Domestic violence occurs when one intimate partner uses physical violence, coercion, threats, intimidation, isolation, and/or emotional, sexual or economic abuse to maintain power and control over the other intimate partner. There is no one physical act which characterizes domestic violence; it encompasses a continuum of behaviors ranging from punches and kicks to false imprisonment, sexual abuse, suffocating, or maiming, and homicide. Verbal and emotional abuse, such as continuous degrading, belittling, or fault-finding behavior, may be more subtle than physical harm, but is no less destructive to victims.
The first assault inflicted by an abuser usually shocks the victim. Thereafter, episodes may be frequent or infrequent, prolonged or short, severe or mild. However, violent assaults usually increase in frequency and severity over time. As the abuser's violence progresses, s/he may begin to abuse the children of the couple or direct violence or threats of violence against friends or extended family. Even those abusers who use violence infrequently may regularly remind their battered partners that non-compliance with their demands will precipitate violent assaults.
Non-violent tactics are nearly always coupled with violent conduct in order to control the victim. For example, the abuser may use dominating, intimidating, isolating, rule-making, stalking, tab-keeping, or harassing behaviors to control and manipulate the victim. The abuser may use the children to manipulate the victim, by making the victim feel guilty about the children, by using the children to relay unpleasant messages to the victim, by using custody or visitation disputes to harass the victim, or by threatening to take the children away.
Abusers may also attempt to use the legal system to punish their partners. Extremely litigious behavior sometimes follows attempts by victims to extricate themselves from the abusive relationship. Abusers may use custody and visitation litigation to re-establish control over their victims or to punish them. They may continue to harass victims, knowing that the victim will seek a legal remedy, to create an excuse for further contact. Abusers may bring cross or counter claims against the victim in an attempt to 'cancel out' the victim's claims.
Abusers frequently claim that their victims provoke the violence that they perpetrate. It is important to remember that the only 'provocation' that justifies the use of physical force against another is an initial act of violence that puts the person attacked in reasonable fear of imminent dangerin other words, an action requiring self-defense. 'Nagging,' burning dinner, or failing to keep the children quiet is not provocation. Even adultery is not a justification for domestic violence. The abuser alone is responsible for the violence that s/he perpetrates.
The overwhelming majority of adult victims of domestic violence (about 95%) are women. Although the norm for domestic violence is a male perpetrator and a female victim, people in other relationships may also be victims of abuse. Domestic violence occurs where one person seeks to control the life of another person through violence or threats of violence. Gays and lesbians, as well as disabled persons, the elderly, and dating partners may also be victims of domestic violence. Abuse victims may also be abusers themselves, of their children, for example, but most are not.
Domestic violence occurs regardless of race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, mental or physical ability, or religious background. Abused men and women are like all other men and women. They are not psychologically impaired; neither do they suffer from personality disorders. Their behavior does not distinguish them from other men and women.
Abusers are not easily identifiable. They range across the demographic spectrum. They are not likely to suffer from severe mental disorders. They may even appear to be charming. The only predictor of abuse is that men or women who abuse are more likely to have witnesses domestic abuse between their parents and to have been severely abused themselves during childhood.
Aside from the immediate physical injuries caused by the abuser, abuse victims suffer other injuries as a result of domestic violence. The emotional and psychological injuries may be more difficult to treat than physical injuries. In addition, physical injuries sustained by victims of domestic violence can cause related medical difficulties to them later in life as they grow older.
Another consequence of domestic violence is unemployment and financial insecurity. Victims of domestic violence often lose their jobs because of absenteeism and other reasons directly related to the violence at home. Domestic violence has a significant adverse impact on workplace productivity every year. Domestic violence victims may have to move many more times than the average person in order to avoid continued violence. Moving is costly and can interfere with continuity of employment. Half of America's homeless women and children are homeless because of domestic violence. Many abuse victims forgo financial security during divorce proceedings to avoid further abuse.
Victims of domestic violence also suffer from social isolation. The abuser may isolate the victim from family and friends, and the victim may withdraw from others to avoid the embarrassment caused by the abuse.
Battering often starts or increases in severity during pregnancy. Pregnancy abuse may cause miscarriages, birth defects, or mental retardation.
In over half of domestic violence cases, the man beats the children as well as the mother. Many children are injured by the abuser in attempts to protect their battered parent. If the parents separate, the abuser may begin to direct violence at the children. If the abuser beats his or her partner and children before separation and is denied access to the victim after separation, abuse of the children may escalate thereafter. The abuser may use the children in this way in an attempt to recapture or hurt the victim.
Even if children are not direct victims of domestic violence, they are indirect victims when they witness the abuse of one of their parents. Most domestic violence is witnessed by children. Almost all children living in homes where domestic violence occurs are aware of the physical attacks on their parent. Children who witness a parent being beaten or otherwise abused by the other parent or a parental figure will experience a severe adverse impact on their emotional development. Children who witness this abuse are at an increased risk for emotional and behavioral disturbances such as withdrawal, low self-esteem, nightmares, self-blame, depression, feelings of helplessness, and aggression against peers, family members, and property. They may also suffer from physical problems, such as asthma, recurrent headaches, and stomach aches.
Furthermore, studies indicate that boys who witness the abuse of their mothers are three times more likely to grow up to be abusive than boys who have not witnessed domestic violence. By age five or six, boys begin to lose respect for their abused mothers and begin to side with the abuser, sometimes even hitting their mothers. Some data suggest that girls who witness abuse may tolerate abuse as adults more than girls who do not.
Even very young babies are affected by violence in the home, demonstrating increased restlessness and nervousness when awake, also being more likely to cry easily, loudly, and continuously. Toddlers show that they are terrorized by violence in the home by excessive crying, hiding, and showing unusual fear of strangers.
Most people believe that abuse victims will be safe once they separate from the abuser. They also believe that victims are free to leave their abusers at any time. However, leaving the abuser sometimes does not put an end to the violence. Abusers may, in fact, escalate the violence as way of coercing the victim into a reconciliation or as a way of retaliating for the victim's perceived abandonment or rejection of the abuser. Men who believe they are entitled to a relationship with the woman they abuse or that they own their female partners will view the woman's departure as the ultimate betrayal which justifies retaliation.
The fact that leaving can be dangerous does not mean that the victims should stay. Continued cohabitation is highly dangerous because violence usually increases in frequency and severity over time. The abuser may engage in preemptive strikes against the victim, fearing or anticipating separation even before the victim arrives at the decision to leave. Although leaving may pose additional hazards to the victim in the short run, ultimately the victim can best secure his/her safety apart from the abuser.
Leaving the abuser requires strategic planning and legal intervention to avert separation violence and to safeguard victims and their children. Obtaining a protective order is one step in this process.
Domestic violence knows to no socioeconomic, racial, geographic or religious boundaries. It occurs in countries where patriarchy is the norm and women's equality is unrealized. Domestic violence is about power and control. It is most often about men's power and control of women. Victims neither cause nor are they to blame in any way for the violence inflicted upon them. Only when men, both individually and as a class, take responsibility for violence and controlling behavior will domestic violence end. Until then, the primary role of participants in the domestic violence movement is to work with abuse victims to ensure their safety and protection and help them to identify ways to live safely apart from their abusers.