Domestic Violence 101: What is Domestic Violence?

Intimate partner violence affects more than 12 million women and men each year. Here's what you need to know.

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When people hear the words domestic violence, most think of one partner hitting, slapping, or shoving the other. But domestic violence, also known as domestic abuse, spousal abuse, dating or family violence, or intimate partner violence, can be that and much more.

    There are five major forms of domestic violence:

    -Physical abuse includes hitting, punching, shoving, restraining, kicking, hair pulling, choking, throwing objects, or spitting on the victim.
    -Verbal abuse is the use of words to control or cause harm to someone. Name-calling, put-downs, yelling and screaming, and using sarcastic or mocking tones are some examples of verbal abuse.
    -Emotional abuse, also referred to as mental or psychological abuse, can be difficult to recognize. Perpetrators use this type of abuse to chip away at the victim's self-esteem to gain control. Emotional abuse can include obsessive jealousy, use of the silent treatment, threats to harm or take away children or pets, isolating the victim from family and friends, and constant negative comparisons to others.
    -Financial abuse is used to control the victim's finances and make her dependent on the abuser, perhaps by taking the other person's money or property, controlling when and how he or she spends money, preventing the person from working, and withholding access to money or financial information.
    -Sexual abuse is forcing the partner to engage in sex or another sexual activity against his or her will.

    Who does domestic violence affect?
    Anyone. "Domestic violence does not discriminate," says Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. "Anybody can be a victim of domestic violence. It affects all people, regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, education, or race," she says. The most commonly addressed form is male-on-female abuse, but domestic violence can be a woman battering a man, abuse in a same-sex relationship, or mutual abuse by both partners. Family violence also includes sibling abuse, child abuse, or a child being abusive to a parent.

    Why do abusers abuse?
    "There are a lot of excuses that abusers give for their abuse, such as 'She made me do it,' 'She knows how to push my buttons,' 'I was drinking too much,' and 'I have a really bad temper,'" says Tricia Bent-Goodley, Ph.D., author of The Ultimate Betrayal: A Renewed Look at Intimate Partner Violence. But the choice to abuse always lies with the offender, not the victim, she says. Usually abusers feel powerless or have low self-esteem, so they turn to cruelty or physical aggression to cause fear in or gain control over the other person. Other factors that may influence someone to use abusive behavior include growing up in a home with domestic violence, experiencing child abuse, use of drugs or alcohol, and mental illness.

    How does domestic violence affect a family?
    Violence in the household causes turmoil for the victim and children in the home. In addition to bruises and other injuries, victims of violence may experience stress-induced headaches and stomachaches, fear, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The abused person's self-esteem may suffer so much that he or she feels worthless, helpless, and trapped, possibly considering or even attempting suicide. Children in homes with violence also experience fear, low self-esteem, anxiety, stress and anger, and they are at risk for being abused themselves. A study in the Violence Against Women journal found child abuse occurs in 30 to 60 percent of domestic violence cases. In addition, when parents are abusive or being abused, they may be less attentive to children, possibly leading to neglect, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

    What should you do if there's abuse in your home?
    First, teach your kids not to get involved; it could be dangerous for them. Discuss a safe place for them to go in your home or identify a neighbor they can go to for help. When violence occurs, stay away from areas with dangerous items, such as the kitchen and bathroom. Avoid rooms that have only one entry and exit to prevent being trapped. Instead, go to a room that has a phone and an outside exit (like a window) in case you need to call for help or get out in an emergency. If it's safe, you might also speak to your neighbors when your partner isn't around. Ask the neighbors to call the police if they hear suspicious noises coming from your home or if there's a "signal" that something is wrong (for instance, you turn on or flash the porch light during the day).

    Unfortunately, abuse rarely stops without the abuser seeking help, so it's important for you to take the steps needed to protect yourself and your children, Dr. Bent-Goodley says. For help, contact a local domestic violence program or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE).

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