What is domestic abuse?

Domestic abuse is physical, emotional, sexual, psychological or financial violence and coercive and controlling behaviour that takes place within an intimate or family-type relationship. Forced marriage and so-called “honour-based violence” and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) are also forms of domestic abuse.

Crime statistics and research both show that domestic abuse is gender-specific and is most commonly experienced by women and perpetrated by men. Any woman can experience domestic abuse, regardless of race, ethnic or religious group, class, disability or lifestyle.

The government’s definition of domestic abuse has been updated to include 16-17 year olds and the definition of controlling and coercive behaviours have been included. The full definition can be found here;

At least 1 in 4 women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime.  Research shows that:

  • Domestic abuse accounts for between 16% and a quarter of all recorded violent crime. (Home   Office, 2004; Dodd et al., 2004; BCS,1998; Dobash and Dobash, 1980)
  • One incident is reported to the police every minute. (Stanko, 2000)
  • 45% of women and 26% of men had experienced at least one incident of inter-personal abuse in their lifetimes. (Walby and Allen, 2004) – However when there were more than 4 incidents (i.e. ongoing domestic or sexual abuse) 89% of victims were women.
  • On average 2 women a week are killed by a male partner or former partner: this constitutes around one-third of all female homicide victims (Povey, ed., 2004, 2005; Home Office, 1999; Department of Health, 2005.)

All forms of domestic abuse come from the abuser’s desire for power and control over other family members or intimate partners. Although every situation is unique, there are common factors involved.

  • Destructive criticism and verbal abuse: shouting/mocking/accusing/name calling/verbally threatening.
  • Disrespect: persistently putting you down in front of other people; not listening or responding when you talk; interrupting your telephone calls; taking money from your purse without asking; refusing to help with childcare or housework.
  • Breaking trust: lying to you; withholding information from you; being jealous; having other relationships; breaking promises and shared agreements.
  • Isolation:monitoring or blocking your telephone calls; telling you where you can and cannot go; preventing you from seeing friends and relatives.
  • Harassment: following you; checking up on you; opening your mail; repeatedly checking to see who has telephoned you; embarrassing you in public.
  • Threats:making angry gestures; using physical size to intimidate; shouting you down; destroying our possessions; breaking things; punching walls; wielding a knife or a gun; threatening to kill or harm you and the children.
  • Physical violence:punching; slapping; hitting; biting; pinching; kicking; pulling hair out; pushing; shoving; burning; strangling.
  • Denial: saying the abuse doesn’t happen; saying you caused the abusive behaviour; being public gentle and patient; crying and begging for forgiveness; saying it will never happen again.

Domestic abuse against women by men is “caused” by the misuse of power and control within a context of male privilege. Male privilege operates on an individual and societal level to maintain a situation of male dominance, where men have power over women and children. Perpetrators of domestic abuse choose to behave abusively to get what they want and gain control.

Their behaviour often originates from a sense of entitlement which is often supported by sexist, racist, homophobic and other discriminatory attitudes. In this way, domestic abuse by men against women can be seen as a consequence of the inequalities between men and women, rooted in patriarchal traditions that encourage men to believe they are entitled to power and control over their partners.

Whilst responsibility for the actual abuse is the perpetrator’s alone, there are belief systems in our society that perpetuate abusive attitudes and make it difficult for women and children to get help. These include:

  • blaming the survivor for the violence;
  • putting the ‘family’ before the safety of women and children;
  • tolerating the use of violence;
  • privileging men over women and children’s needs
  • treating domestic abuse as a private matter.

Similarly, racist, homophobic and other discriminatory attitudes are also reflected in the nature of the abuse against lesbians, gay men, disabled people and women and men from black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.

Domestic abuse is learned intentional behaviour rather than a direct consequence of stress, individual pathology, substance use or a ‘dysfunctional’ relationship. Perpetrators of domestic abuse frequently avoid taking responsibility for their behaviour, by blaming their abuse on someone or something else, denying it took place at all or minimising their behaviour.

Research shows that abusive men are most likely to perpetrate abuse in response to their own sexual jealousy and possessiveness; their demands for domestic services; and in order to demonstrate male authority.

Some men also believe that sex is another type of domestic service that they can demand. Abusive men will also typically justify, minimise or deny their behaviour by:

  • trivialising the violence, e.g. saying it was “just a slap” or “isn’t that bad”;
  • justifying the behaviour to themselves and blaming the victim;
  • denying the violence happened, or by refusing to talk about it and expecting the survivor to just “move on”.
  • (Dobash et al., 2000).

Women may be affected by domestic abuse in a number of ways. They may experience any or all of the following:

  • isolation from family/friends;
  • loss of income or work;
  • homelessness;
  • emotional/psychological effects such as experiences of anxiety, depression or lowered sense of self- worth;
  • poor health;
  • physical injury or ongoing impairment;
  • if they are pregnant, they may miscarry or the baby may be stillborn;
  • time off work or study, and long-term impact on financial security and career;
  • death: at least two women a week are killed by their partners or former partners.

Whilst the risk of staying may be very high, simply leaving the relationship, does not guarantee that the abuse will stop. In fact, the period during which a woman is planning or making her exit is often the most dangerous time for her and her children. Many women are frightened of the abuser, and with good reason, as it is not uncommon for perpetrators to threaten to harm or even kill their partner or children if she leaves. However, there may also be other reasons why a woman may not be ready to leave:

  • She may still care for her partner and hope that they will change (many women do not necessarily want to leave the relationship, they just want the abuse to stop).
  • She may feel ashamed about what has happened or believe that it is her fault.
  • She may be scared of the future (where she will go, what she will do for money, whether she will have to hide forever and what will happen to the children).
  • She may worry about money, and about supporting herself and her children.
  • She may feel too exhausted or unsure to make any decisions.
  • She may not know where to go.
  • She may be isolated from family or friends or be prevented from leaving the home or reaching out for help.
  • She may have low self-esteem as a result of the abuse. She may believe that it is better to stay for the sake of the children (e.g. wanting her children to have a father or wishing to prevent the stigma associated with being a single parent).

Women and children need to know that they will be taken seriously and that their rights will be enforced. They need to have accessible options and be supported to make safe changes for themselves and their children. Resources and support they will need to leave safely include: money, housing, help with moving, transport, ongoing protection from the police, legal support to protect her and the children, a guaranteed income and emotional support. If a woman is not sure that these will be available to her, this may also prevent her from leaving.

Women may also seek support from family or friends and the quality of the support they receive is likely to have a significant influence on their decision-making. Sometimes women will make several attempts to leave before they actually leave permanently and safely. Regardless of her decision, it is important that the support a woman receives enables her to increase her and her children’s safety regardless of the choices she makes about her relationship with the abuser. It is vitally important that women are supported while living with their abusers. If a woman feels that she will not be given ongoing support while she stays with her abusive partner, she is unlikely to seek help from the same person or organisation again.

Access to culturally specific or specialised support may also be an important consideration for women from BAME communities, lesbians, disabled women, asylum seekers and women with insecure immigration status. These women often face additional barriers to seeking help in the first place – such as physical barriers, language poverty and discrimination.

The majority of children witness the abuse that is occurring and in 80% of cases they are in the same or the next room. In about half of all domestic abuse situations, the children are also being directly abused themselves. Children living in households where domestic abuse is occurring are now identified as “at risk” under the Adoption and Children Act 2002: from 31 January 2005, Section 120 of this act extended the legal definition of harming children to include harm suffered by seeing or hearing ill-treatment of others.

Children can “witness domestic abuse” in many different ways. For example,

  • They may be in the same room and may even get caught in the middle of an incident in an effort to make the abuse stop;
  • they may be in the room next door and hear the abuse or see their mother’s physical injuries following an incident of violence or abuse;
  • they may be forced to stay in one room or may not be allowed to play;
  • they may be forced to witness sexual abuse or they may be forced to take part in verbally abusing the victim.

All children witnessing domestic abuse are being emotionally abused.

Children can experience both short and long-term cognitive, behavioural and emotional effects as a result of witnessing domestic abuse. It is important to remember that each child will respond to the trauma differently and some may be resilient and not exhibit any negative effects.

Children’s responses to the trauma of witnessing domestic abuse may vary according to a multitude of factors including, but not limited to, age, race, sex and stage of development. It is equally important to remember that the common effects experienced by children can also be caused by something other than witnessing domestic abuse and therefore a thorough assessment of a child’s situation is vital to ensure appropriate response and support.

These are some of the effects on children of witnessing domestic abuse, described in a briefing by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (2004):

  • they may become anxious or depressed;
  • they may have difficulty sleeping;
  • they have nightmares or flashbacks;
  • they can be easily startled;
  • they may complain of physical symptoms such as tummy aches;
  • they may start to wet their bed;
  • they may have temper tantrums;
  • they may behave as though they are much younger than they are;
  • they may have problems with school;
  • they may become aggressive or they may internalise their distress and
  • withdraw from other people;
  • they may have a lowered sense of self-worth;
  • older children may begin to play truant or start to use alcohol or drugs;
  • they may begin to self-harm by taking overdoses or cutting themselves;
  • they may have an eating disorder.

Children may also feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, powerless and confused.

They may have ambivalent feelings towards both the abuser and the non-abusing parent. The “cycle of abuse” is otherwise known as the “intergenerational theory”.

If you stay: If you are living in an abusive relationship and are not ready to leave, you must keep yourself and your children safe. Whatever your reasons for staying, you do not deserve to be abused. If you decide to stay with your partner and work things out, seek outside help.

Sometimes women have to leave in a hurry. This might be when, for them, the relationship is over. It might be to escape a particular assault, or to take a break for safety and the time and space to plan and think about things.

Making a safety plan can help you feel more in control and give you more confidence. This is just a suggested plan of action, which you can add to, or change.

  • Find somewhere you can quickly and easily use a phone.
  • Carry with you a list of emergency numbers.
  • Include friends, relatives, local police, Women’s Aid in Luton
  • Try to save some money for bus, train, taxi fares.
  • Have an extra set of keys for house, flat, car.
  • Keep the keys, money and a set of clothes for you and the children packed ready in a bag that you can get quickly.
  • If you have more time to plan leaving do as much as possible of the following:
  • Leave when your abuser is not around
  • Take all of your children with you.
  • Take your legal and financial papers, i.e. marriage and birth certificates, court orders, national health cards, passports, driving licence, benefit books, address book, bank books, tenancy agreements, rent book etc.
  • Take any of your personal possessions, which have sentimental value photographs or jewellery for example.
  • Take favourite toys for the children
  • Take clothing for at least several days
  • Take any medicine you or your children might need

Further Information

For further information, please call our confidential helpline 01582 391856 
or contact the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline 0808 2000 247

For further information about Domestic Abuse including statistics please follow the links below:


Women’s Aid