Domestic violence is about power and control. Abuse can happen to anyone of any race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.

Mature woman standing outdoors in fallShare on Pinterest
The Good Brigade/Getty Images

Being hurt by an intimate partner or spouse can be a very confusing and traumatizing experience for survivors of domestic abuse.

People on the outside may wonder why survivors don’t “just leave,” but abusive or violent relationships are often marked by complex dynamics that make it difficult to get away.

And despite societal and cultural stigma around who might experience abuse, domestic violence can happen to anyone. More than 10 million adults in the United States experience abuse by their romantic or intimate partner every year.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, it’s essential to understand that you aren’t at fault for your partner’s behavior. Survivors don’t “make” their abusers punish or target them with physical or psychological abuse.

Abusers use domestic violence to gain power and control over their targets. Domestic violence is a choice on the part of the abuser, but certain underlying factors might sometimes contribute to a person’s propensity for abuse, including:

Domestic abuse, also known as intimate partner abuse, describes any situation where a romantic or intimate partner or spouse uses dominating or violent behavior to exert control over a partner, physically, sexually, or psychologically.

Abuse can begin subtly for many people who experience it. This may make abusive behaviors difficult to discern in some cases, especially during the initial onset of abuse.

The goal of abusers who engage in domestic violence is almost always to control. Abusive partners and spouses may be looking for a way to manipulate you and maintain a sense of dominance.

Domestic abuse can take many forms, including these common types:

  • Sexual. Forcing you to participate in nonconsensual acts, including sexual assault and rape, demeaning behaviors, infidelity, or exploitation.
  • Physical. Any behaviors that directly harm you physically, including violence such as assault or withholding needs, like food, sleep, or housing.
  • Isolation. Preventing you from seeing family, friends, or attending social events.
  • Control. Eliminating freedom by controlling you from making your own choices, checking up on you obsessively, dictating your clothing or style choices, or using your children as leverage.
  • Emotional. Targeting your insecurities or vulnerabilities; brainwashing.
  • Verbal. Using words to threaten, blame, or demean you; screaming and flying into rages.
  • Male privilege. Adhering to cultural beliefs that men must be dominant over women.
  • Economic. Your partner has complete control over your spending and income, or squanders money on nonessentials.

Experiences of domestic abuse can often include many tactics at once.

You might find verbal and emotional abuse go hand in hand. Or your partner may control all your personal finances because of a belief that “that’s what men are supposed to do.”

Signs of domestic abuse

Because domestic abuse can be subtle and complex, you may not be sure whether what you’re experiencing qualifies as abuse.

Domestic abuse can be much more than physical violence. Even if they don’t cause you physical harm, controlling or dominating behaviors can still be considered domestic abuse.

Signs of financial abuse:

  • All the finances are under your partner’s name.
  • Your name is used for legal documents without your permission.
  • You have an allowance that’s often unrealistic and not self-imposed.
  • You’re not allowed to work or have income.

Signs of sexual abuse:

  • You’re forced into sexual acts or sex work.
  • You’re harmed during intimacy or sexually assaulted
  • Birth control is either withheld or forced on you without your consent.

Signs of physical abuse:

  • You experience physical assault.
  • Unwanted rough play occurs.
  • Partner aggression is directed at things you care about, like belongings, children, or pets.
  • You’re punished with deliberate reckless driving.
  • You’re forced or pressured into taking substances nonconsensually.
  • Your partner withholds food, water, or prevents sleep.
  • Your partner holds you down or keeps you imprisoned.

Signs of emotional abuse:

  • Your partner devalues or dismisses your beliefs.
  • Your partner withholds praise or appreciation.
  • Your partner is excessively jealous.
  • You’re accused of constant infidelity.
  • Your partner harms themselves or threatens to harm themselves to get you to cooperate.
  • Your partner makes you feel as though you deserved to be punished.

Signs of verbal abuse:

  • Your partner insults and demeans you.
  • Your partner belittles you in front of others.
  • You’re called names.
  • Your partner yells, screams, or rages at you.

Signs of control and isolation:

  • Your phone calls, text messages, or emails are constantly monitored.
  • Your partner demands you prove where you’re at whenever you’re apart.
  • You can’t wear certain clothes, do your hair a certain way, or wear makeup, or else your partner guilts or punishes you.
  • You’re not allowed to see family and friends.
  • Your partner stops you from attending social events.

Patriarchal domination:

  • Your partner refuses to do certain “women-only” chores.
  • You’re expected to behave in a submissive way.
  • You’re not allowed to contribute to decisions.

Domestic violence can be varied and individual, and there is no one cause of domestic violence.

It’s important to remember that domestic violence is a choice, not an uncontrolled impulse. A survivor’s actions cannot cause abusive behavior.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, you are never to blame. You can’t “make” someone abuse you, no matter what an abuser may say.

Even if you could do everything possible to please an abusive partner, their need to control you will likely still show itself through their behavior eventually.

In some cases, intimate partner abuse can be influenced by situations, including your own state of behavioral well-being. For example, if you and your partner both experience tendencies toward domestic violence, the situation may quickly spiral out of control.

While the possible causes of domestic violence may be as complex as some of the warning signs, research suggests much of domestic violence behavior is learned.

Children who witness domestic abuse may grow up thinking physical or psychological violence are acceptable ways to solve conflict. In the same way, raising children to believe a different gender is inferior may result in exhibiting controlling behavior later in life.

The need for control that could lead to domestic violence may be linked to several individual factors, including:

However, having some of these traits doesn’t automatically mean someone will have an unmet need for control that develops into domestic violence.

Having a partner who is insecure or experiences low self-esteem doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have tendencies for abuse.

Power and control

Domestic violence is set apart by one partner’s behavior pattern used to gain or maintain control and power over another partner. Abusers tend to use these behavioral tactics to keep their partner in the relationship.

Usually, abusive behavior starts subtly and gradually and can become continuous over time. With domestic violence, these nuanced behaviors lead to physical, sexual, or psychological violence.

Even when domestic abuse escalates, the more subtle behaviors — like financial or emotional abuse — may continue being used as a method of reinforcing violence by subduing the abused partner further, making them easier to control.

If you notice your partner’s behaviors are increasingly focused on controlling or manipulating you, this could indicate that you may be in an escalating domestic violence situation.

It can sometimes be challenging to seek help if you’re experiencing domestic violence. You might not have access to private communication, or it may not be possible for you to leave your home.

Even if you’ve decided you want to leave, you might not feel safe enough to get out yet.

Options are still available for you as a survivor of domestic violence, even if you might sometimes feel like you’ve hit a dead end in getting help.

No matter where you are in the world, you can find resources available through the United Nations Critical Incident Stress Management Unit at undsscismu@un.org.

In the United States, you may also receive anonymous, confidential help at any hour through the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233 or 800-787-3224 (TTY).

The National Domestic Violence Hotline also offers an online chat feature as well as the option to text by sending “START” to 88788.

Additional resources can be found by calling the National Center for Victims of Crime: 855-484-2846.

In the event of an emergency, dialing 911 or contacting your local authorities can provide immediate assistance.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, you are not alone. Millions of people live with and report domestic violence by an intimate or romantic partner every year.

Your actions can’t cause abusive behavior, and nothing you’ve done can make you “deserve” any form of abuse from your partner or anyone else.

Domestic violence is varied and individualized in different situations. There is no one cause of domestic violence.

Abuse is a choice, and domestic violence stems from a partner’s need to gain power and control. These behaviors may be rooted in:

  • childhood experiences
  • psychological disorders
  • cultural beliefs

Domestic abuse isn’t just physical violence but can be a complex mixture of emotional and mental manipulation. You may find you’re being isolated or can’t wear the things you’d like to wear. You may not have any privacy or freedom.

These nuances and complexities mean that it sometimes can be challenging to identify abuse.

However, help is available if and when you are ready and feel safe enough to leave. And even if you don’t yet feel safe enough to leave, there are still options for seeking support. There are ways to get help and heal.