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Understanding Domestic Violence

Domestic violence, or violence in the family unit, with women and children as primary victims, is a major public health problem.

Domestic violence constitutes a pattern of abusive behavior that includes the use or threat of violence and intimidation for the purpose of gaining power and control over another person. A violent event is seldomly an isolated incident, but part of a pattern which increases in both frequency and severity over time.

Abusive behavior can be defined as physical abuse, psychological and emotional abuse, sexual abuse or economic coercion.

  • Physical Abuse—Any act of violence that is designed to control, hurt, harm or physically assault a partner. This includes pushing, punching, kicking, grabbing, pulling hair, choking, slapping, damaging property or valued items, the use of weapons and refusing to help a sick partner.
  • Sexual Abuse—Any action forcing the partner to perform sexual acts against her or his will. This includes pursuing sexual activity with a partner that is not fully conscious, uninvited touching, unwanted sexual intercourse and coercing a partner to have sex without protection against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Psychological or Emotional Abuse—Any action intended to degrade, humiliate or demean, both in public or private. This includes verbal threats, yelling, intimidation, harassment, criticism, lying, withholding information and isolation from family or friends. Psychological abuse may precede or accompany physical violence as a means of control.
  • Economic Coercion—Any action forcing the partner to become dependent on the abuser for money and survival. This includes withholding money, a car or other resources; sabotaging attempts to make money independently; or controlling all family finances.

The Scope of the Problem

Domestic violence is a major worldwide epidemic. This section will focus on the scope of the problem in the United States.

Battering is the No. 1 cause of injuries to women—more common as a source of injury than rapes, muggings and automobile accidents combined. Although it is difficult to obtain accurate statistics concerning the incidence of domestic violence, it is estimated that at least 3 million to 4 million women are beaten by their husbands or partners annually.

A woman is more likely to be assaulted, injured, raped or killed by a male partner than by any other type of assailant. About half of all marital relationships involve some form of domestic violence. Of males that beat their wives or partners, 47 percent do so three or more times a year. More than one-half of the female homicide victims in this country are killed by their male partners. In Massachusetts alone, a battered woman is killed once every nine days.

To put the information in perspective, during the Vietnam War, there were 58,000 American soldiers killed in Southeast Asia; during the same period of time, 51,000 women were murdered by their partners in America.

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Who Is at Risk?

Domestic violence threatens the lives of millions of Americans each year and crosses all ethnic, racial, sexual orientation, religious and socioeconomic lines. The majority, an estimated 90 percent to 95 percent, of domestic violence victims in heterosexual relationships are women.

There are various factors that appear to place certain women at a somewhat greater risk for abuse.

  • Age—Women between the ages of 19 and 29 are at greater risk. This age group reported more violence by intimate partners than any other age group.
  • Marital Status—Separated or divorced women were 14 times more likely than married women to report having been a victim of domestic violence. It is, however, possible in some situations that separation or divorce directly resulted from the violence.
  • Pregnancy—Medical sources suggest that about 37 percent of obstetric patients are physically abused while pregnant. About 21 percent of women who were previously abused report an increase in the abuse during pregnancy. Pregnant women who were already victims of domestic violence face the risk of more severe violence. Advanced stages of pregnancy leave a woman less mobile and less able to avoid a physical attack; therefore, the risk for injuries to the woman and her fetus increases.
  • Possessive Partner—Women in a relationship with an excessively jealous or possessive partner are at a greater risk.
  • Substance Abuse—Women who abuse alcohol or other drugs or have a relationship with someone who abuses alcohol or drugs are at a greater risk.
  • History of Abuse—Children raised in families in which domestic violence was present are more likely to be the victim or perpetrator of domestic violence in adulthood. Men who have witnessed domestic violence between their parents are three times more likely to abuse their own wives than children of nonviolent parents.
Understanding Domestic Violence

Psych Central Staff

Psych Central Staff writers are vetted, professional authors and science journalists. All work written under this moniker is editorially and scientifically reviewed by Psych Central.

APA Reference
Psych Central. (2020). Understanding Domestic Violence. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.