page-template-default,page,page-id-8538,theme-onyx,mkd-core-2.0.1,mikado-core-2.0.1,woocommerce-no-js,tribe-no-js,fully-background,ehf-template-onyx,ehf-stylesheet-onyx,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,onyx-ver-3.2, vertical_menu_with_scroll,smooth_scroll,onyx_mikado_set_woocommerce_body_class,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-7.7.2,vc_responsive,elementor-default,elementor-kit-8336

What Is Domestic Violence?

A comprehensive guide to helping you understand domestic violence and abuse

By Amanda Kippert | DomesticShelters.org

Domestic violence is not always easy to spot. It doesn’t always come with bruises or a black eye. Victims may not always be in imminent danger, but rather feel controlled or uncomfortable, be forced into doing something they don’t want to or be intimidated by their partner, all signs of abuse.

Domestic Violence is Ongoing and Often Escalating

Domestic violence, also known as domestic abuse or intimate partner violence, is identified by a pattern of continuing abusive behavior toward another person in an effort to gain and maintain power and control. Most often, the perpetrator of domestic violence is a current or former spouse or dating partner, or a person who has cohabitated with the victim, such as a family member or roommate. Sometimes, domestic violence can also be perpetrated by a caretaker, such as someone caring for an elderly relative, or a landlord who has used tactics of power and control over a tenant.

The most definable aspect is that the abusive behavior is a pattern. An individual who gets angry and yells at their partner, but acknowledges their mistake and apologizes once they’ve cooled down, is not necessarily an abuser. But an individual who uses anger to intimidate their partner, and uses this tactic on a regular basis, may be.

Abusers also almost always escalate the abuse over time. This escalation can be gradual or sudden, and can look like an increase in control or isolation, a more violent form of physical abuse, or something else. See “Abuse Almost Always Escalates” for more information. Escalation should raise a serious red flag with victims. Once abuse escalates, it becomes even more difficult to leave safely and the abuser will most likely intensify their tactics further yet.

5 Types of Domestic Violence 

There are at least five different types of domestic violence. A survivor can experience one or more of these during a relationship with an abusive partner. The abuser may start out using emotional abuse tactics, then escalate to physical and sexual abuse, and then control the money in the house as well, also known as financial abuse. Or, an abuser may just stick with one type—perhaps a survivor can’t go anywhere or do anything without fear. That’s coercive control, a type of emotional abuse.

Let’s look at the five different types and what sort of abusive tactics define them.

Psychological/Emotional/Verbal Abuse: demeaning a victim through a pattern of criticism, humiliation, name-calling, blame, gaslighting or threats. It may also be called coercive control and is a type of nonphysical abuse (though it can often escalate into physical abuse). Emotional abuse can include:

  • Shaming, embarrassing or berating a victim behind closed doors or in a public setting
  • Calling a victim names
  • Frequent possessiveness or jealousy
  • Ignoring a victim for prolonged periods of time
  • Controlling or limiting where a victim goes, what they wear, who they see or whether or not they retain employment or attend school
  • Gaslighting a victim—invalidating the victim’s memories of abusive incidents or claiming the victim is blowing them out of proportion
  • Threats to hurt the victim, their family or their pets
  • Frequent infidelity while blaming the victim for it
  • Calling a victim “crazy”
  • Denying a victim sleep
  • Stalking

Physical Abuse: the use of physical force or bodily harm against a victim to intimidate or injure. This can include:

  • Hitting
  • Pushing or Shoving
  • Strangulation (sometimes called “choking”) or Suffocation
  • Using an object or a weapon to injure someone
  • Denying a victim medical treatment
  • Controlling what a victim eats
  • Forcing a victim to use drugs
  • Destroying a victim’s belongings

Sexual Abuse: when an abuser coerces or forces a victim to engage in sexual behavior they didn’t consent to. Sexual abuse often occurs in tandem with physical abuse and can include:

  • Rape, including marital rape
  • Physical violence followed by force sexual acts
  • Violence directed at a victim’s breasts or genitalia
  • Withholding intimacy as a means to control
  • Withholding birth control or condoms
  • Forcing a victim to view pornography or participate in group sex
  • Using sexual insults to demean a victim
  • Incest

Financial Abuse: when the abuser maintains total control over shared finances as a form of controlling a victim, limiting their access to funds, bank accounts, credit cards; forbidding them from holding a job; or intentionally ruining a victim’s credit. It may look like:

  • Denying a victim access to shared bank accounts
  • Strictly controlling how money is spent
  • Giving a victim an “allowance” to live on
  • Mismanaging shared money and lying about it
  • Running up large debts or opening lines of credit without a victim’s permission
  • Forcing a victim to write bad checks or file fraudulent tax returns
  • Sabotaging employment opportunities for victim
  • Forcing a victim to work for a family business without pay
  • Demanding a victim turn over paychecks or public benefit checks
  • Requiring receipts for all purchases a victim makes

Spiritual Abuse: This can have more than one meaning. Within a domestic situation, it can mean an abuser uses a victim’s religious beliefs to control them, or prevents a victim from practicing their religion. Within a religious organization, spiritual abuse is when a religious leader shames or controls members using their position of power. In this guide, we’re going to focus on spiritual abuse within an intimate partner relationship, which would look like:

  • An abuser preventing a victim from praying, attending church, keeping kosher or otherwise practicing their religion
  • An abuser ridiculing their partner’s beliefs
  • An abuser using their partner’s religion to berate them
  • Manipulating a victim using religion (cherry-picking religious verses to fit an abuser’s tactics of control, aka, “The bible says you have to obey your husband.”)
  • An abuser insisting your children be raised in a faith you don’t agree to

Domestic Violence Often Committed as Part of a Cycle

Abusers often, but not always, follow a pattern with victims. Certain tools have been made to illustrate this pattern—one is called the Cycle of Violence or Cycle of Abuse, created in 1979 by psychologist Lenore E. Walker, claims abusers will often cycle through four steps:

  1. Tensions Build: Any typical life stressor can build tensions, from finances to children, but the victim will feel the need to reduce this by becoming compliant and nurturing in order to prevent abuse or, in some cases, may provoke the abuser knowing abuse is inevitable.
  2. Incident: Where the abuser attempts to dominate the victim through outbursts of violence (though this can also include nonphysical incidents like verbal and emotional abuse).
  3. Reconciliation: Sometimes called the “honeymoon stage.” The abuser may shower the victim with affection, apology or gifts, sometimes in an effort to convince the victim to not report abuse, and ultimately, to keep the victim from leaving. This may also include threats of suicide from an abuser if the victim is thinking of leaving or reporting the abuse.
  4. Calm: A period of peace where a survivor may consider things “back to normal.”

Some advocates argue the cycle doesn’t paint an accurate picture of abuse as not all abusers will follow this pattern. However, many survivors have found that the illustration can help them understand how abuse continues.

There is also a second visual aid called the Power and Control Wheel, developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in 1984. The wheel shows that abusers may cycle between any of eight of the most common types of abusive tactics. They include:

  • Using emotional abuse (put-downs, mind games, guilt trips)
  • Using isolation (controlling where a victim goes, limiting their time with friends and family)
  • Using coercion and threats (making threats in order to control a victim, making a victim drop charges)
  • Using economic abuse (preventing a victim from getting a job, concealing shared finances)
  • Using male privilege (being in charge of defining men’s and women’s roles)
  • Using children (making the victim feel guilty about the children, threatening to take them away)
  • Minimizing, denying and blaming (gaslighting tactics that minimize or deny the abuse)

Who Do Abusers Target?

Granted, most domestic violence involves females as victims. Research from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women, and those at greatest risk are between the ages of 18 and 24 years old.

That being said, abusers can perpetrate domestic violence against anyone—young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, educated or not. Any ethnicity, any gender, any location. Abusers may target people who have said they would never let it happen to them. Abusers may find victims who grew up with domestic violence and vowed to never repeat the cycle. No one willingly gets into a relationship with an abuser though, so how do abusers find their victims?

For starters, abusers are cunning individuals. Their abuse is not random, nor is it impulsive. Quite the opposite. As any advocate would attest, abusers know what they’re doing and when and how they’re going to do it. Falling for an abuser is never something a survivor should blame themselves for.

There are certain risk factors, however, that can make someone more susceptible to intimate partner violence. Being young is one risk factor—college-age adults experience the highest rates of domestic violence). And being a victim of domestic violence as a child can also increase your risk of being in a relationship with an abusive partner in adulthood.

Who Are Abusers?

It’s not as easy as one might think to spot an abuser, and just as tricky to pinpoint why someone abuses. Advocates say that abusers, when asked, will speak of a violent home during childhood where abuse was present. Some experts place blame on a culture that supports sexist behaviors and toxic masculinity. While this list of 25 Risk Factors for Domestic Violence outlines some of the influences that may contribute to someone being abusive, the fact is that abuse is not caused by anything other than an abuser choosing to abuse. Plenty of individuals from violent childhood homes choose not to continue the cycle of abuse. Survivors of abuse should always be assured of one essential truth: abuse is never their fault and it’s never the cause of something they did or didn’t do.

Warning Signs of Domestic Violence

Unfortunately, abusers don’t come into our lives waving big red flags. In reality, they can often be some of the most charming, thoughtful and romantic people you’ll ever meet. It’s only once you’re entrenched in the relationship that an abuser will begin to exhibit tactics of control, intimidation and violence. If we can spot an abuser before ever reaching this point, our chances of making it to safety multiply tenfold.

One of the most important pieces of advice we’ve given on our site is to listen to your gut. When those little hairs on the back of our neck stand up, when our stomach clenches, when we have the urge to flee upon meeting someone seemingly harmless, we should listen.

Below, some warning signs that should give us pause when meeting someone new:

  • Extreme jealousy
  • Often has a confrontational attitude
  • Bullies others
  • Feels the world is against them
  • Moves relationship fast—shares deep feelings early on, talks about “being together forever”
  • Sabotages a victim’s relationships with other friends, family members
  • Refuses to compromise
  • Often makes victim feel at fault
  • Denies their behavior
  • Is caught in lies
  • Was abusive in previous relationships
  • Has a history of abuse in family
  • Does not respect boundaries
  • Tells sexist jokes or objectifies women
  • Constantly checks in with victim; needs to know where victim is at all times
  • Is cruel to animals
  • Owns a weapon

It’s Not Always as Easy as Walking Out the Door

Leaving an abuser is notoriously the most dangerous time for a survivor. When an abuser senses they are losing control over their victim, they tend to ramp up the abuse in both severity and frequency. That’s why having a comprehensive safety plan is vital in order to separate from an abuser safely. A trained domestic violence advocate can help a survivor make a safety plan, but we also provide a DIY worksheet on our website.

Only a survivor knows when the safest time to leave is. There are often myriad barriers standing in a survivor’s way. Some examples include:

  • Fear the abuser will retaliate by harming the survivor, her children or pets
  • Lack of financial independence
  • Lack of an advocate to assist the survivor in leaving, finding shelter
  • Dependency on an abuser (e.g., the survivor may be disabled or may depend on the abuser for citizenship)
  • Denial that the abuse is as bad as it is
  • Fear of losing custody of children in the court system
  • Pressure from family to stay
  • Religious beliefs or misguided teachings

It should also be noted that should the abuser have access to a firearm, the survivor’s risk of homicide increases 500 percent. Standard protection orders do not always require the person to relinquish weapons, but a survivor in this scenario may want to ask about an extreme risk protection order, or ERPO. They exist in at least 19 states and require someone at risk of harming themselves or others to give up all firearms, and can be used in conjunction with an order of protection.

Now, It’s Time to Act to Stop Domestic Violence

By taking the time to understand the complex maze of power and intimidation tactics abusers use to control their victims you’re not only more prepared to recognize an abuser, should one cross your path, but also that you’re more prepared to run in the opposite direction from such an individual. You’re also all that more ready to help others—friends, family, coworkers—who may disclose abuse to you or who may be confused, wondering is this really abuse? Consider watching our video, “I Know Someone Who’s Being Abused, Now What?” for more on helping someone in your life escape an abuser.

We’ve prepared a toolkit “What Is Domestic Violence” to help you understand even more what domestic violence is so you can better assess your relationship and understand your situation.

And when you recognize abuse, whether in your own life or in a relationship of someone close to you, there are people ready and willing to help. Give a call to 863.763.0202 to speak to one of our advocates 24/7.


It is easy to ignore this message. Please don’t. We and the thousands of people who use this non-profit website to prevent and escape domestic violence rely on your donations.  Please help keep this valuable resource online.