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More than physical violence

Domestic abuse manifests in many ways and the signs can sometimes be difficult to see.

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Content warning This page involves descriptions and discussion of the experiences and impacts of domestic and family violence. Some survivors might find its content troubling.

Up until recently, the community only intervened in a 'domestic incident', if at all, after a severe physical beating. This led to domestic violence being defined as solely physical violence, with a strong emphasis on the legal, assault-based definition of violence.

In truth, domestic and family violence is not limited to overt physical and verbal behaviour. It can, and often does, involve financial, emotional, and social control. It can also involve living with a constant sense of danger, the expectation of violence, and in some cases, the plausible fear of being killed.

Casual onlookers can easily overlook the violence in a situation because they see a victim complying with the abuse and assume it can’t be that bad. A 'well-behaved' survivor is often on the receiving end of considerable 'silent' violence. The legal system can also have difficulty seeing the patterns of power and control in domestic violence as the system tends to focus on particular acts in an isolated and narrow way.

Domestic and family violence manifests in many ways, including: physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, psychological, spiritual, financial, and social abuse. These are all explained here.

Take this quiz: How do you know whether you’re a victim or someone that is abusive?

Signs of abuse

Signs of abuse vary, but the following are some of the key indicators of unhealthy and potentially dangerous conduct in intimate relationships.

If a partner:

  • Monitors what you're doing all the time (can include your online activity too) through phone calls or use of technologies such as internet or phone trackers
  • Unfairly accuses you of being unfaithful on a regular basis as well as associated jealous behaviours for spending time with anyone other than them
  • Prevents or discourages you from seeing or making contact with friends or family, or from going to work or school
  • Gets very angry/verbally abusive during and after drinking alcohol and/or using drugs
  • Controls how you spend your money including withholding money and/or giving you an allowance
  • Controls your use of needed medicines or access to medical assistance
  • Controls things that should be in your control (like what to wear or eat)
  • Humiliates you or insults you in front of others
  • Blames you for their violent outbursts
  • Destroys your property or things, purposefully or accidentally in a rage or as a threat
  • Threatens to hurt you, the children or pets (with or without a weapon)
  • Physically hurts you (by hitting, beating, pushing, shoving, punching, slapping, kicking, biting or using a weapon)
  • Hurts your children or pets
  • Forces you to have sex against your will which includes threats to do harm if you don’t (even if you are married or in a committed relationship, sex must never be forced)
  • Controls your contraception or insists that you get pregnant
  • Threatens to harm themselves when upset with you
  • Says things like "if I can't have you then no one can” or “no one else would want you”
  • Dismisses your feelings, opinions and reality by convincing you that you imagined it
  • Constantly tells you that you are crazy or mentally unwell
  • Withholds affection and gives silent treatment as a way of getting what they want, or to cause fear.

Check out this video: The signs of an abusive relationship looks a lot like any other

Indications someone is being abused

The following is a list of symptoms and behaviours that someone you know is being abused at home. These are not comprehensive and may indicate something other than domestic abuse such as stress or a mental health condition. If you see these signs, don’t jump to conclusions. Just inquire sensitively and stop, slow down and listen.

If you see:

  • Obvious physical injuries (bruises, broken bones)
  • Explaining injuries away (as being accident-prone or clumsy)
  • Clothing that is inappropriate for the weather or circumstance (long sleeves and high collars during summer, scarfs, sunglasses or heavy makeup that the person does not normally wear)
  • Minimising injuries
  • Uncharacteristic lateness
  • Having little money available (no credit cards, no car, unable to join in with social activities)
  • Becoming anxious, fearful or upset for no apparent reason
  • Isolation (being unusually quiet and keeping away from others)
  • An unusual number of phone calls, emails, texts which illicit a strong reaction and reluctance to talk
  • Heightened sensitivity about relationship with partner (hints about a partner's bad moods, anger, temper, or substance abuse)
  • Unexpected personal visits to workplace/church by a current or former partner, or family member
  • Asking permission to meet, talk with, or do things with other people. 

Types of abuse

It is ultimately the goal, not the tactics that defines domestic and family violence. Some behaviours are inherently abusive, but some positive behaviours are also a part of a pattern of abuse, if the intent is to control. It is the collection of behaviours behind a systematic effort to gain power and control in a relationship.

The following terms cover the main forms of domestic and family violence and the many ways this abuse occurs.

Domestic violence
Acts of violence that occur in domestic settings between two people who are (or were) in an intimate relationship. It includes physical, sexual, emotional, psychological and financial abuse, often over a period of time.
Emotional/psychological violence
A range of controlling behaviours, such as: isolation from family and friends, continual humiliation both in public and in private, relentless criticisms, insults and putdowns, gaslighting, threats against children, or being threatened with injury or death. This is the attempt to destroy the will, needs, desires, or perceptions of the survivor, which over time can cause tremendous trauma and destruction of the ‘self’.
Family violence
A broader term than domestic violence, this refers not only to violence between intimate partners but also to violence between family members. This includes, for example, elder abuse, sibling abuse and adolescent violence against parents. Family violence includes violent or threatening behaviour, or any other form of behaviour that coerces or controls a family member or causes that family member to be fearful. In Indigenous communities, family violence is often the preferred term to use as it captures the broader issue of violence within extended families, kinship networks and community relationships.
Intimate partner violence
Any behaviour by a man or a woman within a current or past intimate relationship that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm to those in the relationship. This is the most common form of violence against women.
Creating fear
Fear is a key element in domestic and family violence and is often the most powerful way a perpetrator controls their victim. Fear is created by giving looks or making gestures, possessing weapons (even if they are not used), destroying property (e.g. smashing things, destroying possessions, putting a fist through the wall), reckless driving of a vehicle with their victim in the car, cruelty to pets, basically any behaviour which can be used to intimidate and render a victim powerless.
Physical abuse
This includes hitting, pushing, kicking, burning, stabbing, choking, slapping, dragging, bruising, and murder. Physical abuse is generally the easiest to recognise. By the time physical or sexual abuse is present, emotional and psychological abuse are almost guaranteed to already be at play.
Verbal abuse
Yelling, insulting, swearing at, excessively lecturing, put-downs, verbal attacks, or conversely, withdrawing affection and giving the silent treatment. There are many subtle forms verbal abuse can take, making it quite hard to recognise.
Social abuse
This involves isolating the victim from their social networks and supports, either by preventing them from having contact with their family or friends, or by verbally or physically abusing them in public or in front of others. It may involve continually putting friends and family down so they are slowly disconnected from their support network.
Financial abuse
This is normally where the perpetrator takes full control of all the finances, spending and decisions about money so the victim becomes financially dependent on their partner. They may also deny their partner access to money, including their own, and force them and their children to live on inadequate resources, demanding they account for every cent spent. However, financial abuse can also happen when the victim has full access to all the finances, but the perpetrator deliberately accrues so much debt or pressures their partner to give up employment so that there isn’t enough to take care of the family's needs. This type of abuse is often a contributing factor for women becoming 'trapped' in violent relationships.
Sexual abuse
This includes all unwanted sexual behaviours. This may include forced or coerced sexual contact, rape, forced performance of sexual acts that cause pain or humiliation, forced sex with others, being forced to witness sexual acts or pornography, use of sex as a tool of coercion or control, or deliberate injury to sexual organs.  
Controlling behaviours
Dictating what a partner does, who they see and talk to, where they go, keeping them from making any friends or from talking to their family or having any money of their own. This can include preventing them from going to work, not allowing them to express their own feelings or thoughts or to make decisions for themselves and not allowing any privacy or forcing them to go without food or water.
Spiritual abuse
Using scripture, as well as views about God, pastoral care and the Church to justify violence and further control and abuse. This includes denying access to faith communities, criticising spiritual beliefs, the selective use of scripture to claim God’s blessing on abuse, and threats of spiritual damnation if a partner leaves the relationship. 1 In some instances spiritual abuse can cross over with cultural abuse where culturally held beliefs such as curses are used as threats. Or if one partner holds different religious beliefs that can be used against their spouse.
Separation violence
Often after the relationship has ended, violence may continue. This can be a very dangerous time for the victim because the perpetrator may perceive a loss of control over the victim and may become more unpredictable. Violence will often escalate leaving the victim more unsafe than previously.
Stalking is a crime. 2 Sometimes a victim is stalked by the perpetrator either before or after separation. Stalking includes loitering around places the victim is known to frequent, watching them, following them, making persistent telephone calls, and sending mail (such as unwanted love letters, cards and gifts) even though the relationship has ended. Under stalking laws, more than one type of behaviour has to occur, or the same type of behaviour has to occur on more than one occasion. “Stalking” can now occur in the cyber realm as well with perpetrators using trackers and spyware to track a person’s messages and/or whereabouts. Read more about stalking here.

The cycle of violence

Abuse in an intimate partner relationship tends to play out through what is known as the cycle of violence. 3 First there is the honeymoon phase, during which the abuser is apologetic, perhaps even romantic, and promises to change. Then there is the tension-building phase, during which abusive tactics escalate. Finally there is an explosion, which is usually a severe incident of abuse. This occurs over and over. Whether the cycle lasts days, weeks or months will differ in every abusive relationship.

Because of the staged and confusing progression of abuse, the victim may not at the end understand that their partner has been the sole instigator. The victim might mistakenly believe that there has been a mutual progression. This is largely responsible for the tragic, well-known reluctance of victims to report abuse.

  1. http://www.commongrace.org.au/the_characteristics_of_spiritual_abuse
  2. http://www.stalkingresources.org.au/is-stalking-a-crime/
  3. http://www.bdvs.org.au/resource_files/bdvas/IR_5_Cycle-of-violence-factsheet.pdf