunately, after the calm period, tension will build again, and the cycle of domestic violence repeats itself.
How can violence be prevented and stopped?
Oftentimes, victims will stay in an abusive relationship, hoping that the behavior will stop. Unfortunately, abuse typically becomes a cycle that is hard to break.
A victim may stay in the relationship for fear that she will be harmed if she tries to leave or because the victim is financially dependent upon the abuser. The victim may also stay for the sake of the children or because the victim loves the abuser.
Regardless of the reason for staying, sometimes, the only way to stop domestic violence is to leave the relationship. In some cases, the abuse may stop if the abuser is willing to seek mental health treatment and make lasting changes to their behavior.
While this is possible, the process can be difficult and time-consuming, and the abuser must be committed to making changes.
In terms of prevention, it is important that victims are directed to supportive resources and that mental health care is readily available. If you or someone you know is a victim, know that there are supportive resources available.
People who are prone to violent or aggressive behavior would benefit from mental health services to address underlying issues that increase the risk of domestic violence.
Readily available mental health care is perhaps one of the strongest ways to prevent domestic violence.
Another part of prevention is intervening early. Since children who witness domestic violence are more likely to be involved in this behavior as adults, intervening during childhood is an important preventive measure.
Children who are exposed to violence at home would benefit from supportive services like counseling.
How do medical professionals assess domestic violence?
Domestic abuse victims may require medical care to treat their injuries, or they may come into contact with medical professionals who assess domestic violence during routine visits.
It is best practice for all medical professionals to screen for domestic violenceamong women, and to refer women who are at risk to supportive services.
Healthcare professionals who provide screening may ask women if they are fearful of their partners, if their partners ever hit, kick, or strike them, or if their partners try to control who they see, where they go, and how they dress.
This type of screening is typically performed, even if a woman isn’t seen for a concern related to domestic violence.
Medical professionals may also assess domestic violenceafter a victim presents to a clinic or emergency department for the treatment of the injury. This can involve stabilizing a patient after a serious injury, performing a physical evaluation, and conducting x-rays or lab tests.
If a victim presents with an injury or discloses domestic violence, medical professionals will often gather information about the history of the abuse.
The victim’s safety is most important, and medical professionals will assess whether the patient is in immediate danger. Those who are in danger may be referred to law enforcement or an emergency shelter.
Medical professionals may engage in safety planning with victims who are not in immediate danger and refer them to services, such as mental health care or support groups.
What can I do if I am a victim of domestic violence?
If you are a victim, know that there is a treatment for domestic violence victims. You may consider reaching out to a local mental health center ordomestic violence shelter to participate in counseling or support groups.
Community resources such as mental health providers and shelters may be able to provide you with financial assistance or resources to help you leave your abusive situation if that is what you desire.
They can also help you to develop a plan for staying safe in cases of abuse at home or create a plan for safely leaving the relationship.
Overcoming the psychological effects of domestic violencecan be challenging, as you may be suffering from trauma, anxiety, or depression after being subjected to ongoing abuse.
If this is the case, mental health professionals can help you to heal. It can also be helpful to reach out to supportive friends and family.
If you are in danger, do not hesitate to call 911, go to a neighbor for help, or go to the nearest emergency room. Serious incidents of domestic violence can result in severe or life-threatening injuries that require prompt treatment.
How can you help someone escape an abusive situation?
If a loved one is suffering through an abusive relationship, the chances are that you want to help. You can assist them with escaping the abusive relationship by sitting down and having a talk.
Understand that your loved one may be hesitant to talk or may not be ready to open up about the situation. Remain supportive and nonjudgmental, and let them know you are there to help.
You can offer support by referring your loved one to local resources, such as a domestic violence shelter.
You may also offer to create a plan of safety with them to help them prepare to safely exit the relationship. You can also be available in cases of emergency to call 911 if the victim is in danger.
Where to get help for domestic violence
If you are a victim of domestic violence, you may be able to seek services and support from your local domestic violence shelter. They may provide temporary safe housing, as well as assistance with accessing your own housing separate from the abuser.
Domestic violence shelters and local mental health centers typically also offer support groups for survivors ofdomestic violence.
If you are in immediate danger, you may contact law enforcement or go to the nearest hospital emergency room. Adomestic violence hotline can also link you to resources. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233).
Domestic violenceis a serious problem, and it can create lasting consequences for victims, such as mental health problems, physical health problems, and trauma to the victim’s children.
If you or a loved one has been a victim of domestic violence, know that there are services and supports available to stop domestic violence. It is also important to understand that you may be in an abusive relationship, even if your partner does not hit you or otherwise physically harm you.
Domestic violence can also involve emotional manipulation, stalking, frequent put-downs, or any behavior that aims to control you.
If you have experienced any of these in your relationship, understand that it is not your fault, and you have a right to a healthy relationship that is free from abuse.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.