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

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised that the article below might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence, which could 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 many of the population who choose to remain quiet about the situation. Domestic abuse can have adverse effects on those who have experienced it and on society as a whole. Some professionals have dedicated their lives to raising awareness and fighting about this impending issue that concerns both men and women.

Domestic abuse is defined as a behavior where one person treats another person or people in a violent or abusive manner within a domestic setting. Typically, the people are involved in an intimate relationship; thus, domestic violence is also referred to as 'Intimate Partner Violence. An 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 survivors can be both men and women. However, the large majority of people who experience domestic abuse are women.

Coming Forward As A Survivor Of Domestic Violence Is Difficult

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

If you or someone you know is experiencing any type of abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for support and resources.


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 others. Thus, they will do anything necessary to gain and maintain that power.

The other fundamental commonality between abusers is that they believe they are in the right and are not doing anything wrong. This belief is often coupled with other factors such as mental health issues and/or a substance use disorder.

Over time, people can become 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 everyday 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 those around them and feel that their needs are not being met. At this point, they start looking for any kind of excuse to unleash an angry tirade. The length of this stage can be as short as a 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 some time through a series of psychological or verbal abuse, it spills into violent behavior towards their partner and/or children. This stage can also last for a 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 their partner with love, affection, and gifts or use threats of suicide to convince them to give the relationship another chance. The survivor's feelings of fear 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 ensues. 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. It becomes an abusive relationship where every matter escalates and turns into a violent or abusive interaction with no peaceful period in between.

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is free, confidential, and available 24/7.


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 visible to the world; it comes in all shapes and sizes. The more typical forms of abuse tend to fall under the following broad categories:

Physical: The act of inflicting abuse physically, for instance: hitting, punching, kicking, burning, strangling, etc. It can also include locking their partner out of the house or abandoning them in remote locations with no way back.

Emotional: Using lies and emotions to manipulate the other person- making them feel guilty and blame the abuser's behavior.

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. The abuser does not feel they need their partner's consent for what they see as their 'right.' Sexual pictures or videos may also be used to manipulate, blackmail and control another person.

Verbal Abuse: Being insulting or hurtful through words, disrespectful, and humiliating another person in public.

Financial: This type of abuse aims to limit and curb someone's freedom through economic means. This can be illustrated by taking away credit cards, limiting access to money in the bank, or preventing one's partner from working. By cutting them off financially, the abuser exerts control over their lives and limits their chances of escaping or becoming independent.

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


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.' Therefore, a person may become 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 behavior - For instance, the abuser continuously checks their partner, asks where they are, who they are with, etc. The abuser gets angry if they are not readily available or spend time with other friends.
  • Isolation - The abuser systematically strips away everything and everyone in their partner'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 them work, visit friends and family, or participate in social activities. Isolation is another way of exerting total control.
  • Critical behavior - The abuser verbally puts down or insults their partner. They are critical of their partner's clothing, appearance, and choices to degrade them and leave them feeling worthless.
  • Invades privacy by checking phone calls, emails listening to voicemails, read and going through personal things, etc.
  • Blaming - The abuser finds a way of blaming their partner 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 indicate that someone is experiencing 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, sad, 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
  • Canceling on plans, choosing to always hang out with their significant other instead
  • Bruises or scratches
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • Anxious
  • Depressed

Most abusers will exhibit some of the traits mentioned above early into a relationship. Sometimes, people 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 survivors 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. 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. Despite the laws being passed on sexual harassment, domestic abuse, and marital rape in over 120 countries.

Some additional, shocking facts:

  • 35% of women globally are survivors of some form of domestic abuse (that's approximately 1 in 3 women);
  • According to 2012 statistics, half of all women who were murdered globally previously experienced domestic violence and were killed by their spouse or significant other;
  • Less than 40% of survivors of domestic violence 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 behavioral problems. They often go on to either become a perpetrator of abuse or experience domestic violence themselves.

In short, survivors 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. The perpetrators believe their actions are justified and where survivors feel they deserve to be mistreated.

Often when the violence escalates, domestic abuse can lead to domestic murder. Armed with facts such as these, why do people 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. In some cases, they aren't sure whether they have truly experienced domestic violence.


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 survivor or not. But if you're thinking about it, chances are you probably are or have experienced some form of abuse.

If you have experienced two or more of the signs listed above and 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 survivor 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 survivors of domestic violence to come forward for a myriad of reasons; ranging from fear of social disgrace, fear of losing the breadwinner (if their partner goes to jail or walks out on the family), a desire to shield or protect the children and another 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 survivors tend to blame themselves. They feel they were somehow found lacking to warrant such behavior.

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 the violent cycle typically becomes more frequent over time 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 your children (if any) as soon as possible.

Coming Forward As A Survivor Of Domestic Violence Is Difficult

Help is readily available for survivors 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, 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 neighbor, or the childcare provider of your children. The important thing is to speak to someone to help you get the support you need. If you find yourself in a violent situation, need immediate help, or feel that your 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; 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 worldwide march and put together events to bring awareness to this issue. The UN General Assembly selected this date as the official Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The hopeful initiatives educate society, promote equality, and show that violence against women is not normal. It's not masculine; it is not okay.

The first step towards eliminating domestic abuse is awareness. We have to know what's happening to put a stop to it. We have to remove the stigma and the judgment associated with survivors of domestic abuse. We have to believe their stories and 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, survivors need to speak up, 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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