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Domestic Violence: Recognizing Abuse

Anyone can be the victim of domestic violence. Recognizing the characteristics of an abuser and having a safety plan in place can save your life.

What Is Domestic Violence?  ^

Domestic violence is violent or controlling behavior directed by a person toward a current or past intimate partner. Intimate partners can be any two people that are dating or living together, married, separated, or divorced. Domestic violence is also referred to as battering or partner violence. The abuse can be physical, emotional, and/or sexual, and may occur occasionally or often.

Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior in which the abuser is trying to gain and maintain power and control over the victim. According to Elaine Alpert, MD, MPH, associate professor of public health and medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine in Boston, "Many victims of domestic violence have been led to believe that the problems they see in their relationship are their fault. They think it is their responsibility to change themselves and/or their partner so that the abuse will end. However, the abuse is NOT the victim's fault. It occurs no matter what the victim does."

Over time, domestic violence usually occurs more frequently and worsens. It often follows a three-stage cycle:

Who Is Affected?  ^

Domestic violence cuts across all ages and all economic, educational, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Although most of the victims are women abused by men, domestic violence is also committed by women against men and in gay and lesbian relationships. Children are also at risk of exposure to domestic violence.

What Are the Characteristics of an Abuser?  ^

Although abusers come from all walks of life, they tend to have some characteristics in common, such as:

What Are the Common Signs of Abuse?  ^

Physical Abuse

Examples of physical abuse include:

  • Hitting, shoving, punching, kicking, choking
  • Throwing or destroying things
  • Blocking you from leaving the room or house
  • Subjecting you to reckless driving
  • Threatening or hurting you with a weapon

Emotional Abuse

The abuser does things to make the victim feel scared, worthless, and helpless. Again, this is a pattern of behavior, not just an occasional insult. Examples include:

  • Insulting, blaming, criticizing, name-calling
  • Humiliating you in public
  • Accusing you of having affairs
  • Controlling all the money and making you account for every penny
  • Telling you what to do, where to go, and who you can see
  • Threatening or hurting your children

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can be sexual acts, demands, or insults. Examples include:

  • Unwanted touching or sexual comments
  • Calling you sexual names, such as "slut" or "frigid"
  • Forcing you to have sex
  • Attacking your sexual body parts or hurting you during sex

Are You or Is Someone You Know Being Abused?  ^

Ask yourself these questions about your partner:

Ask yourself these questions about your friend or family member who may be experiencing abuse:

How Are Children Affected?  ^

"Children are not just innocent bystanders when there is violence in their home," says Dr. Alpert. "They are often victims themselves." Child abuse occurs much more often in families where there is domestic violence. Also, domestic violence against the mother has been associated with an increased risk of death for the children.

Whether children are being abused directly or just living with abuse around them, their lives are disrupted. They can experience fear, confusion, and pain. This greatly increases their chance of developing emotional and behavioral problems, such as low self-esteem, withdrawal, self-blame, aggression toward others, and problems in school and relationships. They learn that violence is acceptable, they are at greater risk for committing criminal or self-destructive behavior, and they are more likely to become abusers as adults.

What Kinds of Help Are Available?  ^

If you or someone you know is being abused, seek help. Talk with someone you trust, such as a close friend or relative or your doctor. Consider calling a domestic violence hotline and talking with a counselor.

Remember, domestic violence is not your fault, and no one ever has the right to abuse another person. You have a right to be safe! And, help is available.

How Do You Plan for Your Safety?  ^

If you are in an abusive relationship, it is important to have a safety plan. Such a plan can be helpful whether you are trying to stay in or leave the relationship. A domestic violence counselor can help you develop a plan tailored to your needs. Listed below are some common elements of a safety plan:

Keep items listed below easily accessible for an emergency or if you want to leave. Consider keeping some of them, including copies of important papers, with a trusted relative or friend.

If you suspect that you will be leaving the relationship, try and obtain a credit card or debit card in your own name so that your abuser cannot cancel the cards. If you are ever in danger—or feel that you or your children are about to be in danger—call 911. In a growing number of cities and towns across the United States, law enforcement personnel are trained specifically to handle cases of domestic violence.


Family Violence Prevention Fund

The National Domestic Violence Hotline


Domestic Abuse Must Stop

Safe Canada


Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence.Domestic Violence, The Facts: An Information Handbook.Boston, MA: Peace At Home, Inc.

12/11/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Ackerson LK, Subramanian SV. Intimate partner violence and death among infants and children in India.Pediatrics.2009;124(5):e878-89.