Domestic abuse between spouses or intimate partners is when one person in a marital or intimate relationship tries to control the other person. The perpetrator uses fear and intimidation and may threaten to use or may actually use physical violence. Domestic abuse that includes physical violence is called domestic violence.
The victim of domestic abuse or domestic violence may be a man or a woman. Domestic abuse occurs in traditional heterosexual marriages, as well as in same-sex partnerships. The abuse may occur during a relationship, while the couple is breaking up, or after the relationship has ended.
Domestic abuse often escalates from threats and verbal abuse to physical violence. Domestic violence may even result in murder.
The key elements of domestic abuse are:
- humiliating the other person
- physical injury
Domestic abuse is not a result of losing control; domestic abuse is intentionally trying to control another person. The abuser is purposefully using verbal, nonverbal, or physical means to gain control over the other person.
In some cultures, control of women by men is accepted as the norm. This definition speaks from the orientation that control of intimate partners is domestic abuse within a culture where such control is not the norm. Today we see many cultures moving from the subordination of women to increased equality of women within relationships.
The types of domestic abuse are:
- physical abuse (domestic violence)
- verbal or nonverbal abuse (psychological abuse, mental abuse, emotional abuse)
- sexual abuse
- stalking or cyber-stalking
- economic abuse or financial abuse
- spiritual abuse
The divisions between these types of domestic abuse are somewhat fluid, but there is a strong differentiation between the various forms of physical abuse and the various types of verbal or nonverbal abuse.
Physical abuse is the use of physical force against another person in a way that ends up injuring the person, or puts the person at risk of being injured. Physical abuse ranges from physical restraint to murder. When someone talks of domestic violence, they are often referring to physical abuse of a spouse or intimate partner.
Physical assault or physical battering is a crime, whether it occurs inside a family or outside the family. The police are empowered to protect you from physical attack.
Physical abuse includes:
- pushing, throwing, kicking
- slapping, grabbing, hitting, punching, beating, tripping, battering, bruising, choking, shaking
- pinching, biting
- holding, restraining, confinement
- breaking bones
- assault with a weapon such as a knife or gun
Mental, psychological, or emotional abuse can be verbal or nonverbal. Verbal or nonverbal abuse of a spouse or intimate partner consists of more subtle actions or behaviors than physical abuse. While physical abuse might seem worse, the scars of verbal and emotional abuse are deep. Studies show that verbal or nonverbal abuse can be much more emotionally damaging than physical abuse.
Verbal or nonverbal abuse of a spouse or intimate partner may include:
- threatening or intimidating to gain compliance
- destruction of the victim’s personal property and possessions, or threats to do so
- violence to an object (such as a wall or piece of furniture) or pet, in the presence of the intended victim, as a way of instilling fear of further violence
- yelling or screaming
- constant harassment
- embarrassing, making fun of, or mocking the victim, either alone within the household, in public, or in front of family or friends
- criticizing or diminishing the victim’s accomplishments or goals
- not trusting the victim’s decision-making
- telling the victim that they are worthless on their own, without the abuser
- excessive possessiveness, isolation from friends and family
- excessive checking-up on the victim to make sure they are at home or where they said they would be
- saying hurtful things while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and using the substance as an excuse to say the hurtful things
- blaming the victim for how the abuser acts or feels
- making the victim remain on the premises after a fight, or leaving them somewhere else after a fight, just to “teach them a lesson”
- making the victim feel that there is no way out of the relationship
Sexual abuse includes:
- sexual assault: forcing someone to participate in unwanted, unsafe, or degrading sexual activity
- sexual harassment: ridiculing another person to try to limit their sexuality or reproductive choices
- sexual exploitation (such as forcing someone to look at pornography, or forcing someone to participate in pornographic film-making)
Sexual abuse often is linked to physical abuse; they may occur together, or the sexual abuse may occur after a bout of physical abuse.
Stalking is harassment of or threatening another person, especially in a way that haunts the person physically or emotionally in a repetitive and devious manner. Stalking of an intimate partner can take place during the relationship, with intense monitoring of the partner’s activities. Or stalking can take place after a partner or spouse has left the relationship. The stalker may be trying to get their partner back, or they may wish to harm their partner as punishment for their departure. Regardless of the fine details, the victim fears for their safety.
Stalking can take place at or near the victim’s home, near or in their workplace, on the way to the store or another destination, or on the Internet (cyber-stalking). Stalking can be on the phone, in person, or online. Stalkers may never show their face, or they may be everywhere, in person.
Stalkers employ a number of threatening tactics:
- repeated phone calls, sometimes with hang-ups
- following, tracking (possibly even with a global positioning device)
- finding the person through public records, online searching, or paid investigators
- watching with hidden cameras
- suddenly showing up where the victim is, at home, school, or work
- sending emails; communicating in chat rooms or with instant messaging (cyberstalking: see below)
- sending unwanted packages, cards, gifts, or letters
- monitoring the victim’s phone calls or computer-use
- contacting the victim’s friends, family, co-workers, or neighbors to find out about the victim
- going through the victim’s garbage
- threatening to hurt the victim or their family, friends, or pets
- damaging the victim’s home, car, or other property
Stalking is unpredictable and should always be considered dangerous. If someone is
- tracking you;
- contacting you when you do not wish to have contact;
- attempting to control you; or
- frightening you
then seek help immediately.
Cyber-stalking is the use of telecommunication technologies such as the Internet or email to stalk another person. Cyber-stalking may be an additional form of stalking, or it may be the only method the abuser employs. Cyber-stalking is deliberate, persistent, and personal.
Spamming with unsolicited email is different from cyber-stalking. Spam does not focus on the individual, as does cyber-stalking. The cyber-stalker methodically finds and contacts the victim. Much like spam of a sexual nature, a cyber-stalker’s message may be disturbing and inappropriate. Also like spam, you cannot stop the contact with a request. In fact, the more you protest or respond, the more rewarded the cyber-stalker feels. The best response to cyber-stalking is not to respond to the contact.
Cyber-stalking falls in a gray area of law enforcement. Enforcement of most state and federal stalking laws requires that the victim be directly threatened with an act of violence. Very few law enforcement agencies can act if the threat is only implied.
Regardless of whether you can get stalking laws enforced against cyber-stalking, you must treat cyber-stalking seriously and protect yourself. Cyber-stalking sometimes advances to real stalking and to physical violence.
Stalking can end in violence whether or not the stalker threatens violence. And stalking can turn into violence even if the stalker has no history of violence.
Women stalkers are just as likely to become violent as are male stalkers.
Those around the stalking victim are also in danger of being hurt. For instance, a parent, spouse, or bodyguard who makes the stalking victim unattainable may be hurt or killed as the stalker pursues the stalking victim.
Economic or financial abuse includes:
- withholding economic resources such as money or credit cards
- stealing from or defrauding a partner of money or assets
- exploiting the intimate partner’s resources for personal gain
- withholding physical resources such as food, clothes, necessary medications, or shelter from a partner
- preventing the spouse or intimate partner from working or choosing an occupation
Spiritual abuse includes:
- using the spouse’s or intimate partner’s religious or spiritual beliefs to manipulate them
- preventing the partner from practicing their religious or spiritual beliefs
- ridiculing the other person’s religious or spiritual beliefs
- forcing the children to be reared in a faith that the partner has not agreed to
Domestic violence often plays out in the workplace. For instance, a husband, wife, girlfriend, or boyfriend might make threatening phone calls to their intimate partner or ex-partner. Or the worker may show injuries from physical abuse at home.
If you witness a cluster of the following warning signs in the workplace, you can reasonably suspect domestic abuse:
- Bruises and other signs of impact on the skin, with the excuse of “accidents”
- Depression, crying
- Frequent and sudden absences
- Frequent lateness
- Frequent, harassing phone calls to the person while they are at work
- Fear of the partner, references to the partner’s anger
- Decreased productivity and attentiveness
- Isolation from friends and family
- Insufficient resources to live (money, credit cards, car)
If you do recognize signs of domestic abuse in a co-worker, talk to your Human Resources department. The Human Resources staff should be able to help the victim without your further involvement.
A strong predictor of domestic violence in adulthood is domestic violence in the household in which the person was reared. For instance, a child’s exposure to their father’s abuse of their mother is the strongest risk factor for transmitting domestic violence from one generation to the next. This cycle of domestic violence is difficult to break because parents have presented violence as the norm.
Individuals living with domestic violence in their households have learned that violence and mistreatment are the way to vent anger. Someone resorts to physical violence because
- they have solved their problems in the past with violence,
- they have effectively exerted control and power over others through violence, and
- no one has stopped them from being violent in the past.
Some immediate causes that can set off a bout of domestic abuse are:
- provocation by the intimate partner
- economic hardship, such as prolonged unemployment
Society contributes to domestic violence by not taking it seriously enough and by treating it as expected, normal, or deserved. Specifically, society perpetuates domestic abuse in the following ways.
- Police may not treat domestic abuse as a crime, but, rather, as a “domestic dispute”
- Courts may not award severe consequences, such as imprisonment or economic sanctions
- A community usually doesn’t ostracize domestic abusers
- Clergy or counselors may have the attitude that the relationship needs to be improved and that the relationship can work, given more time and effort
- People may have the attitude that the abuse is the fault of the victim, or that the abuse is a normal part of marriage or domestic partnerships
- Gender-role socialization and stereotypes condone abusive behavior by men
Community solutions may be inadequate, such that victims cannot get the help they need. For example, seeking refuge in a shelter may require a woman to leave her neighborhood, social support system, job, school, and childcare. In addition, teenagers are often not welcome at shelters, particularly teenage males. Teenage girls with children may have difficulty finding shelter because of their own age. And male victims of domestic violence have trouble finding shelters that will take them.
Domestic abuse is more common in low-income populations. Low-income victims may lack mobility and the financial resources to leave an abusive situation.
Domestic abuse knows no age or ethnic boundaries.
Domestic abuse can occur during a relationship or after a relationship has ended.
Most psychological, medical, and legal experts agree that the vast majority of physical abusers are men. However, women can also be the perpetrators of domestic violence.
The majority of stalkers are also men stalking women. But stalkers can also be women stalking men, men stalking men, or women stalking women.
To learn more, go to HelpGuide.Org.