What Is Domestic Abuse? How To Know You’re A Victim Of Abuse?

By: Nicola Kirkpatrick

Updated January 31, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Prudence Hatchett, LPC, NCC, BC-TMH

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence which could potentially be triggering.


It affects almost one-third of the women in the world.

People see it. They hear about it. Unfortunately, only a few of them have developed the guts to fight and advocate against domestic abuse. Up to this, day, there are still a large number of the population who chooses to remain quiet about the situation. Not everyone realizes it yet, but this form of abuse can actually have adverse effects not only on the victims but also to the different people in the society. Some professionals have dedicated their lives to raise awareness as well as fight about this impending issue that concerns both men and women.

Domestic abuse is defined as a behaviour where one person treats another person or people in a violent or abusive manner within a domestic setting. Typically, the people are involved in some form of an intimate relationship; thus, domestic violence is also referred to as 'Intimate Partner Violence'. The intimate relationship can be a marriage or a relationship where the two people are living together. It can happen in gay, lesbian or heterosexual relationships. Abusers and victims can be both men and women. However, the large majority of victims are women. Therefore, this article will focus on women as victims and men as the abusers.

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Over the last few decades, the concept of domestic violence has gained traction. It is beginning to be recognized both as a very serious issue and as a crime throughout the world. However, the laws against domestic abuse vary so vastly from country to country that it is a difficult and challenging task to find the right way of eliminating the issue completely.

For instance, in some places and cultures, like several African or East Indian countries, domestic violence is seen not only as the norm, but as a husband or father's right in order to keep his household under control. In these situations, women have no legal recourse against these crimes or any way of leaving the situation because under the law the men did nothing wrong.


There is no real cause or answer as to why someone chooses to abuse their spouse or children. In the end, it boils down to a desire for power and control by the abuser who wants both at the expense of the victim. Thus, they will do anything necessary to gain and maintain that power.

The one other fundamental commonality between all abusers is that they believe they are in the right and that they are not doing anything wrong. This belief often coupled with other factors such as substance or drug abuse, and mental health issues. Stress can also lead to a situation in which domestic violence becomes acceptable.

Over time, abused women easily get trapped within a Cycle of Abuse, believing the offense against them to be a one-time thing - unlikely to be repeated. When it is repeated, they believe it won't happen again. But according to psychologist Lenore Walker, the abuse will likely be repeated over and over again as abusers tend to follow a specific pattern known as the "Cycle of Abuse."


The timeline (from a few hours or days to months) and frequency (once a year or once a week) of the stages within the cycle can vary and be different in every relationship. But, it always follows a specific pattern beginning with:

Stage 1: Escalation

In this stage, the stress from every day life (i.e. work, kids, money worries etc.) begins to mount and increase in the abuser, building pressure and tension. They start to feel resentful towards the victim and feels that their needs are not being met. At this point, they start looking for any kind of excuse to unleash an angry tirade against the victim. The length of this stage can be as short as few hours or as long as several months.

Stage 2: Violence

Once the tension experienced by the abuser has escalated to a breaking point over a period of time through a series of psychological or verbal abuse, it spills into violent behaviour towards the victim and in some cases their children. This stage can also last for few hours to several weeks or months. This stage includes violent outbursts, fights and physical altercations.

Stage 3: Honeymoon

Once the violence dies down, the abuser enters a remorseful phase. In some cases, the abuser simply ignores what happened. But generally, they exhibit extreme guilt over their actions and promise to never do it again. They might beg for forgiveness. They might shower the victim with love, affection and gifts or use threats of suicide to convince the victim to give the relationship another chance. The victim's feelings of fears may decrease. They may feel confused or guilty about what happened and they believe it will never happen again. After this, a period of relative peace and stability ensue. However, this stage is the calm before the storm. As time goes on, the Honeymoon phase begins to get shorter and shorter until it's completely gone. The victim is then trapped in an abusive relationship where every matter escalates and turns into a violent or abusive interaction with no peaceful period in between.


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There is no one size fits all when it comes to domestic abuse. Contrary to popular belief, domestic violence isn't always about having bruises or scars which are visible to the world, it comes in all shapes and sizes and looks very different victim to victim. The more typical forms of abuse tend to fall under the following broad categories:

  • Physical: The act of inflicting abuse in a physical manner for instance: hitting, punching, kicking, burning, strangling etc. It can also include things like locking the victim out of the house or abandoning them in remote locations with no way back.
  • Psychological: The act of making up stories, feeding the victim lies or twisting the truth in such a way as to make the victim question their own sanity and reality. The abuser will manipulate the situation to make the victim feel guilty and feel like they were the instigator of the problem.
  • Sexual: The act of demanding or coercing sex and sexual acts against someone's wishes through force, violence or intimidation. Sexual abuse (especially marital rape) is one of the most common forms of abuse as the abuser does not feel he / she needs the woman's consent for what they see as their 'right'. Sexual pictures or videos may also be used to manipulate, blackmail and control the victim.
  • Verbal Abuse: Being insulting or hurtful through words, being disrespectful and humiliating the victim in public.
  • Economical: This type of abuse aims to limit and curb the victim's freedom through economic means. This is achieved by keeping the victim under a strict budget where every penny has to be accounted for. This type can be illustrated by taking away credit cards, limiting access to money in the bank, or by preventing the woman from working. By cutting the victim off financially, the abuser is exerting control over the victim's life and limiting their chances of escaping or becoming independent.
  • Emotional: Using lies and emotions to manipulate the victim - making them to feel guilty and to take the blame for the abuser's behaviour.

Other specific types of abuse can take place in the form of:

  • Genital Mutilation: Described as forceful female circumcision in young girls. This is done and condoned in some cultures in order to maintain a girl's purity and chastity.
  • Honour Killings and Abuse: Domestic violence can sometimes escalate into an honour killing, done to maintain or restore the 'honour' or 'prestige' of a household. Usually, the killings are done by a father when they feel their daughter has brought shame to their name or by a husband if their wife cheated or tries to leave the abusive situation.
  • Dating Abuse: Mainly affects young girls involved in relationships. Statistically, 1 in 5 teenage girls will face assault or abuse at the hands of their boyfriend. According to recent surveys conducted by the 'End Violence Against Women Campaign,' approximately 40% of young girls are currently living through an abusive relationship.

As a society, we tend to look at physical abuse as the most damaging type of abuse. However, any and all forms of abuse, such as the ones listed above, can be equally harmful and can lead to deep psychological and mental issues such as depression and PTSD.


Fights, conflicts and disagreements are a normal part of a healthy, respectful relationship. It can therefore be difficult to understand at what point normalcy ends and abuse begins. Abusers are master manipulators. Outwardly, they can be exceedingly charming and 'normal.' The victim often becomes trapped in an abusive relationship without even realizing it. But, families and loved ones can sometimes recognize the signs. If you believe that you or someone you know is being abused, these are some signs to watch out for:

  • Jealous, controlling or possessive behaviour - For instance, the abuser continuously checks up on the victim, asks where they are, who they are with etc. The abuser gets angry if they are not readily available or if they're spending time with other friends.
  • Isolation - The abuser systematically strips away everything and everyone in the victim's life and completely isolates them so they have nobody else to depend on, except for the abuser. For instance, he might refuse to let the victim work, visit with friends and family, or take part in social activities. Isolation is another way of exerting total control.
  • Critical behaviour - The abuser verbally puts down or insults the victim. They are critical of the victim's clothing, appearance, and choices in order to degrade the victim and leave them feeling worthless.
  • Invades privacy by checking phone calls, emails, listens to voicemails, reads and goes through personal things etc.
  • Blaming the victim - The abuser finds a way of blaming the victim for their actions by saying things like, "If you listened to me, I wouldn't have to hit you."
  • Threats - The abuser exerts control by using threats and emotional manipulation; for instance saying things like: if you leave me, I will kill myself.
  • Guilt - The abusers use guilt to get their way or explain their actions.
  • The abuser forces sex or sexual acts.
  • Violence - The abuser gets violent and destructive when angry or when under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

While many of the signs listed above are psychological and can't always be seen, the following physical signs may be exhibited by a victim of abuse:

  • Change in appearance - for instance, their hair, clothing or make-up;
  • Being secretive and fearful;
  • Change in personality - for instance a previously cheerful person may suddenly become tearful, morose or be nervous and scared;
  • Displaying a sudden lack of confidence or lack of interest in daily activities, friends, school or work;
  • Avoiding friends and family;
  • Cancelling on plans, choosing to always hang out with their significant other instead;
  • Bruises or scratches;
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol;
  • Anxious;
  • Depressed.

Source: pexels.com

Most abusers will exhibit some of the traits mentioned above early into a relationship. Sometimes, women tend to write them off as quirky character traits or a form of love; but in fact, these should be viewed as early warning signs of possible domestic abuse. It is not uncommon for victims of abuse to be in denial about their situation. In such cases, family members should strive to bring awareness to the situation and help in whatever way they can.


According to the United Nations Women Organization (UN Women), domestic violence is a growing concern globally and has been for decades of years. In order to take action against domestic abuse in 1993, the United Nations General Assembly published a 'Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.' However, more than two decades later, the problem of domestic abuse continues to grow. This is despite the laws being passed on sexual harassment, domestic abuse and marital rape in over 120 countries.

Some additional, shocking facts:

  • 35% women globally are victims of some form of domestic abuse (that's approximately 1 in 3 women);
  • According to 2012 statistics, half of all women murder victims globally were previously victims of domestic violence and were killed by their spouse or significant other;
  • Less than 40% of domestic violence victims come forward to report a crime or to get help;
  • Every year, over 3 million children (in the United States alone) bear witness and are impacted by abusive relationships. Many of these children grow up to develop psychological or behavioural problems, substance abuse and go on to become abusers and victims themselves.
  • Laws in 37 countries protect a rapist from prosecution if he's married to the victim or if he decides to marry her after committing the crime.

In short, women are not receiving the justice they deserve. This is one of the biggest reasons why people need to be more vocal about domestic abuse. When domestic violence goes unreported or unpunished, it creates a multigenerational cycle of abuse in which the perpetrators believe their actions are justified and where the victims feel they deserve to be mistreated. In this manner, abuse and violence became a normal way of life for the abuser and their victims.

Often when the violence escalates, domestic abuse can lead to domestic murder. Armed with facts such as these, why do women stay in abusive relationships or refuse to speak up? More often than not, they are scared of the repercussions, or have been led to believe they will also be punished by law, and sometimes because they don't believe they are victims.


Are you unsure of whether you might need help? Are you wondering if a few bad fights with your spouse equals domestic abuse?

Emotional distress and living with abuse can make it hard to identify whether you're a victim or not. But if you're thinking about it, chances are you probably are or have been the victim of some form of abuse.

If you have experienced two or more of the signs listed above, and if you are questioning yourself, it might be time to get some help or have a conversation with someone. Many self-screening tools and assessments are available online to help you understand whether you may be a victim of domestic abuse. It's important to note, these tools are not a professional diagnosis, rather it's a guide to help you get in touch with the appropriate professionals.


Not surprisingly, it can be very difficult for victims of domestic violence to come forward for a myriad of reasons; ranging from fear of social disgrace, fear of losing the bread winner (if the husband goes to jail or walks out on the family), a desire to shield or protect the children and other family from the situation, being so isolated socially and financially they have nobody to help them or simply being too frightened to report the crime. Additionally, many victims tend to blame themselves. They feel they were somehow found lacking to warrant such behaviour.

Whatever the reasons, it's never acceptable to stay in a violent, abusive relationship. It cannot be stressed enough that the blame for domestic violence lies at the feet of the abuser. Statistics show, that over time, the violent cycle typically becomes more frequent and increases in severity (often leading to death or severe physical, psychological trauma). Abuse rarely stops or goes away. Allowing it to continue keeps the cycle of violence going. Therefore, if you find yourself in an abusive situation it's important to get help for yourself and for your children (if any) as soon as you can.

Source: pexels.com

Help is readily available for victims of domestic abuse in several different ways. Twenty-four crisis hotlines should be available in your local area. Anonymity and confidentiality will be maintained during these calls, if you so wish. Crisis hotlines are a good starting point if you're looking to get some help, receive support or simply speak to someone about what you're going through. Other places where help can be sought are, hospitals, at to your local police station, a woman's shelter, a community organization, a church, even your family doctor or another health care professional. It can even be your hairdresser, your neighbour or the childcare provider of your children. The important thing is to speak to someone so they can help you get the support you need. If you find yourself in a violent situation, need immediate help or feel that you're life may be in danger, call 911 immediately and leave the situation if possible. If you need immediate refuge, women's shelters are open twenty-four hours; they are safe, secure and free. Most shelters will allow you and your children to stay for weeks and months or as long as you need to get out of the abusive situation.


Each year on November 25th, using a white ribbon as the symbol of their cause, people around the world march and put together events to bring awareness to this issue. This date was selected by the UN General Assembly as the official Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The hopeful initiatives are to educate society, to promote equality and to show that violence against women is not normal. It's not masculine, it is not okay.

The first step towards eliminating violence against women or domestic abuse is awareness. We have to know what's happening in order to put a stop to it. We have to remove the stigma and the judgement associated with victims of domestic abuse. We have to believe their stories and we have to encourage both men and women to come forward and report the crime. Russell Wilson, NFL Seattle Seahawks quarterback put it best when he said, "The more we choose not to talk about domestic violence, the more we shy away from the issue, the more we lose."

No matter how difficult it is, women need to speak up, to communicate, to share their stories. More men like Russell Wilson need to take up the cause and fight to eliminate domestic violence through education and understanding.

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