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What Is Domestic Abuse?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 06, 2022

Domestic abuse is more than just hitting, shoving, and other physical attacks. It’s a pattern of controlling behaviors. The goal always is to get and keep power over an intimate partner.

You may not realize you’re in an abusive relationship. Not even if you’re the abuser. Abuse can happen to anyone, anywhere. It happens to married, unmarried, and same-sex couples. Abusers and their partners can be rich or poor, and come from any race and ethnicity. Men can abuse women. Women can abuse men.

You may think the troubles in your relationship are no big deal. Your partner slaps you only during huge fights. Or insults you only after a bad day at work.

It all counts as domestic abuse. And chances are it will only get worse as time passes.

Types

Domestic abuse is any behavior that scares, intimidates, humiliates, isolates, and controls another person. This can happen in any type of relationship. It can affect married, engaged, dating, straight, LGBTQ+, young, or old people. People in all religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and education levels can be in an abusive relationship.

Physical violence. The abuser may:

  • Hit
  • Grab hair
  • Shove
  • Bite
  • Force drugs or alcohol
  • Deny medical care

Sexual abuse. It’s a type of physical abuse. Anytime you feel forced into any sexual act you don’t want, because you’re not in the mood or for any other reason, that’s sexual abuse.

Emotional or psychological abuse. This can be verbal or nonverbal. The aim is to lower your sense of self-worth and chip away your independence. Your partner may:

  • Call you names or yell at you
  • Shame you
  • Blame you
  • Constantly criticize
  • Damage your relationship with others and isolate you
  • Threaten to hurt you, themselves, or others
  • Hurt your pets, children, or destroy property

Economic abuse. This isn’t about one person managing the household finances. It’s when the abuser keeps their partner financially dependent by controlling the money. They also may not allow you to have a job or attend school.

Abuse in Certain Groups

Many abusers act alike. But sometimes, the abuse can take specific forms.

LGBTQ people: Abusers may go after their partners’ sexual identity. They may threaten to “out” their partners or accuse them of not really being gay, bi, or trans -- which can not only demean the abused person but also isolate them from the community.

Immigrants: People who are here legally or illegally can have a hard time getting help. Their abusers may:

  • Keep them from learning English
  • Block them from staying in touch with family and friends in their native countries
  • Use the threat of deportation as a tool of control

Disabled people: They are especially vulnerable to domestic violence, including sexual assault. Their abusers may:

  • Steal their Social Security disability payments
  • Damage wheelchairs or other assistive equipment
  • Harm or threaten to harm a service dog or other animal
  • Refuse to help them use the bathroom or do other needed tasks

Pregnant women: The abuse can start or get worse as the woman shifts some of their focus away from their partner to their unborn baby. Physical violence also can raise the woman’s chances of miscarriage or complications during labor.

Is Mutual Abuse a Real Thing?

Mutual abuse doesn’t exist. While there may be harmful behaviors from both sides of the relationship, abuse happens when one person holds more control over the other. You may find that you and your partner get in fights a lot, purposely hurt each other’s feelings, or you may hurt your partner back out of self-defense.

Your partner may use these moments to try to convince you that you’re abusive, too. But a relationship can’t be mutually abusive. This is because it’s impossible for both partners to have the same amount of control over each other at the same time.

An abusive partner may try to shift blame and say things like:

  • “You hit me, too.”
  • “What you said made me act that way toward you.”
  • “You started this.”

If your partner “blame shifts,” it means that they claim you’re equally or more responsible for an abusive situation. Their goal is to manipulate you to believe that you did something to deserve abusive treatment. If you think you’re at fault, it’s easier for your abuser to have control over you.

It’s important to remember that self-defense and violent resistance are different from abuse. If you’ve yelled at, argued with, or used physical force against your partner to protect yourself, this is not abuse.

Over time, abuse can lead to:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Low self-worth
  • Emotional stress
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

You may feel the need to get violent or yell back at your partner when you feel your safety is at risk.

While this isn’t healthy, it may be a self-defense tactic to attempt to maintain your independence. Although an abusive partner may say otherwise, self-defense isn’t abuse.

If You’re Abused

The abused person is never at fault. Fights and arguments happen in every relationship. But a pattern of abusive words and behavior is not normal and it’s not OK.

If you think you’re being abused, consider reaching out to an advocate who can help support you. Abusive partners tend to separate you from your family and friends. This may cause you to feel alone or like you have no one to turn to.

If you need help or advice, call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 800-799-7233 for 24/7 help. Or visit www.thehotline.org anytime for a live chat.

It’s important to be prepared. If you’re in a domestic abuse situation:

  • Plan for how to get out of the house if your partner becomes violent. Stay near a door so that you can escape quickly.
  • Pack a suitcase of essential clothing, medications, important documents, money, keys, emergency phone numbers, or other things. Keep this hidden from your partner but accessible to you if you need to leave suddenly.
  • Keep a list of important contacts (such as local shelters, safe friends/family, other resources).
  • Tell trusted neighbors about the abuse and ask them to stop by, call your home, or call a third party (like a friend/family member or the police if you’d prefer) if they hear noise from your home.
  • If you have children, chat with them about how they can keep themselves safe, too.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

U.S. Department of Justice: “Domestic Violence.”

Helpguide.org: “Domestic Violence and Abuse.”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: “LGBTQ Relationship Violence,” “Abuse and Immigrants,” “Domestic Violence and People with Disabilities,” “Pregnancy and Abuse: How to Stay Safe for Your 9 Months,” “What is Domestic Violence?”

Domestic Violence London (UK): “What is Domestic Violence/Forms of Domestic Violence.”

National Domestic Violence Hotline: “The Myth of Mutual Abuse.”

Mount Sinai: “You Asked It: Can a Relationship be “Mutually Abusive”?

Voices Against Violence: “What is Domestic Violence?”

National Domestic Violence Hotline: “If You Are Being Abused.”

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