What Is Domestic Abuse?

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What Is Domestic Abuse? 

Domestic abuse, also known as domestic violence or family abuse, is a pattern of behavior that is used to hurt, terrorize, manipulate, or gain control over a family member.

Domestic abuse may be perpetrated by any member of the household, such as an intimate partner, parent, child, sibling, relative, or staff member. When domestic abuse is perpetrated by an intimate partner, it is referred to as intimate partner violence. When a child is a victim of domestic abuse, it is referred to as child abuse.

People from marginalized groups are at greater risk of experiencing abuse. However, it’s important to recognize that anyone can be a victim of abuse, regardless of their age, race, gender, sexual orientation, class, or faith.

Domestic abuse and intimate partner violence are serious public health issues globally. In fact, it is believed that domestic abuse is the most prevalent but least reported crime in the United States.

This article explores the types, causes, signs, and impact of domestic abuse, as well as some ways to support someone who has been abused.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates. 

If you are in immediate danger, call 911. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Types of Domestic Abuse

Domestic abuse can take many forms. These are some of the different types of domestic abuse:

  • Physical abuse, which is when someone harms the other person’s body, causing them to experience pain or suffer physical injuries. Physical abuse includes slapping, beating, hitting, kicking, punching, pinching, biting, choking, pushing, grabbing, shaking, or burning another person.
  • Sexual abuse, which includes any form of touching or sexual contact without the other person’s explicit consent. Sexual abuse also includes any form of sexual contact between an adult and a person below the age of 18.
  • Emotional or psychological abuse, which includes yelling, cursing, name-calling, bullying, coercing, humiliating, gaslighting, harassing, infantilizing, threatening, frightening, isolating, manipulating, or otherwise controlling another person. Emotional/psychological abuse can be just as harmful as sexual or physical abuse.
  • Neglect, which involves failing to provide a child or a dependent adult with necessities such as food, water, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision. Neglect can also be emotional, which involves failing to provide love, care, and emotional support to a family member.
  • Financial abuse, which involves taking control of an individual's finances by controlling their income, restricting their ability to work, or accumulating debts in their name.
  • Cultural identity abuse, which involves using aspects of a person's cultural identity to cause pain. This might involve threatening to out a person as LGBTQ+, using racial or ethnic slurs, or not permitting the person to practice traditions and customs of their faith.
  • Technological abuse, which involves using technology as a means to threaten, stalk, harass, and abuse the other person. Examples of this form of abuse include using tracking devices to monitor someone's movements or online activities and demanding to have access to the person's social media or email accounts.
  • Immigration abuse, which involves inflicting harm on a person by using their immigration status to threaten or restrict aspects of their life. Examples of this might involve threatening the individual's family members, destroying or hiding their immigration papers, and threatening to have them deported.

Signs of Domestic Abuse

It’s important to recognize domestic abuse because the victims are our friends, family members, coworkers, and neighbors.

These are some of the signs that someone is experiencing domestic abuse:

  • Being upset or agitated
  • Being withdrawn or unresponsive
  • Exhibiting signs of fear or nervousness around certain people
  • Displaying sudden changes in behavior or unusual behaviors
  • Having injuries such as cuts, bruises, black eyes, or broken bones
  • Having bruises, bleeding, torn clothes, or bloodstains around genital areas
  • Being dehydrated, malnourished, or unkempt
  • Living in unsafe or unsanitary conditions
  • Wearing long-sleeved clothing or sunglasses to cover up bruising
  • Having unusual eating or sleeping habits
  • Being extremely meek and apologetic
  • Losing interest in daily activities
  • Isolating from friends and family

Causes of Domestic Abuse

Research suggests that there are a number of different factors that contribute to the prevalence of domestic violence:

  • Cultural factors: Historically, many patriarchal cultures have permitted the beating and chastising of women and children, who are viewed as a man’s property. Additionally, the concept of a woman’s sexuality is often tied to the family’s honor. Therefore, any actions or behaviors by a woman that are perceived as acts of dishonor toward the family are met with judgment and abuse.
  • Legal factors: Law enforcement agencies tend to treat domestic abuse as a private family matter and sometimes hesitate to intervene or get involved. Acts of domestic abuse are often treated with more leniency than crimes committed by strangers. In fact, sexual abuse by intimate partners is not even recognized as a crime in many cultures.
  • Economic factors: Lack of economic resources is often associated with domestic abuse.
  • Environmental factors: People who have grown up in abusive environments and witnessed or experienced abuse as children may be more likely to perpetrate domestic abuse as adults. This is referred to as the intergenerational cycle of abuse.
  • Social factors: Society still tends to blame victims for being abused, which can make it difficult for them to come forward and report their abusers. Victims are often scrutinized minutely, and any imperfections are held against them.
  • Substance use: Excessive use of substances such as alcohol and drugs can lead to domestic abuse.

Impact of Domestic Abuse

Being abused can cause a person to:

  • Think they did something to deserve the abuse
  • Believe they are unwanted and unworthy of love or respect
  • Feel guilty or ashamed
  • Feel helpless and powerless
  • Feel used, controlled, or manipulated
  • Be terrified of doing something that will upset their abuser
  • Behave differently in order to avoid upsetting their abuser
  • Have difficulty sleeping, concentrating, or participating in activities they once enjoyed
  • Develop mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety
  • Develop physical health conditions such as heart disease, digestive issues, muscle and bone conditions, fertility problems, and nervous system disorders
  • Feel responsible for regulating the emotions and behaviors of their abuser
  • Feel hypervigilant and like they are constantly walking on eggshells
  • Not feel good enough or capable to make it on their own
  • Constantly doubt their perception and their decisions

Experiencing domestic abuse can cause physical and mental health issues that persist long after the abuse stops.

Supporting Someone Who Has Been Abused

These are some ways to support someone who has been abused:

  • Listen to the person and believe them
  • Honor where they are in their process and don't push your personal views
  • Offer assistance and let them know they’re not alone
  • Help them note down all the details they can remember
  • Remind them that they’re not to blame for anything that has happened to them
  • Encourage them to seek professional support, either through a confidential hotline or via other medical or mental healthcare providers
  • Encourage them to speak up about the abuse and report their abuser to the authorities, because keeping it secret only protects their abuser
  • Respect whatever choice they make and let them know you'll be there for them regardless of what they decide

A Word From Verywell

Domestic abuse can take many different shapes and forms. It can be extremely traumatic to experience, leaving behind physical wounds, emotional scars, and health issues. It can affect every aspect of the person’s life and make it difficult for them to function.

Recovery takes time, but speaking up about the abuse, leaving an abusive situation, and seeking treatment are important steps that can help.

13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.