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What Is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is when one partner in an intimate relationship abuses the other. The abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional or a combination of all three.

Physical abuse can include very aggressive acts, such as beatings and forced sexual activity including intercourse, or it can take the form of less severe acts like throwing, shoving and slapping.

In emotional abuse, the abuser constantly humiliates and puts down the victim. The weapons of emotional abuse include verbal insults, threats, control of physical activity, unfounded accusations of infidelity, control of economic decisions and social isolation.

Depending on the relationship, the physical or emotional abuse may happen very often or not as often. Either way, it will usually continue and get worse over time. No matter how often the abuse happens, the victim of domestic violence suffers constant terror and stress, living in fear of the next episode.

While women are most commonly the victims of their male partners, domestic violence can happen between all sorts of people and in all sorts of relationships. It happens between people who are married and between people who aren’t living together. It can be abuse by a man against a woman, or by a woman against a man. It can occur in gay or lesbian couples.

Domestic violence is a common reality in our society. It occurs in all social classes, ethnic groups, cultures and religions. Most people don’t realize how common it is, because very often victims of abuse keep quiet.

These two studies show just how strongly victims feel the need to keep quiet:

  • A study of women treated by medical practitioners reported that 92 percent of the women whose partner had physically abused them did not reveal the abuse to their physicians, and 52 percent had not discussed the abuse with anyone. (Social Problems, 34 (1), 1987)
  • The National Crime Survey found that 48 percent of all domestic violence incidents against women were not reported to law enforcement. (New York: The Commonwealth Fund, July 14, 1993)

Despite these facts, a number of studies have attempted to show how often domestic violence occurs:

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  • Seven percent of women who were married or living with a partner were physically abused, and their spouse or partner verbally or emotionally abused 37 percent or them. (New York: The Commonwealth Fund, July 14, 1993)
  • Between 3 million and 4 million adult women in the United States are abused yearly by an intimate partner. About one in four women is likely to be abused by a partner in her lifetime. (Journal of the American Medical Association, 267:3184-3189, 1992)
  • A study conducted in emergency rooms and walk-in clinics reported that 54 percent of a sample of women treated in emergency departments had been threatened or physically injured by a partner. (Journal of the American Medical Association, 273:1763-1767, 1995)

There is some disagreement as to how often men are abused by their female partners and who initiates the incidents of abuse.

What Is Domestic Violence?

Toby D. Goldsmith, MD

APA Reference
Goldsmith, T. (2020). What Is 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.