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Domestic violence

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Domestic violence or abuse takes many forms. It can be physical, emotional or psychological, sexual, financial or related to cultural practices. It is often hidden, surprisingly common and affects men and women of all ages. This leaflet will help you understand what counts as domestic violence or abuse and how to get help.

Can you imagine a world in which someone is hiding, too frightened to move? A world where a simple trip to the shops leads to broken bones? Can you imagine a world where the threat of violence is an everyday occurrence? Sadly this is the everyday experience of many women.

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How can I get help?

Domestic violence is an abuse of human rights, an abuse that occurs within a relationship where there should be love and trust. It is a horribly common problem which can happen to anyone, young or old, rich or poor, male or female. Anyone can fall victim to domestic violence and abuse. It has devastating, far-reaching effects on the lives and health of those victims, on their children and on wider society. There are lots of ways to get help if this is happening to you. There are also many ways you can help someone you suspect is a victim of domestic violence.

You can find out more about getting help, or helping someone else, in our separate leaflet called Getting Help for Domestic Violence.

What counts as abuse?

Any form of physical or sexual abuse from your partner or your ex-partner is a form of domestic violence. But the reality is that any form of threatening or intimidating behaviour from them is domestic abuse. It is a way of controlling you and it is a crime.

If you are assaulted or threatened, humiliated or intimidated by your partner in order to make you behave in a particular way; if you feel as though your every move is being monitored, and this frightens you; if you feel you no longer have any independence and no way of getting the emotional, social or financial support you need - these are all forms of domestic violence and abuse.

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What questions should I ask myself?

If you have had to change your behaviour because you are frightened of your partner, it is likely you are suffering from domestic abuse.

Questions to ask yourself

If the answer to one or more is "yes", you may be in an abusive relationship. (These questions may apply to a close family member rather than a partner.)

  • Are you ever frightened of your partner?

  • Does your partner put you down in front of other people?

  • Have you ever changed your behaviour because you are scared of what your partner might say or do?

  • Does your partner stop you from seeing your friends or family? Or do you avoid your friends and family because you are embarrassed about how your partner treats you?

  • Has your partner ever hurt you or your children, or threatened to do so?

  • Has your partner ever damaged or destroyed any of your possessions?

  • Does your partner have a bad or unpredictable temper?

  • Has your partner ever forced you to have sex, or perform sexual acts, when you didn't want to?

  • Is your partner jealous or possessive? Does your partner accuse you of having affairs or flirting when it isn't true? Does your partner check up on you, read your emails and messages, or follow you?

  • Does your partner threaten to end their life, or self-harm, or harm someone else if you were to leave?

  • Does your partner not allow you access to money when you need it, or your phone or transport? Are your finances rigidly controlled, or do you have to account for every penny?

  • Does your partner ever suggest that any of these things are your fault?

  • Are you frightened that your partner might catch you reading this?

What is domestic violence?

In 2013, the UK government agreed to define domestic violence and abuse as: "Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality."

  • The definition of "coercive behaviour" was expanded to explain it is: "an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten."

  • The definition of "controlling behaviour" was expanded to explain it is: "a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour."

Types of abuse

These include:

  • Physical abuse - hurting people physically, by kicking, punching, beating, slapping, strangling, burning, biting, etc.

  • Sexual abuse - forcing people to have sex when they don't want to, or to perform sexual acts they are not comfortable with.

  • Financial abuse - taking control of somebody's money and not allowing them choice. This makes it more difficult for the person to get away from their abuser and to get help.

  • Emotional or psychological abuse - destroying a person's feeling of self-worth or independence. This can be by:

    • Verbal abuse (blaming, shaming, shouting).

    • Keeping a person away from their friends or family.

    • Threatening or intimidating behaviour.

    • Controlling behaviour.

  • Elder abuse - when harm is done to an older person by a family member or partner. This happens in a relationship where there is an expectation of trust, and often to somebody with a disability or illness.

  • Certain cultural practices such as:

    • Female genital mutilation - this is against the law even when the girl or woman is taken abroad for the procedure to be done.

    • So-called "honour" violence - when women are punished for bringing shame on the family by doing something which is not permitted in their culture. For example, inappropriate dress, seeking divorce, having a boyfriend from another group of society, pregnancy outside of marriage.

    • Forced marriage - marriage forced to take place without the consent or free will of the person getting married.

Domestic violence happens right across society, whatever gender, race, sexuality, social class or age people are.

Domestic violence is also sometimes referred to as "intimate partner violence" (IPV).

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How common is domestic violence?

Domestic violence and abuse is a common problem. One in four women and one in six men will suffer it in their lifetimes. These numbers give some idea of the scale of the problem. From a 2011-12 survey in England and Wales:

  • Two women are killed each week by a male partner or ex-partner.

  • At any one time 100,000 people are at risk of being murdered or seriously harmed due to domestic violence.

  • 1.2 million women a year suffer domestic abuse.

  • 4 in every 100 women have been stalked every year.

  • Around 1,500 cases of forced marriage are reported each year.

  • 66,000 women are living with the consequences of female genital mutilation.

  • Domestic violence costs the taxpayer around £3.6 billion every year.

Worldwide, up to 70% of women experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner at some time in their lives.

Whilst domestic violence can affect anybody, it affects women more often than men.

Who is affected by domestic violence?

Domestic violence has far-reaching effects on the victim, both physically and mentally. It also has strong links with child abuse, and its cost to society as a whole is enormous.

Effects of domestic violence on the person being abused

Possible effects include:

  • Physical injuries.

  • Death, by suicide or homicide.

  • Miscarriage during pregnancy, as well as premature labour and fetal distress in the infant.

  • Unintended pregnancy.

  • Homelessness.

  • Lost opportunities - jobs, hobbies, children, friends, experiences. Lost relationships with family, friends or children.

  • Low self-esteem.

  • Anxiety or depression.

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • Substance abuse

  • Poor health generally (women suffering domestic abuse often go to their GPs with vague symptoms for which there is no obvious cause).

  • Increased risk of acquiring HIV.

There is a strong link between domestic violence and child abuse/neglect. The UK Department of Health says around 750,000 children a year experience domestic violence. In households where there is domestic violence, about three quarters of it is seen by children. About half of these children are abused themselves. Children in these families have a higher risk of being sexually abused.

Effects of domestic violence on children

Depending on their age some possible effects are:

  • Physical injuries.

  • Sexual abuse.

  • Behavioural difficulties.

  • Learning difficulties.

  • Slow speech and language development.

  • Bedwetting.

  • Nightmares.

  • Not doing as well at school as they should.

  • Not making friends.

  • Anxiety.

  • Depression.

  • Self-harm.

  • Drug and alcohol abuse.

  • Loss of a parent.

  • Change in their relationship with their mother.

  • Insecurity - they don't feel safe in their own home.

  • An increased risk of becoming the perpetrator of violence against an intimate partner in the future (by 3- to 4-fold).

What financial impact does domestic violence bring with it?

It is estimated that the cost of domestic violence in the UK is £3.6 billion a year. This is made up of:

  • The cost of the role of the criminal justice system - police, courts, prisons.

  • The cost to the NHS - the costs of treating physical injury and mental health problems including hospital care, GP appointments, prescriptions and ambulances.

  • The cost of housing.

  • The cost to social services.

  • The cost to employers.

In the USA the cost has been estimated to be US$ 5.8 billion annually.

Further reading and references

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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