DOMESTIC ABUSE - an overview

What is Domestic Abuse?

Domestic abuse or domestic violence is the term used to describe any abusive behaviour within an intimate relationship between two people. Generally, people will first think of physical violence, such as hitting, beating and slapping, but domestic abuse also covers emotional, mental, verbal, sexual and financial behaviours perpetrated by one person on another within an intimate relationship. Abusive behaviour is used to exert control within a relationship.

Very rarely is one form of domestic abuse found by itself. Generally where one form of abuse exists, it is within the context of other forms of abuse. Hence a perpetrator of physical violence will also subject his victim to emotional and verbal abuse. Abuse rarely stays the same, but usually increases both in severity and frequency over a period of time.

In severe cases, domestic violence can lead to the victim of abuse being killed by the abuser. In other cases, the constant emotional and verbal abuse can slowly erode the victim’s self-confidence and self-esteem. While physical abuse can, and often does, cause serious physical harm, often requiring medical intervention, emotional abuse hurts us deep inside and can leave permanent psychological and emotional scars.

Many people experience abuse within the so-called cycle of abuse or cycle of violence, in which periods of comparative calm or peace (known as the ‘honeymoon stage’) will be followed by a build-up toward an abusive episode. Though it may appear as though these periods of apparent calm are non-abusive, they are in actual fact simply part of a manipulative cycle, in which the abuser feels in control of their partner and situation, may show repentance for pain caused, even promise to change. Often it is these periods of apparent calm, which give the victim of abuse the hope that change can be achieved, and the abuse will stop, and keeps them locked in the abusive relationship.

The victim of abuse

Domestic abuse affects people from all social, racial and financial backgrounds. It affects men and women, old and young, heterosexual couples and homosexual couples alike. It may start almost immediately, or only after several years of being in a relationship. Though both victims and perpetrators of abuse come from all backgrounds, the shock, pain, confusion, feelings of guilt and betrayal of trust experienced as a result of being subject to domestic violence is common to all.
Many sufferers of violence do not speak out about what is happening at home, but suffer in silence, often for years. They may try to deny it to themselves, not wanting to admit to the reality of the abuse; they may feel shame about the abuse, as though it were their fault. A feeling of guilt about the abuse is almost universal – the victim of abuse believing, and being told by the perpetrator, that they or their actions are the cause of the abuse. This has a double effect: it enables the abuser to continue to feel justified in continuing their destructive behaviour, as the victim takes responsibility for the abuse, and also allows the victim to continue to believe that they can change the situation and can in some way control the abuse and stop it. Real change in a perpetrator of abuse however is sadly very rare.

Above all, it needs stressing that the victim of abuse is not responsible for the abuse and violence, but is being manipulated and coerced by the perpetrator.

Some long-term effects of abuse

While it seems obvious that physical violence can result in long-term effects and even disability (if not death), the consequences of suffering ongoing emotional abuse are often overlooked or minimised. As stated earlier on, emotional abuse can affect us deep inside and leave permanent emotional and psychological scars. Those who have been abused often experience long-term feelings and reactions, which can cause a lot of distress, including flashbacks, sudden feelings of anxiety, an inability to concentrate or feelings of unreality. These reactions and feelings are a normal reaction to a traumatic event and in their extreme form – especially where accompanied by depression and suicidal ideation – be considered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which requires medical assistance and support.

Even where the abuse does not have physical long-term effects or result in PTSD, the survivor of an abusive relationship will often suffer low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. Survivors commonly comment on feeling somehow ‘different’ to their peers, as though their experiences have in some way set them apart from the rest of society. Due to the controlling aspects of an abusive relationship, the survivors may find it difficult to make personal decisions and easily feel overwhelmed by everyday tasks. Throughout the abusive relationship, the victim of abuse will use various different coping mechanisms to survive emotionally and physically which are a necessary strategy while in such a situation, but can be debilitating in a non-abusive environment, and these have to be unlearned. Since abuse and violence within an intimate relationship are also a huge betrayal of trust, the survivor of abuse will often also have difficulty learning to trust someone else and open up emotionally for fear of being betrayed again.

Why are some people abusive?

It would be nice to know that all abuser walk around with a big A for 'abuser' on their forehead, are easily discernable by anyone 'normal' and always comply with the stereotypical image so often portrayed in the media. In actual fact one of the main problems encountered by victims, friends, family and various agencies dealing with the consequences of an abusive relationship, is how 'normal' the abuser seemed. Many victims of abuse comment on how their partner is like a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ – seems fine and lovely one moment or in public, but presents a completely different personality in private or at a different time. Often the victim of abuse will spend hours trying to work out what is causing the abuse, what makes their partner abusive.

Some people believe that abuse is only a case of bad anger management on the part of the perpetrator, and no doubt in some cases the abuser does have a problem dealing with anger in a non-destructive manner, but on the whole the reasons or causes of abuse are much more deep-rooted and complicated than a problem with anger or bad moods. There are various theories which try to explain why abuse takes place, including the theory that abuse is due to our living in a patriarchal society in which men perceive themselves as having a born right to control women and believe them to be their inferiors. This however, does not explain why abuse should occur within homosexual relationships, nor why in some cases it is the woman who is abusive toward her male partner. Another theory holds that abuse is a learned behaviour, i.e. that children who witness abuse at an early stage, will automatically go on to be abusive themselves, and while this does hold true for some perpetrators, the majority of abused children do not go on to abuse their partners in adulthood, nor does it explain why some adults from apparently non-abusive homes should carry on to become abusive themselves.

What is clear is that most abusers do not have feelings of either good self-esteem or self-worth themselves and feel the need to control their environment to feel in control (safe and secure) themselves. Where their attempts to control another person are successful, this abusive behaviour and belief in the ability to control their environment is increased – hence the chances of them changing is theoretically decreased the longer the abusive relationship continues.

In some cases abusive behaviour can be the result of mental illness, for instance someone suffering from schizophrenia may be violent toward their loved ones or destroy their belongings. Someone suffering from a dissociative disorder (DID) may also act out in a violent manner or be emotionally abusive. While the effects on the victim can be equally damaging or lethal, this abuse has to be considered within the context of the illness rather than specifically within the context of an abusive relationship as such.

Is it possible to spot a potential abuser?

While not all abusers act in the same way, it is sometimes possible to predict the likelihood of the person you are currently or are about to become involved with being abusive, since many, if not most, display some common tendencies. These may include excessive jealousy, controlling behaviour (often disguised or excused as concern), quick involvement and pressuring their boy/girlfriend to commit to them early on. They may have unrealistic expectations from either their partner or the relationship itself, may try to isolate their partner from family, friends or other social interactions, and are often hyper-sensitive, getting easily hurt or offended. Very rarely will an abusive person accept responsibility for any negative situation or problem, but will tend to shift the responsibility onto other people or situations in general. In a similar way, abusers will shift the blame/cause of their feelings outside of themselves, seeing their emotions as a reaction to other people or situations rather than stemming from themselves.

Other warning signs may include cruelty toward animals and/or children, the ‘playful’ use of force in sex, threats of violence or punishment, a belief in rigid stereotypical gender roles in a relationship, force used during an argument, and breaking or smashing objects.

While these potential warning signs may be helpful, the best defence against ending up as a victim of abuse may be to maintain a strong sense of self and ones’ personal boundaries, while at the same time realising that if one does find oneself in an abusive relationship, it is not ones’ own fault, and there is help available to escape.

How to help a friend experiencing abuse

If a friend confides in you that they are experiencing abuse, there are various ways in which you can help them. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Believe what they are telling you and be understanding – the chances are that you are hearing only about of the tip of the iceberg.
  • Inform yourself as much as possible about domestic abuse/violence and the resources available to victims and survivors – check out the web, local libraries and health centres, etc.
  • Be supportive toward your friend, reassure them that the abuse is not OK and not something they have to put up with, but don’t try to tell them what to do about it, let them make their own decisions knowing that you will be there for them regardless of their choice at that moment in time, even if it is staying with their abuser.
  • You can provide practical assistance by accompany them to their GP or local hospital if your friend is hurt and needs medical assistance, or by offering your address for info packs or your telephone for phone calls.
  • Help your friend to plan a safe strategy for leaving, bearing in mind that they will know what is and what is not safe, while ensuring that you don’t pressurise them into doing something which they may have doubts about.
  • Remember to look after yourself while supporting your friend!

If you are suffering abuse

If you are being abused, please realise that it is not your fault, that you are not to blame for the abuse and violence and that there is very little hope of the abuser changing. Know that there are many others who have experiences similar to yours and have survived, and that there is help and support available to you.

Look after yourself and treat yourself as your friend. Learn as much as you can about abuse and don’t be frightened of seeking support and help.

Where to find help and support in the UK

If you are living in the UK you can call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 08457 023468, which will provide a confidential listening ear and advice. If you are in need of immediate assistance and somewhere to go, call Refuge’s 24-hour National Crisis Line on 0990 995 443.

The Women’s Aid National Domestic Violence Helpline is also available to offer support, information and advice on what to do or where to go on 0345 023 468.

Male victims of abuse can call the Men's Advice Line and Enquiries on 020 8644 9914 for information, support and advice to men experiencing domestic violence.

For more national and regional helplines, check out the Resources section of while a complete up-to-date list of Women's Aid and National Refuge numbers is available at .

Other sources of help, support and advice can be found in your local telephone book or Yellow Pages, local library and obviously via your GP, local council offices and Social Services departments.

Many Refuges offer local support groups for both victims and survivors of domestic abuse and these can be found by contacting your local Refuge (see Womens’ Aid website or phone 0345 023 468).

Further reading and information

This article was provided courtesy of HIDDEN HURT, a UK-based Domestic Abuse website, designed to help understand the dynamics of an abusive relationships, the different forms abuse can take, it's effect on both direct victims and indirect victims (i.e. children living in a house where abuse occurs), specific issues facing the Christian abuse victim, together with helpful links and telephone numbers inside the UK, personal stories and poems and much more.

HIDDEN HURT is not a registered charity and is wholly dependent on private donations and sponsorship. If you feel this article has been helpful, please consider supporting the work we do.

© Lindsey Mason 2004

This page was last updated September 2004