A History Of Domestic Violence: Has Anything Changed?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated March 25, 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). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Domestic violence is not a new phenomenon. Violence within families and households, especially toward women and children, has existed since recorded history began. Throughout history, laws have often ignored or even supported this type of violence. 

In some cases in history, violence was seen as a justifiable punishment by an abuser to keep women and children "under control." Understanding the history of these laws and forms of abuse may help you understand how domestic violence has changed throughout the years and how to find support if you have encountered it in the current day.

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What is domestic violence? 

Domestic violence, sometimes called intimate partner violence, "involves the physical, sexual, financial, and emotional abuse of one person by another to intimidate, humiliate, or frighten" and thereby maintain power and control. In contemporary times, many communities have become less tolerant of domestic violence, laws, and attitudes. However, as a society, thousands of years of negative precedence impact how domestic violence is treated today.  

Some cultural and belief systems in contemporary America harbor troubling attitudes about family relations and domestic violence. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that one in three women and one in four men have been survivors of violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.

A history of domestic violence 

There have been various social and cultural changes throughout history. Many of these changes have involved how individuals treat vulnerable members of society in relationships. Below are some ways domestic violence laws and public attitudes have changed throughout the centuries. 

"An eye for an eye…"

The oldest written law regarding violence is the Code of Hammurabi, an assembly of 282 rules that ancient King Hammurabi used to govern Babylon from 1792 to 1750 BCE.

The focus of most of Hammurabi's laws was retribution, phrased in a series of if-then statements—for example, "If someone does this…then that may happen to him." The punishments in Hammurabi's Code were harsh and violent, often out of proportion to the crime. For example, if you came to help a neighbor put out a fire and looked with envy at his property, the property owner had the right to throw you into that fire as a punishment. 

An enslaved person's ear could be cut off for asserting any independence from their abuser, and nearly every misdeed, from making a false accusation to committing a heinous crime, was punishable by death. The well-known expression "an eye for an eye" comes directly from the retributive brutality of this law code—which meant that any injury, such as the loss of an eye, was to be compensated by an equal penalty.

These laws applied only to men, who were considered the only citizens able to partake in law. Life for women and children was worse. Under this code, women and children were regarded as property. They had no rights under the law, and some of the laws in Hammurabi's Code explicitly mandated that men use violence against their wives and children in certain situations. If a woman was caught committing adultery, her husband was allowed to tie her up and drown her. A wife could also legally be drowned if she left her husband without being able to "prove his cruelty" to her. If a son struck his father, his hands could be cut off.

What is known of Hammurabi's Code shows that domestic violence was not only allowedin ancient civilizations but encouraged in the name of patriarchal dominance. This attitude resulted from proprietorial attitudes towards women and children and the acceptance of violence as a way of life and law. In ancient times, there was no concept of healthy relationships or marriage because women were seen as property whose needs did not matter. Therefore, survivors had no services or resources, as women and children were seen as deserving of this cruel punishment. 

The roman empire

The ancient Romans are remembered for the Pax Romana ("Roman Peace"), a period of sustained stability and growth in civilization from approximately 27 BCE to 180 CE. Some historians may glorify this period and ignore the harsh reality of life that many faced. However, the Roman Empire maintained its authority through a regime of violence. 

According to the Roman code of law, a man was "pater familias" (father of the family), the unquestioned head of his household. The power given to Roman men over their wives and children was supreme and absolute. They were allowed to sell their family into slavery, abuse, or kill them. Wives could be beaten or disowned if they offended their husbands in any way. Roman law stated that husbands could kill their wives for adultery and for walking outside with insufficiently modest clothing. Only the male head of the household could decide whether a newborn baby would be raised and cared for as part of the family or abandoned to die.

Although in some ways more civilized than Hammurabi's Code, the laws of the Roman Empire codified the same violent and proprietorial attitudes towards women and children, making domestic violence a straightforward and legal fact of life in this period. 

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The early catholic church

In 313 CE, the Edict of Milan gave Christianity legal status in the Roman Empire, and in 380 CE, it became the official religion of Rome. Rome completely shifted from the full-scale persecution of Christians to becoming the birthplace of Christianity as it is known today.

These changes primarily occurred under the reign of Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity in 312 CE. However, the culture of the early Christians mirrored the violence and intrigue of those around them. Constantine violently persecuted non-believers and heretics and had his wife and son put to death for plotting against him.

The rise of Christianity is often a critical point in history because its dominance in Western cultures codified principles that remain widespread within legal codes today. However, many faith traditions carry these principles. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, so did Biblical principles that bound wives closer to their husbands.

In the 15th century, the Catholic Church established its "Rules of Marriage," which proclaimed a husband was a judge over his wife and recommended abusing her as an accepted form of discipline that would benefit her soul. These beliefs about the spiritual benefits of abuse became an established part of culture and law throughout the Christian world at the time, and the subjugation of women, both within and outside of faith traditions, has persisted for centuries.

To this day, some members and leaders in the Catholic Church use various Bible verses to justify abuse in marriage. Since marriage in the Catholic faith is considered life-long, women are discouraged from divorcing or leaving home, and the concerns for their well-being and those of their children are dismissed. This centuries-old text can provide an abuser with the power to harm women and children by letting them claim that it is their religious freedom. 

The puritans

The Puritans, early colonists who settled in North America in the 17th century, had fled Europe in search of religious freedom. Still, they based much of the colonial legal system upon England's. The Puritans depended on tight social order, rooted in Christian religious beliefs, to keep them safe. For this reason, anyone who disobeyed the strict social rules was subject to brutal punishment, which the Puritans believed was the only way to ensure that God would not forsake them.

Part of this social order was an iron-clad family structure. Based on the social mores of medieval England, women and children were not acknowledged in Puritan legal systems. Only white male property owners were considered to have rights under the law. Under the Puritan legal system, excessive violence was forbidden. However, men could still physically punish their wives and children if the violence did not become so extreme that the neighbors were disturbed.

This provision did not offer much recourse to women in abusive living situations. If a man's abuse attracted the attention of others, he would continue the abuse in a less obvious manner. Wives had no rights under the law to leave home or seek a divorce and had no means to prevent future abuse. The Puritans strictly adhered to their interpretation of Biblical commands about a wife's responsibility to obey and submit to her husband. This aspect of history has not changed in many ways, as many religious women are discouraged from leaving an abuser or saving their life or the lives of their families.

"a relic of barbarism"

In succeeding centuries, family life in the United States rested on an insular unit in which a man exerted complete control over his wife, children, and any enslaved people included in his household. His manner of maintaining authority was considered a secret family matter. Society and the law looked the other way if it included violence.

However, the culture had begun to change. Throughout the 19th century, movements for the abolition of slavery and the expansion of suffrage, or voting rights, took hold and grew in popularity. Milestones like the Seneca Falls Convention for women's rights in 1848 and the Emancipation Proclamation enacted in 1863 indicated that American society had begun to think of women and African-Americans as individuals with rights rather than as the property of white men.

A significant turning point in perceptions towards domestic violence occurred in 1871 when the State of Alabama charged a formerly enslaved man named George Fulgham with the assault of his wife. In a monumental decision, the Court ruled that "a married woman is as much under the defense of the law as any other member of the community" and that the idea that a man had the right to chastise his wife in this way was "a relic of barbarism." 

Although it took time for other states and courts to follow, this case began a nationwide movement against domestic violence. For the first time in American history, the law saw women and children as survivors of crime, not property that needed to be punished and controlled by a man. 

Some progress

The 20th century saw more progress for women. As women gained more rights, society began to reckon with the dangers of domestic violence against women. However, it was not until the 1970s that there was significant progress. During this decade, the United States saw the opening of the first domestic violence shelter in New York City, and more provinces developed laws or fines for domestic violence (though the consequences were often minimal).

The 1990s was a decade that saw more progress. The United Nations considered domestic violence an international human rights issue and adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 1993. The Violence Against Women Act was passed in the United States, acknowledging domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes. In 2022, the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized (after it expired in 2019), which expanded funding, resources, and services to aid survivors of domestic abuse. 

Modern domestic violence laws and protections 

Domestic violence is no longer legal in the United States or many other nations worldwide. Federal passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 provided significant funds for investigating and prosecuting violent crimes against women, stepped up requirements for restitution to survivors, and made civil litigation possible where the criminal justice system fell short.

Although governments no longer encourage men to abuse women to exert authority, troubling attitudes toward domestic violence remain. Violence against women and dependents—whether through physical abuse, emotional manipulation, or other forms of abusive control—is often viewed as a way for men to show their strength.

People living in abusive situations often believe that they have no recourse. They may not have the financial means to leave an abuser, or they may be pressured by society and culture to preserve the family unit at any cost. In preserving the relics of earlier Puritan beliefs, some conservative religious organizations may counsel women in abusive marriages to stay with their partners, even when life is in danger. In addition, some law enforcement officials may decline to intervene in domestic violence situations because they see it as a secret family matter. 

Though much of public opinion is more sympathetic toward survivors, and more services are available to help them, some men may believe that hurting women and children is the only way to feel comfortable in their masculinity. However, note that men can also be survivors of domestic violence, and many people in same-sex relationships experience domestic violence and abuse. Although abuse is most prominently a women's issue, spreading awareness of how it can impact people in all communities can be vital. 

Common myths and misconceptions that perpetuate domestic violence

Despite the progress made in recent decades, domestic abuse is still a prevalent issue. One cause of this perpetuation may be the myths and misconceptions about domestic violence still pervasive in society. Though more people are educating themselves, many dismiss abuse's real impacts. Below are a few of the most common misconceptions and myths. 

Myth #1: Women and children are inferior to men

Though women have gained more rights in recent decades, some cultures perpetuate the belief that women are inferior to men and should obey them. In addition, many cultures ignore the existence of women who are solely attracted to and want to date women, which leads to the belief that all women want to be "controlled" by a man. This myth perpetuates the idea that women should obey men, even when they are abused or in danger.

The same beliefs hold for children as well. Many parents who abuse their children believe that children are their property and can be abused if they do not act in the ways the parents expect. Many children are subjected to physical discipline due to these beliefs, with some people believing that physical abuse is a natural and healthy form of discipline, despite studies showcasing its many adverse impacts

Myth #2: Domestic abuse is just physical abuse

When people hear "domestic abuse" or "domestic violence," they may equate them only to physical abuse. However, there are many forms of domestic violence, and they are not all physical. Any acts used to threaten, harm, or control another are a form of abuse, intimate partner violence, or family violence. These acts may include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Spiritual abuse
  • Financial Abuse
  • Stalking
  • Harassment
  • Reproductive abuse
  • Psychological abuse

Myth #3: Intimate partner violence only happens to women

Though women experience abuse at higher rates, men are not exempt from intimate partner violence. However, the exact rate men experience domestic violence is difficult to determine. Many men do not report domestic violence because they fear being perceived as weak. The few men who report their experiences are often shamed or ignored by society, making it difficult to believe or receive resources. 

Myth #4: If abuse were bad, people would leave or get a divorce 

Domestic abusers do everything in their power to keep their spouses or children under their control. They may take away their forms of communication or transportation, making it more difficult for them to find support or leave home. Many survivors of abuse want to leave but may not have any means to do so. In addition, patterns of emotional abuse can lead survivors to believe that they are the problem and that their partner will treat them better if they "act better." 

Myth #5: The survivor provoked them 

The myth that abuse comes from being provoked often stems from the deeply rooted belief that men should use domestic violence to "discipline" their wives and children. Therefore, some people believe that if a woman has made a man angry, she "deserves" to be beaten. However, the abuse of any person is not justified. If anger arises in a relationship, healthy conflict resolution where both parties are treated as equals is healthiest.  

Myth #6: Domestic violence is a secret family matter, not a social issue

When domestic violence goes unchecked by the law, society can experience challenges as a result. Domestic violence situations result in high costs of hospital services, medication, court proceedings, and lawyer fees. Furthermore, many women in abusive marriages and relationships are discouraged from holding jobs or participating in the economy. Ignoring domestic violence and dismissing it as a family matter keeps hurting the economy and social progress of the country, and it takes away from the credibility of the word of survivors. 

Myth #7: Women often lie about abuse

False allegations of intimate partner violence are rare. People may want to believe that these allegations are false to ignore that they occur, keeping with the myth that domestic violence is a secret matter. Abusers may also deny accusations to stay in control. If people believe women lie about abuse, fewer men may face repercussions for their violent acts. 

Myth #8: Domestic violence is uncommon 

Domestic violence is common. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three women and one in four men have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. Some people do not believe domestic violence is real if it does not leave visible signs. However, domestic violence is not always noticeable or obvious and can go undetected by friends and family.

Myth #9: Domestic violence only occurs to heterosexual couples

When speaking about domestic violence, many people refer to a husband-and-wife dynamic. This example may imply that other types of relationships are healthy and do not experience violence. However, domestic violence can happen to anyone of any gender or sexual orientation. Abuse can happen in same-sex relationships, not only in heterosexual relationships. Some research suggests that same-sex relationships experience a higher rate of domestic violence than heterosexual relationships.

Myth #10: Men can be good fathers even if they abuse their wives 

The above myth aims to justify that abusers can be positive parents and that abusing their wives is separate from this factor. However, domestic violence is a significant issue and often affects the children of violent parents. 

About 90% of children whose mothers are abused witness the abuse themselves. Witnessing abuse has enormous psychological ramifications that can last a lifetime. Furthermore, between 40% and 70% of those children are subjected to abuse themselves, meaning their parent hurt them and their mother. 

Resources and services for domestic violence survivors

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, resources are available to you, including the following. 

Office of justice programs

The Office Of Justice Programs is a federal agency that provides leadership, grants, training, and other resources to reduce crime and assist survivors. Its primary goals are reducing crime, empowering survivors and those in at-risk environments, and improving the justice system and programs. 

Though the Office Of Justice Programs works to fight and prevent all crime, it also has funding and additional services for domestic violence justice programs. This resource may benefit those interested in providing local justice programs against domestic violence who need funding or training for success.

National domestic violence hotline

The National Domestic Violence Hotline service was founded with the core belief that everyone deserves to be safe and have healthy relationships. This hotline is a resource for current survivors of domestic violence who need guidance, resources, and services but don't know where to start or have little power to change their situation. The hotline is available 24/7 and can be contacted via phone call, online chat, or text.

These services are not only for abuse survivors. Concerned family or loved ones can contact these services to discuss their concerns about their loved one's life and well-being.

Local resources

Many states and cities have local resources and services that address domestic violence. These services can include shelters, crisis intervention, and non-profits to help survivors find safety and escape abuse. Local courts can also provide defense and restraining orders if there is evidence of an abuser in one's life.

Furthermore, some resources and services particularly help children who are survivors of family violence and sexual violence. Check your local government's webpage for more information on shelters, how to report abuse and domestic violence, protective services, court information, and additional resources.

How counseling services help survivors

One of the beneficial services in recent history is the development of counseling services. Not only do these services help survivors cope with mental illness, but they can guide those experiencing domestic and family violence. Counseling services can provide support and a safe space to discuss your experiences. They may be able to guide you on how to leave your abuser, or they may point you to services that can guide you in doing so. 

In addition to counseling services, you can also utilize support group services. Support groups offer a chance to talk with other survivors of abuse. You can learn how they rebuilt their lives and established healthy relationships after leaving abuse. 

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Support options

If you are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence, you are not alone. However, it can be challenging to reach out for support after a traumatic experience. You may be uncomfortable talking to a provider in person due to the nature of your experience. In this case, you can work with a provider online through platforms like BetterHelp.

Current research has shown people who attend online therapy believe they can trust their therapist to a greater degree and feel safer due to the innominate nature of these visits compared to in-person office visits. Rather than attending in-person therapy sessions, which can be difficult, you can connect with a therapist from the comfort and safety of your personal space.

Online therapy is discreet and flexible, so you can schedule sessions with a compassionate mental health professional when you have personal space and serenity. You can also choose to connect via video chat, phone call, or text messaging in case you're in a situation where you don't want someone to hear you speak to your therapist. 

Takeaway

Domestic violence has a long history, which may span farther than is documented in law and literature. Although it still exists today, more laws are in place to defend survivors and keep them safe. You're not alone if you or someone you know is a domestic violence survivor. Consider contacting a licensed therapist for guidance and support as you navigate this challenging moment.
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