What Is Domestic Abuse? Exploring The Definition, Causes, and How To Handle It

Updated March 14, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Domestic abuse can happen to anyone—every gender, age, race, faith, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class experiences this issue worldwide. Abusive situations can be traumatic and difficult to overcome. Read on to learn more about domestic abuse, what causes it, and how to handle it for yourself or support someone you love. 

What Is Domestic Abuse?

The United States Department of Justice defines domestic abuse, also called domestic violence, as abusive behavior patterns in relationships where one partner attempts to gain and maintain power and control over the other intimate partner. It can take many forms, from physical violence to economic, psychological, and technological actions, threats, and coercive behavior patterns. Whichever form of abuse it is, you deserve to be free of it, and considering how domestic violence counseling can help you and others is no longer difficult.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), almost 20 people per minute experience physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner in the United States—that’s more than 10 million men and women every year.  

Domestic Abuse Facts

  • According to NCADV, one in three women and one in four men have experienced physical intimate partner violence.

  • Intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crimes.

Shifting The Perspective From Victim To Survivor

Many mental health professionals recommend survivor-affirming language rather than referring to people as victims, though both descriptions are accurate because no one deserves to be abused. It may prove beneficial to see yourself as a survivor of repeated abusive behavior patterns, countless microaggressions, and subtle jabs. It can help reduce the stigma and inspire a perspective focused on growth and perseverance. 

Domestic Violence Vs. Intimate Partner Violence

While the terms are often used interchangeably, domestic abuse or violence (DV) and intimate partner violence (IPV) differ. DV can occur between people in an imbalanced power dynamic while living in the same home. Children and roommates can also experience domestic abuse at the hands of someone who controls their vital necessities—something often used for coercion. IPV happens expressly between two people in an intimate romantic relationship.

Could You Use Extra Support As A Domestic Violence Survivor?

Recognizing Domestic Abuse

Arguing and disagreements are typical in a healthy relationship, but things can easily cross a line into abusive behavior. Experienced abusers have often been through similar situations and may be master manipulators. They may present a different face in public when others can see them while displaying an entirely different personality behind closed doors. Abuse can take many forms that extend far beyond physical violence. 

Types Of Domestic Abuse


  • One partner uses—or attempts to use— physical force or violence against the other. Physical abuse may include hitting, punching, slapping, kicking, pinching, strangling, shoving, hair-pulling, denying medical care, preventing you from leaving, and other controlling, violent behaviors. 


  • One person is forced to engage in a sex act without consent. This type of abuse often includes 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 involving force and manipulation related to sex.


  • The partner in a position of power often undermines the other’s sense of self-worth of self-esteem through systematic abuse, frequently targeting known emotional vulnerabilities to convince the survivor that only the abuser could love them and that the abuse is their fault for a perceived misstep. 


  • This type of abuse involves behavior like constant criticism—often meant to diminish the survivor’s abilities—frequent name-calling, intentional damage of outside relationships, yelling, cursing, and other verbally abusive behaviors. 


  • Financial abuse typically involves restricting financial means to limit freedoms and control behavior. This abuse may include taking credit or bank cards, strictly controlling all finances, or preventing the survivor from earning an independent income, forcing them to rely upon the abuser. 


  • Repeated patterns of behavior utilizing technological means to stalk, harass, control, extort, exploit, impersonate, or monitor the survivor are called technological abuse. This may include phone calls, emails, texts, and any technical device use to manipulate the other person. 


  • Psychological abuse often involves behaviors that intimidate and scare the survivor into a desired reaction. Abusers may threaten harm to themselves, the survivor, or children to get their way and frequently create isolation from friends, family, and others. 

Other Abusive Behavior

  • This list is by no means exhaustive. Domestic abuse and IPV are unique to each situation, even when there are common elements. 

Understanding Power And Control

Rather than the “Cycle of Abuse” model used since the 1970s, the National Domestic Violence Hotline and other supportive organizations are working to reframe how people think about domestic abuse. The preferred frame of reference is the Power and Control Wheel developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth.

Power And Control Wheel 

  • The Power and Control Wheel consists of a diagram shaped like a wagon wheel, with an outer ring and spokes leading to an inner circle of “power and control.” 

  • The outer wheel represents physical and sexual violence, both used to reinforce the more subtle behaviors between the spokes. 

  • Between the inner and outer rings, each spoke represents a category of behaviors: coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, minimizing, denying, blaming, and using children, male privilege, and economic abuse. 

Causes Of Domestic Abuse

Many risk factors may make a person more likely to become an abuser. While they are contributing elements, they are not a direct cause. However, a combination of individual, societal, community, and relational risk factors can increase someone’s likelihood of perpetrating abusive behavior. The Centers for Disease Control published an extensive list of warning signs and contributing variables. 

Can The Relationship Be Saved?

Once one partner exhibits violence or abusive behavior, it is often 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 been added to the equation? The answer depends on the abuser and their reaction to their actions. Domestic abuse is about patterns and repeated behavior. While losing one’s temper and lashing out at a partner is a legitimate cause for concern, it is possible to recover from the tendency and avoid forming or change a pattern. 

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 never be advised to stay where they fear for their safety, abusers can reform with professional intervention. However, this takes time and requires a genuine effort to change on the abuser’s part. Through therapy, abusers often show fewer adverse reactions to conflict and tend to evaluate their emotions rather than blame their partner for stress. The couple may find it easier to navigate conflicts through communication, with the abuser showing a noticeable change in patterns and the survivor feeling safe and respected with an equitable balance of power in the relationship. While therapy can be an excellent tool for working through emotional issues, couples therapy is not recommended in an abusive situation.

“We at The Hotline do not encourage anyone in an abusive relationship to seek counseling with their partner. Abuse is not a relationship problem.” — The National Domestic Violence Hotline

How To Get Help

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7223) or visit the website to learn more about the best methods to get help for domestic abuse. Working with a licensed therapist online may be a valuable coping tool, helping to identify and process emotions as you manage the situation. 

Supporting A Survivor Of Domestic Abuse

  • Listen

Express your concern for their safety and offer them an opportunity to speak, knowing that you believe them. 

  • Offer Support

Ensure the survivor knows they aren’t alone and that no one deserves to be abused. Ask how you can support them and help the way they need you to—not necessarily how you think they need it. 

  • Provide Necessary Resources

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

  • Respect Their Choices

Don’t pressure the survivor into leaving the relationship. It’s never that simple, and there are many reasons a person stays in an abusive situation. This is their choice. Offer your concern, present resources, and respect their decisions. 

How Therapy Can Help Domestic Abuse Survivors

Many survivors of domestic violence successfully overcome the emotional impacts through therapy. Working with a licensed therapist online has been a valuable option for survivors of domestic abuse because they can receive treatment from home, offering many who could not seek help otherwise. Online therapy providers like BetterHelp offer flexible appointment formats, such as phone, video call, or asynchronous online chat. Virtual treatment is also usually significantly cheaper and involves substantially shorter wait times. 

A recent study concluded that online cognitive behavioral therapy was a feasible treatment method for survivors of domestic violence. Researchers found internet-based therapy to be “particularly useful” for survivors of domestic abuse for multiple reasons. 

Could You Use Extra Support As A Domestic Violence Survivor?


Domestic abuse can be a traumatic situation. Many people have difficulty overcoming the impacts of past violence at the hands of a partner and often find that 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. Simply search for "domestic violence counseling near me" to know your nearest options. 

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