Domestic Violence and Abuse – Defining the problem

Domestic violence is a crime that affects both men and women, although victims are much more likely to be female. Statistically, it is one of the more common crimes that a woman in the UK is likely to experience, with government data showing 7% of women and 3% of men experience domestic abuse in a year.

With around 1 in 5 adults being domestically abused at some point in their lives, abuse in relationships is a particularly severe problem for the UK. However, despite there being such endemic instances of domestic abuse in the UK, people are not always aware of the issue. In fact, if you ask what is domestic abuse, people will often give vague or incorrect answers, when in reality domestic abuse is clearly defined.

Definition of domestic abuse

For domestic violence the UK government define the issue as:

“Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to psychological, physical, sexual, financial, emotional.”

There are a number of behaviours that are considered part of this definition, including:

  • coercive and controlling behaviour
  • emotional abuse
  • online abuse
  • female genital mutilation (FGM)
  • financial abuse
  • forced marriage
  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • ‘honour-based’ violence

While the statistics show just how prevalent domestic abuse is, the reality is likely to be even worse, as many of the behaviours listed are not always associated with the domestic abuse definition. When we define abuse, it is in terms of the impact on the victim, including emotional damage as much as physical abuse, but often that emotional trauma is not correctly recognised for the harm it causes.

Very few would look at physical abuse and not understand that is a hallmark of an abusive relationship. If you asked someone to define domestic abuse, they would probably talk about hitting a partner or similar, but a domestic abuser may not ever lay a finger on their victim, which is why the government definition includes other types of abusive behaviour too.

The cycle of abuse

Developed by Lenore E Walker, the cycle of abuse refers to the four phases in the patterns of abuse that often define domestic violence in abusive relationships. These phases proceed as follows:

Phase 1 – Tension Building

Here, stress from daily life, bad days at work, small disagreements about children, who picks up the shopping or whatever, builds. The same stress can also be generated by an illness to one partner, leaving the other with more to do, financial issues or other outside influences that impacts the relationship in some way.

Phase 2 – The Incident

As the stress reaches a peak, the abuser lashes out at their victim. The goal is to dominate, whether that manifests as physical violence, verbal abuse or psychological abuse of some kind. The release of tension this brings for the abuser often convinces them that their partner ‘had it coming’ or other excuses, leading to the third phase.

Phase 3 - Reconciliation

Here the domestic abuser begins to feel remorse for what they did, or begin to fear their partner may take action against them, such as leaving the relationship or calling the police. For the victim, feelings usually focus on the humiliation and confusion of what happened, while they can often mistakenly blame themselves too.

From here, the two partners will come to some agreement, usually with promises that such incidents will never happen again. Domestic abusers can often be very convincing about the remorse they feel and the promises of changing, with victims wanting their relationship to work, so they stay together.

Phase 4 – The Calm

After the reconciliation, the abuser is on their best behaviour, and this is sometimes referred to as the honeymoon phase. The abuser seeks to repair the relationship, and during this phase may agree to counselling, buy presents and so on to present a better version of the relationship. However, over time things revert to the norm, and the stress cycle begins again.

The reason this matters is that an abusive relationship may go through this cycle a hundred times, but once began, it will not end until the victim breaks the cycle, usually by leaving. However, for a victim of domestic abuse, leaving is not always straightforward. In fact, while some victims may recognize this cycle while they are in it, and others see it when written down like this, some may still not understand they are in an abusive relationship without help.

For many, unless there is physical abuse, there is no domestic abuse, but the issues victims face can be just as destructive with or without a physical element.

Power and Control – The Abuse Wheel

The driving force for the majority of domestic abuse is about power and control. The abuser seeks to dominate their victim, and the abuse wheel highlights the ways on which that is achieved.

  • Coercion and threats such as threatening suicide or suggesting they will leave, take the children and so on may not leave physical evidence, but are nonetheless domestic abuse, and can leave significant mental injury.
  • Economic abuse is another non-physical form of domestic violence, whether that is preventing a partner for taking a job, hiding income and making the victim ask for money just to live give the abuser extensive control over their victim’s behaviour.
  • Isolating the victim from others, controlling what they read or see, all prevent the victim from discussing their situation and force reliance on the abuser.
  • Intimidation is another form of abuse that may not leave visible physical injury, but is seriously abusive and has a lasting impact. The domestic abuser may display physical violence, smashing furniture for instance, without actually harming the victim physically, but the threat is just as effective in generating fear, and is just as abusive as any other type.
  • Confusion is another way to mentally intimidate the victim. From dismissing abuse as a joke, something the victim should just forget to denying it ever occurred, as well as emotional abuse such as making the victim feel guilty for the problems, all cause confusion and allow the abuser to assert their control.

Dealing with domestic abuse in the UK

There are a number of organizations to help victims of domestic violence, including shelters for those that need to get away from the family home. However, perhaps the biggest obstacle to a victim of domestic violence in the UK taking action is accepting that they are in an abusive relationship.

It can be easy to deny, especially if there is no direct physical violence, but domestic violence comes in a number of ways, and victims do not necessarily need bruises to be suffering from long term damage from the consequences.

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