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Domestic violence and abusive relationships

12-minute read

If you (or someone else) are in danger, or if you have been threatened, physically hurt or sexually assaulted, call triple zero (000).

What is domestic violence?

Domestic violence (also known as family violence) occurs when someone uses violence or manipulation to maintain power and control over someone they’re close to. It can involve violence, intimidation, threats, insults or psychological manipulation.

The abuse can involve a partner or ex-partner, a carer or guardian, a family member, or anyone who is in close contact with another person. Anyone, regardless of their background, can find themselves in an abusive relationship.

What are the types of domestic violence and abuse?

Abusive relationships do not always involve physical violence. There are other kinds of equally damaging abuse, none of which are acceptable. The abuser can be a man or a woman.

Types of abuse include:

  • Physical abuse: direct assault on the body, such as strangulation, slapping, punching, kicking, shaking or pushing, which may include the use of weapons or objects. Physical abuse can also include throwing objects, the denial of food and the destruction of property.

  • Sexual abuse: any form of rape, unwanted or forced sexual activity, sexual threats and insults, restricting access to contraception or refusing to wear a condom.

  • Verbal abuse: intimidation, verbal attacks, threats, insults, name-calling, yelling or humiliation. Themes might relate to body shape, sexuality, intelligence or ability as a parent.

  • Psychological or emotional abuse: blaming or ignoring the person (‘sulking’), treating the person as inferior, frequently saying their behaviour is inappropriate, questioning their sense of reality, emotional blackmail or suicide threats. The perpetrator might also stalk, spy on or follow the person, including monitoring emails or phone calls and using GPS tracking.

  • Social isolation: isolating the victim from their family and friends, such as forbidding or preventing contact with them and ongoing rudeness to family and friends. The perpetrator might insist the person moves far away from family support or employment opportunities.

  • Financial abuse: maintaining control of family finances, such as restricting access to bank accounts, wages or pensions, providing a small ‘allowance’, hiding assets, preventing the person from working, sabotaging interviews or meetings, and theft.

  • Spiritual abuse: ridiculing a person’s religious beliefs and culture or preventing them from being part of a religion or cultural group.

  • Child abuse: physical and sexual abuse, neglect, verbal and emotional abuse of a child.

  • Elder abuse: similar to child abuse but directed at elderly people.

  • Neglect: often failing to meet the basic physical or psychological needs of a person you’re caring for, such as a child. This might include failing to protect them from physical harm or danger or stopping them from getting medical care. It can also be neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, the other person’s basic emotional needs.

Who is at risk of domestic violence?

Domestic violence can affect anyone in the community, regardless of their level of income, status, gender, age, race or culture. Most victims, however, are women and children, and most perpetrators are male.

Visit this page for information on domestic violence against men.

The risk of domestic violence is highest around the time of a relationship breakdown.

Other risk factors include pregnancy and alcohol or drug addiction (affecting the victim or perpetrator). Women with a history of mental illness and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to experience domestic violence.

What are the signs of domestic violence?

Certain types of injuries can act as warning signs that a person may be a victim of (physical) domestic violence. For example, people who have multiple or repeated injuries without a logical explanation, seem strangely ‘accident prone’, or show tell-tale marks such as bruises, fingernail scratches or cigarette burns.

Other signals of domestic violence you might notice in a friend or relative include:

  • they have lost their confidence or are unusually quiet
  • they seem afraid of their partner
  • they have stopped seeing their friends or family
  • their partner often criticises them, humiliates them, orders them about or makes all the decisions
  • their partner controls how the other person spends money, what they wear or what they do
  • they often talk about their partner’s bad temper or jealousy (they might regularly accuse the other of flirting or being unfaithful)
  • they say their partner pressures or forces them into sexual activity
  • they have physical injuries, like bruises, broken bones, sprains or cuts
  • the children seem afraid of the person or are very withdrawn or anxious

What are the effects of domestic violence?

People affected by domestic violence can feel scared, anxious, have trouble sleeping, have trouble concentrating, lose confidence and feel isolated. If you are living in an abusive relationship, you might find yourself changing your behaviour or avoiding certain topics around the person. You may feel like you deserve the abuse or that you are to blame. But you are never to blame for someone else’s behaviour.

Besides physical injuries, people in an abusive relationship are also at risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Domestic violence can increase the risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression, deliberate self-harm and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How may the abuse affect my children?

Domestic violence can have a devastating effect on children, even if the child is not a direct victim of violence. Witnessing violence between parents can disrupt a child’s sense of safety and security in the long term.

Domestic violence can have long-term effects on children’s physical and mental health, as well as their learning and social development. They may not learn about good relationships, and are more likely to use controlling and manipulative behaviour themselves.

Signs that a child themselves is being abused include:

What is the 'cycle of abuse'?

If abuse happens once, it can happen again. It can progress into a 'cycle of abuse' that may involve different phases.

First there is a build-up — tension starts to increase, with verbal, emotional or financial abuse. This may then be followed by the stand over, when the behaviour gets worse and the person being abused may feel they are 'walking on egg shells'.

Next comes the explosion. Things erupt, and this may result in violence.

Afterwards, the abuser may feel remorse, when they are ashamed of their behaviour and try to justify it. The abuser may seem distant or start a pursuit, when they promise not to do it again, make excuses or pay more attention to the person they have abused.

Both people then may enter a honeymoon phase, when they both are in denial about how bad the abuse is.

The cycle often starts again.

What can I do if I'm in an abusive relationship?

If you (or someone else) are in danger, or if you have been threatened, physically hurt or sexually assaulted, call triple zero (000).

If you think you are in an abusive relationship, or know someone who might be, get help now. Trust your 'gut instincts'.

If you are in danger, protect yourself. Get out of the situation and call the police. Talk to someone you trust, whether it’s a friend, family member or a counsellor, who can help you decide what to do next. Then come up with a plan — decide what to do the next time something bad happens.

If you feel safe to confront the other person, tell them that their behaviour is unacceptable. Set boundaries about what you will and will not accept. You could also seek counselling, either together or alone.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, it’s important to seek help as early as possible. For many people who experience domestic violence, the most important first step is to find safe housing, including for any children involved. The police should be contacted, and ongoing legal protection arranged, such as an apprehended violence order (AVO). Some people may need financial assistance to establish a new home in safety.

Both victims and perpetrators require support and assistance to recover, and may have mental health issues that need to be addressed. Types of therapy for those recovering from domestic violence includes supportive therapy, self-esteem building, self-empowerment techniques and trauma therapy.

If you are currently experiencing domestic violence or feel unsafe in an intimate or family relationship, call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault, Domestic, Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). Scroll down for more ways to get help.

How do I start a conversation about domestic violence?

If you have a friend or relative who’s in an abusive relationship, get some advice if you need to. You can see your GP or contact one of the services listed below. Talk to the person in a sensitive way, letting them know you are worried. Don’t push the person into talking if they are uncomfortable but let them know that you’re available if they need help.

How can I help an adult?

Simply ‘being there’ for someone can make all the difference. If someone is talking to you about domestic violence, you should listen closely and take the abuse seriously.

Follow these tips:

  • Help the person to recognise that what is happening is abuse.
  • Help them make a plan to stay safe — including their children, if they have any.
  • Offer practical help like minding children or cooking a meal.
  • Tell the person about domestic violence counselling services.
  • Keep supporting the person after they have left the relationship.

How can I help a child?

If you think a child is witnessing domestic violence, you can help by:

  • letting them know it’s not their fault
  • making sure the child knows safe people they can go to for help
  • letting their school or childcare centre know about your concerns
  • calling the family and community services child protection helpline in your state or territory

Where can I get more help and resources?

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2020

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