What is domestic and
family violence?

Domestic and family violence is often thought to be defined by physical assaults only – but this is not necessarily the case. What follows is a definition and explanation of what domestic violence is, for those who may be concerned about their own relationship, or the relationship of a friend or loved one.

Domestic and family violence refers to a wide range of behaviours designed to create dependency, to isolate or control someone, or to monitor their activities. It occurs when a person tries to deny someone of their freedom of action, as well as trying to frighten, humiliate, or degrade them.

In Australia, one in six women and one in 16 men will experience physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner at some point in their lives. These are shocking statistics, but they are also not the whole story. While physical and sexual violence may be the most obvious examples, people who use violence against their partners will usually use other non-physical abusive tactics to control them.

Violent and abusive behaviour varies across relationships. Often minimised, justified, or defended by the victims who are experiencing it, it may mean that any concrete assessment of what has happened can be difficult.

What might be described as a ‘push and shove’ could have actually been a push down the stairs. A nudge with a foot could have been a kick, and a ‘tap’ could have been a head butt.

A definition of domestic violence in a relationship can be any of the following:

  • Behaviour which is emotionally abusive or gaslighting
  • Behaviour that is violent, threatening or intimidating
  • Behaviour that has as its purpose making another dependent on, or subordinate to, the perpetrator
  • Behaviour which isolates the victim from friends, relatives or other sources of support
  • Behaviour that is controlling, regulating or monitoring day-to-day activities
  • Behaviour that deprives or is restricting of another’s freedom of action
  • Behaviour that is frightening, humiliating, degrading or punishing
  • Behaviour which tries to restrict or control the victim’s finances or access to money.


Who experiences domestic violence?

Anyone can experience domestic and family violence, regardless of their age, gender, wealth, community, culture, education, socioeconomic status, or employment status. Statistically speaking, men are more likely to use violence and control tactics in adult intimate relationships, and women are overwhelmingly the victims of it.

However, of experiencing domestic violence doesn’t affect all women equally. Women with disabilities, young women, pregnant women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, and women experiencing financial hardship are most at risk of experiencing domestic violence.

Women are particularly at risk of physical harm as a result of domestic violence, and on average, one woman is killed in Australia every week by a current or former partner. Intimate partner violence causes more illness, disability and deaths than any other risk factor for women aged 25-44.

Men can also experience violence and abuse from their gay or heterosexual partners, as well as from their parents, siblings, teenage and grown children.

Older Australians, male and female, can also experience abuse, intimidation, and violence from their male and female adult children and extended carer group. This is a complex and pervasive social problem, and sadly no one is immune to it.


Domestic violence is not just defined by physical assaults

Domestic and family violence is often thought to be characterised by physical assaults only. This is not always necessarily the case. Domestic violence is usually much more than physical abuse, and in fact, may not include it at all.

Emotional, psychological, financial, sexual and social control are all types of domestic abuse, and many are likely to be present in a physically unsafe relationship.

Control and power can be enacted by words as well as deeds, and it is important to recognise these behaviours, while not physically violent, are still serious types of domestic abuse.



The NSW Government’s definition of domestic abuse lists ten types of abusive behaviours that may be present in domestic and family violence:

  • Verbal abuse, such as screaming, shouting, name-calling or swearing
  • Psychological abuse, such as creating fear by driving dangerously or making threats about custody of children
  • Emotional abuse, such as comparing them with others to undermine self-confidence or blaming them for all the problems in the relationship
  • Social abuse, such as being rude to family and friends to alienate them, or restricting use of the car or telephone
  • Financial abuse, such as forbidding access to bank accounts or only giving a small ‘allowance’
  • Physical abuse, such as direct assaults on the body, hurting children, or not allowing access to medical care
  • Sexual abuse, such as pressured or unwanted sex, forced sex without protection, or sexually degrading insults
  • Harassment and stalking, such as following or watching, online harassment or GPS tracking
  • Spiritual or religious abuse, such as using beliefs to shame or make someone stay in the relationship, or preventing them practicing their beliefs
  • Reproductive abuse, such as forcing them to become pregnant or have an abortion, passing on a sexually transmitted infection, or preventing access to contraceptives
  • Image-based abuse, such as taking nude or sexual images without permission or sharing or threatening to share nude or sexual images with other people.

Defining domestic violence is also about more than just ticking off a list of behaviours. Some of the behaviours above may be present in relationships that are unhealthy, but do not necessarily constitute domestic violence on their own. For example, yelling at your partner may be hurtful and not great relationship communication, but it may not be abusive by itself. In fact, it’s a behaviour that may also be used by someone experiencing violence, to try and stop the violence being used against them.


What is the cycle of domestic violence?

Violence in relationships has been described as following a ‘cycle of violence’. This can involve periods of calm which build into a violent or abusive episode – which could be brief or extended.

This is followed by apologies, sometimes gifts, and other attempts to repair the relationship. Then there is often a sort of ‘honeymoon period’ when the couple work hard to try cover up what has happened and reconnect with each other. Finally, there is another a period of comparative stability before the next abusive episode occurs.

While some victims recognise aspects of this cycle, there are also examples where there is no warning or build up, but more of an explosion ‘out of the blue’. Some experience very little apology or repair, or happy periods.

Time also varies in terms of violent behaviours. While some might go through a version of this cycle daily, for others it might be across a week or even periods of months.

Victims sometimes describe being able to know when the buildup is happening and can leave for a visit with a friend. However, any suggestion that the victim must manage the relationship in this way is in itself problematic. Domestic violence is never the fault or responsibility of the victim.


Identifying patterns of abuse

Another widely used tool to help explain the patterns behind domestic violence and abusive behaviour is the Power and Control Wheel, developed collaboratively by women in Duluth, Minnesota who had experienced domestic violence.

This tool helps explain how different behaviours work together to create a situation in which one person in the relationship is controlled by the other.


How children are impacted by domestic violence

One in four children experience family violence, either as direct harm to them, or by seeing or hearing a parent – usually their mother – being harmed. More than half of women who are experiencing domestic violence have children in their care. Experiencing domestic violence can have both short-term and long-term negative impacts on children, such as causing physical and emotional harm, impacting cognitive development, and affecting their relationships with family members, peers and future partners.

While it is important to understand these risks to ensure that children get the right support when they need it, it is also worth noting that none of these impacts are inevitable. Many children who have experienced family violence are resilient and go on to thrive as adults, especially when they have good support around them.


Getting help with domestic and family violence

Violent and abusive behaviour is unlikely to change without professional assistance, and it is not short-term work. It takes dedication, persistence, and time.

It also takes the perpetrator to be accountable for their negative behaviour. Attendance at a domestic violence behaviour change program is an essential step, with additional counselling and ongoing support for change afterwards.

Healing and repair, if the relationship has survived, may involve couple counselling, but this is not recommended until the relationship is safe.


If you or someone you know has experienced any type of domestic violence or abuse – even once – it is important to seek help. If you are in immediate danger, call 000. You can also call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732). If you think you might be using violent or abusive behaviours towards someone in your family, you can contact Mensline by phone or online.

Relationships Australia offers counselling services for male and female victims of domestic violence. Contact us for a confidential discussion.

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