What Is Domestic Abuse? Exploring The Definition, Types, And How To Handle It

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

What is domestic abuse?

The United States Department of Justice defines domestic abuse as abusive behavior patterns in relationships. Generally, this occurs when one partner attempts to gain and maintain power and control over the other intimate partner. It can take many forms, ranging from physical violence to economic, psychological and technological actions. It may also involve threats or coercive behavior patterns. 

According to the National Coalition of Domestic Violence(NCADV), almost 20 people per minute experience physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner in the United States—meaning that domestic violence is a concern that affects approximately 10 million men and women (at a minimum) every year. Incidences of non-violent domestic abuse may be higher than this count.

Shifting the perspective: Using survivor-oriented language

Many mental health professionals recommend using survivor-affirming language rather than referring to people as victims in the context of domestic abuse or violence.  This can help reduce the stigma around this concern and may inspire a perspective focused on growth and perseverance. The American Psychological Association has an inclusive language guidelines for further reference, should you ever need to learn to define your experience or support others’ experience in a sensitive, survivor-forward way.

Domestic violence vs. intimate partner violence: What's the difference?

While the terms are often used interchangeably, domestic abuse or violence (otherwise known as DV) and intimate partner violence (IPV) might differ. DV can occur between people in an imbalanced power dynamic while living in the same home—they do not necessarily have to be spouses or engaged in any sort of romantic or social partnership. Children and roommates can also experience domestic abuse at the hands of someone who controls their access to vital necessities—which can be something that is used for coercion. 

In contrast, IPV generally happens expressly between two or more people in an intimate, monogamous or polyamorous relationship.  

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Recognizing domestic abuse: Types of abuse

Arguing and disagreements can be somewhat normal to experience in a healthy relationship. However, understanding the boundary between a disagreement and domestic abuse can be an important thing to know to keep yourself as safe as possible in your romantic experiences. 

Experienced abusers can be manipulative and abrasive in personal, only presenting a different face in public. They may also act abusive in many different ways that extend far beyond physical violence. 

We’ve summarized some of the most common types of domestic abuse for your recognition and reference below: 

Physical 

This type of abuse can occur when a partner uses—or attempts to use— physical force or violence against the other as a form of coercion or control. Physical abuse may include hitting, punching, slapping, kicking, pinching, strangling, shoving, hair-pulling, denying medical care, preventing you from leaving and other controlling or violent behaviors. 

Sexual

This type of abuse can occur when a person is forced to engage in a sex act or suggestive activity of any type without explicit, ongoing consent. This type of abuse might include frequent accusations of infidelity, jealousy of relationships with others, forceful or controlling behavior during sex without permission, ignoring feelings and objections during sex and other behaviors. This type of abuse can occur, even if partners are engaged or married. Generally, societal status does not imply the presence or absence of sexual abuse, as it can happen to anyone at any time. 

Emotional

This type of abuse can occur when a partner in a position of power chooses to undermine the other’s sense of self-worth of self-esteem through systematic emotional abuse. This can vary from person to person but may frequently involve targeting known emotional vulnerabilities to convince the survivor that only the abuser could love them—or that the abuse is their fault for a perceived misstep. 

Verbal

This type of abuse can involve a range of behavior, such as constant criticism or harsh, unattainable standards that can never be met. This may be meant to diminish the survivor’s abilities or confidence in oneself—and may take on the forms of frequent name-calling, creating intentional damage of outside relationships, yelling, cursing and other verbally abusive behaviors. 

Financial

This type of abuse can involve restricting access to financial means for the purpose of limiting freedoms of another partner (or partners). This abuse may include taking credit or bank cards, strictly controlling all finances or preventing the survivor from earning an independent income—generally forcing them to rely upon the abuser to survive. 

Technological

This is considered by many to be a newer type of abuse, but it can be similarly damaging as other types. This type of abuse can occur via repeated patterns of behavior that use technological means to stalk, harass, control, extort, exploit, impersonate or monitor the survivor.  This may also extend to phone calls, emails, texts and any technical device or app that is used to manipulate, harass and abuse the other person or people in a relationship. 

Psychological

  • This form of abuse may involve behaviors that are designed to intimidate and scare the survivor into a desired reaction. Abusers might threaten harm to themselves, the survivor(s) or children to get their way, and may choose to create isolation from friends, family and others in the process. 

Other abusive behavior

We do want to note that this list is by no means exhaustive. Domestic abuse and IPV are generally unique experiences that vary depending on the account, perception and experience of each survivor and situation.

Understanding power and control

Rather than the “Cycle of Abuse” model that has been referenced since the 1970s, many have seen that the National Domestic Violence Hotline and other supportive organizations are working to reframe how people think about domestic abuse. The preferred frame of reference for many at the time of this publication is the Power and Control Wheel that was developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth.

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We’ve summarized this model below: 

  • The Power and Control Wheel generally consists of a diagram shaped like a wagon wheel—including an outer ring and spokes leading to an inner circle of “power and control”.
  • The outer wheel can represent physical and sexual violence, both of which can be used to reinforce the more subtle behaviors between the spokes. 
  • Between the inner and outer rings, each spoke can represent a category of behaviors, which can include: Coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, minimizing, denying, blaming, manipulation and economic abuse—among other behaviors. 

Causes of domestic abuse

Many believe that a combination of individual, societal, community, and relational risk factors can increase someone’s likelihood of perpetrating abusive behavior. However, there is not generally an acceptable excuse for abuse at any given time or with any partner or relationship. 

The Centers for Disease Control published an extensive list of warning signs and contributing variables to be used for reference and identification. If you or someone you love is a survivor of abuse or wants to improve upon patterns in your relationship(s), we recommend connecting with an online therapist. 

Can the relationship be saved if abuse exists?

Once one partner exhibits violence or abusive behavior, it might be the end of a new relationship—but how should someone handle it after years of marriage and children? Can a relationship be saved after abuse has occurred? 

The answer to this varies by case, and generally depends on the abuser and their reaction to their actions. Domestic abuse maintains a general focus on patterns and repeated behavior. While losing one’s temper and lashing out at a partner can be a legitimate cause for concern, it is possible to recover from the tendency —possibly avoiding long-term relationship patterns. This can be especially true for partners who choose to engage in therapeutic support after the event occurs. 

According to the Center for Prevention of Abuse, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) effectively identifies and replaces harmful and damaging behaviors with positive thought and action patterns. 

While one would not generally be advised to stay where they fear for their safety, abusive participants of a relationship can reform and change with professional intervention. However, this can take time and might require a genuine effort and will to change on the abusive person’s part. 

Through therapy, abusive people may show fewer adverse reactions to conflict, possibly evaluating their emotions rather than blaming their partner(s) for stress. After therapeutic support, the couple may find it easier to navigate conflicts through communication—which can result in, the abusive person showing a noticeable change in relationship patterns, and the survivor feeling safe and respected with an equitable balance of power in the relationship. 

How to get help

Supporting a survivor of domestic abuse

There are many different ways one can support a survivor of domestic abuse or intimate partner violence. We’ve summarized supportive strategies below: 

Listen

You may try to find a safe and solo time and place to talk to the survivor,  listening without judgment. You might also express your concern for their safety if they have not sought support yet, possibly offering them an opportunity to speak and validate their experiences. This can be a helpful tool for survivors to gain the confidence over time to seek a healthier and more supportive situation—whatever that looks like for them. 

Offer support

You might consider ensuring that the survivor knows they aren’t alone, reaffirming the fact that no one deserves to be abused. You may also ask how you can support them and help the way they need you to—which may not necessarily be how you think they need it. 

Provide necessary resources

You may choose to help connect the survivor with local community resources. Crisis hotlines and support groups can provide a community of people who might understand and know how to help. Survivors may also need contacts for local DV shelters, mental health services or other forms of assistance. 

Respect their choices

You might also avoid the pressure of encouraging the survivor to leave the relationship. It’s not generally that simple of a choice, and there are many reasons a person might choose to stay in an abusive situation. Instead, you may consider offering your concern, presenting resources, and respecting their decisions. 

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How online therapy can help domestic abuse survivors

Many survivors of domestic violence can successfully overcome the emotional impacts of their experiences through online therapy. Working with a licensed therapist online can be a valuable option for survivors of domestic abuse, because they can receive treatment from the comfort of their home or secondary safe space.

Online therapy providers like BetterHelp can offer flexible appointment formats, possibly allowing you to connect via phone, video call or asynchronous online chat. Virtual treatment might also be cheaper and generally involves substantially shorter wait times. 

A recent study has suggested that online cognitive behavioral therapy can be an effective treatment method for many survivors of domestic violence or abuse. 

Per the study, researchers found internet-based therapy to be “particularly useful” for survivors of domestic abuse—shown by an overwhelming quantitative benefit mark between the treatment and control group. 54% of the treatment participants showed “reliable improvement on a measure of PTSD, and 65% (showed improvement) on a measure of depression...almost 42% of (treatment) participants no longer met criteria for PTSD”. 

Takeaway

Domestic abuse can be traumatic. Many people may have difficulty overcoming the impacts of past violence at the hands of a partner and might find that online therapy can be a helpful resource. The information included in this article may help you understand facets of domestic abuse and how to help yourself or a loved one. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.
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