What are Abusive Relationships and Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence also known as domestic abuse, family violence, relationship violence, intimate partner violence (IPV) or child abuse, is a complex and significant issue in Australia.

Around 1 in 6 (1.5 million) women experience physical and/or sexual violence by a cohabiting partner each year (AIHW Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia, 2018). For women between the ages of 25 and 44, domestic violence is still alarmingly the number one risk factor for death, illness or disability.

While men have been and will continue to be the victims of domestic abuse, violence against women and children is far more prevalent. According to the Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence in Australia, 2018 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around 1 in 16 men over the age of 15 cohabiting with a partner experienced physical or sexual violence. 

The advent of the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated an already extremely serious problem, with instances of domestic violence - physical, sexual and emotional - increasing in frequency. A July 2020 report by the Australian Institute of Criminology showed almost 5% of all women, and nearly 10% of women living with a partner had endured sexual or physical abuse during the lockdown period.

Over the same period, emotional abuse increased significantly, with over 22% of Australian women experiencing and reporting emotional abuse by their intimate partners. Of those women, around two thirds indicated that the behaviour either first occurred or intensified after the start of the pandemic.

What is Domestic Violence

While domestic violence is most often associated with physical assault, it also includes sexual, emotional and financial abuse. Similarly, while the term is often associated with abuse from a spouse, de facto partner or boyfriend, the definition of domestic violence is much broader and includes child abuse, elder abuse and sibling abuse. That said, women’s experience of partner abuse is by far the most common manifestation of domestic violence in Australia.

Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate, occurring across all ethnicities, age ranges, religions, sexualities and economic classes. Regardless of the form the violence takes, domestic violence is, at the core, an abuse of power intended to exert control over the victim.

From the perspective of health, domestic violence may be thought of as a chronic syndrome characterised by periodic or intermittent acts of physical violence and emotionally abusive or controlling behaviours.

While some women’s traumatic suffering can be etched and seen in the form of physical scars, it is the longer term and often deeper psychological damage and emotional trauma that remains.  A 1993 treatise on domestic violence (Sassetti MR. Domestic violence. Prim Care 1993) states that for most women, physical violence is the least damaging in the long term. The psychological strain along with the isolation and shame that is commonly experienced is less visible, but in many cases, more potent.

What is Physical Abuse

Physical abuse can be best defined as any kind of abuse that causes injury, pain or extreme discomfort. “Battery” is the term used to describe a physical assault on the body using fist, feet or weapons.  There are many other ways this form of violence may manifest, including:

  • Demonstrations of Violence - abuse of a third party, such as a child or pet to “demonstrate” what may happened to the victim. 
  • Sleep Deprivation - controlling the amount of sleep a person may have, or controlling the times during which a person may sleep. Sleep deprivation may lead to a number of serious effects, including memory issues, weakened immunity, increased risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease, loss of balance and decreased sex drive.
  • Food Deprivation - limiting what may be eaten or the amount a person may eat. Malnutrition may lead to a number of serious issues including breathing difficulties, increased risk of chest infection, respiratory failure, muscle wasting and increased recovery periods for injury or illness.
  • Warmth Deprivation - denying warmth or other basic comforts.
  • Denial of Medical Care - the denial of necessary medical care, including prescriptions, therapies or other forms of medical care. Denial of medical care is one of the more common forms of domestic violence directed towards the elderly.
  • Property Destruction - destruction of property either as a demonstration of power or to deny comfort, convenience or personal belongings.
  • Sexual Assault/Sexual Abuse - being manipulated, pressured or forced into engaging in or performing sexual things. This may pendulate from behaviours that are overt including rape or molestation, to more covert ones such as sabotaging birth control methods as a way to increase the chance of pregnancy.

What is Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse in domestic violence may manifest in a number of different ways, from outright verbal abuse to financial abuse and social isolation. Examples of emotional abuse include:

  • Threats - threats of physical violence against the person being abused or against their loved ones.
  • Verbal Abuse - verbal abuse in private or public settings intended to denigrate, humiliate, demean, gaslight or intimidate a person. 
  • Economic Abuse - controlling a person’s access to money to prevent a social life, basic necessities or medical treatment, controlling income through bank accounts,  denying employment or sabotaging a partner’s job
  • Social Isolation - control of socialisation, such as cutting off contact to friends and family, denying any finances that may be required for socialisation, demonising others to drive a wedge in existing social relationships or abusers exhibiting extreme jealousy regarding any time spent with other people. 
  • Deprivation of Liberty - keeping a person in isolation, through physical restraint, threat or emotional manipulation.
  • Creation of Dependency - creating an environment of unreasonable dependency, such as requiring permission to do anything, withholding necessities such as food, warmth or medication until specific criteria have been met, or creating situations in which a person must depend on their abuser to resolve the problem.

Signs of an Abusive Relationship

People in an abusive relationship may not necessarily be aware that they are being abused, either through manipulation or denial. There are a number of signs that your relationship may be abusive, even if you have not been physically assaulted or are not afraid of your partner. Possible signs that a relationship may be abusive include:

Belittling Behaviour (also known as gaslighting)

  • you feel frequently criticised or put down
  • you feel deliberately humiliated
  • you are often yelled at
  • your accomplishments or opinions are often ignored or denigrated
  • you are treated as  property, commodity or a (sex) object rather than a person.
  • you are blamed for your partner’s abusive behaviour. 

Controlling Behaviour

  • you do not feel free to go or see who you want.
  • you experience jealousy from your partner if you spend time with other people.
  • money is controlled for you
  • you experience limited access to amenities or resources, such as the phone, Internet, or use of the car.
  • you experience your partner constantly keeping tabs on you, by calling constantly, installing monitoring devices, tracking your phone, reading your email/texts or the like.
  • you feel you have limited access to friends and family.

Violent or Threatening Behaviour

  • Your partner threatens to or destroys your personal belongings.
  • Your partner has a fierce or unpredictable temper.
  • Your partner forces, tricks or manipulates you into sex.
  • Your partner hurts or threatens to hurt or kill you.
  • Your partner threatens to take your children away or hurt them.
  • Your partner hurts your children and blames you.
  • Your partner threatens suicide if you leave.

Emotional State/Feelings

Your emotional state or way of thinking may reflect the fact that your relationship is abusive. These indicators may include:

  • You avoid certain topics or behaviours for fear of making your partner angry.
  • You are afraid or on edge about your partner a great deal of the time.
  • You feel helpless.
  • You feel emotionally numb or distant.
  • You feel as though you deserve the abuse.
  • You feel like you can’t do anything right.
  • You wonder if you’re blowing things out of proportion or are imagining the abuse.

Signs of Domestic Abuse

It’s essentially impossible to know what goes on behind closed doors, but there are a number of indicators that may point towards domestic abuse. If you notice any of these symptoms in a friend, family member or co-worker, there may be cause for concern.

  Possible General Indicators of Abuse

  • The person may seem overeager or anxious to do everything they can to please their partner.
  • They receive frequent phone calls from their partner that elicit a negative or placating response, or frequently check in with their partner to let them know what they are doing/where they are.
  • The person talks about their partner’s temper, possessiveness or jealousy.
  • When in public they go along with everything their partner instructs.
  • Children of the couple may appear to be afraid or withdrawn.

  Possible Indicators of Psychological Abuse

  • A degradation in self-esteem in someone who previously had obvious self-worth.
  • Personality changes, such as a formerly outgoing person becoming withdrawn, or a happy, gregarious person becoming guarded.
  • The development of anxiety, depression or suicidal ideation.
  • Lack of contact with family and friends.
  • They are rarely seen outside of the house not in the company of their partner.

  Possible Indicators of Physical Abuse

  • Frequent injuries (bruises, sprains, contusions, fractures) that are often waved off as “accidents.
  • Unexplained absences from work, school or social events.
  • Changing their mode of dress to clothes that may better cover injuries, such as long sleeves no matter the weather, sunglasses, scarves and the like. 

Helping Victims of Domestic Violence

If you suspect that a friend, family member or co-worker may be the victim of domestic abuse, don’t hesitate to speak up. You may tell yourself that it isn’t any of your business, or that you may be wrong, but doing nothing helps no one. If you have a chance, talk to the person and tell them that you are worried about them, pointing out what may be specifically worrying you (bruises, injuries, introversion or the like) if need be. 

Be mindful victims of domestic violence may not necessarily be willing to talk, with possible feelings of shame, fear or distrust.  Gently let them know that you are on their side and that you’re for them,  offering hope. Remember to be patient, and not to pressure them into talking, showing support in any way you can.

When talking to someone that has been subjected to domestic violence, there are some key factors you must keep in mind:

  • Listen to what they have to say - there’s a good chance that the abused person is used to being ignored or not listened to. Offer your ear and listen attentively.
  • Believe them - there’s a good chance that the person’s abusive partner has gaslighted them about the level of abuse, downplayed the abuse or excused it in some way. It’s much more likely that a victim will downplay the violence waged against them then exaggerate it. Believe what they say.
  • Take it seriously - never underestimate the danger the person may be in. Physical violence may be immediately harmful and emotional abuse can potentially have severe long-lasting effects.
  • Assign blame to the abuser - many people who are abused may come to believe that they are ultimately responsible for their abuse or that they deserve that treatment. Assign blame where it belongs, with the abuser. Let them know that they are in no way responsible for the way they have been treated.
  • Maintain regular contact - having regular contact with someone can offer a lifeline to an abused person, letting them vent, or simply have an empathic ear.
  • Do research that they can’t - the abused person may have their Internet access monitored or limited. Research things that may help, such as Apprehended Violence Orders (also known as Intervention, Protection, Restraining or Domestic Violence Orders depending on the state or territory you are in), and other protective legal options. This research may also include domestic violence resources, such as shelters and related services.
  • Keep in contact after the abusive relationship has ended - if and when a person managed to extract themselves from an abusive relationship, it’s important that you still remain in regular contact. While they may not be living under the same roof, the abuse may still be ongoing, and it is very easy to relapse. Remaining supportive can help them get through a potentially volatile time.

 Remaining in touch once they have left the relationship can also encourage and help the person to establish a new life as they begin to recover from their abuse.

Domestic Violence Resources

If you are the victim of domestic violence or suspect someone you know may be abused, more information can be accessed through each state and territory’s dedicated Domestic Violence Support Service. 

Australian Capital Territory 

Domestic Violence Crisis Service ACT – (02) 6280 0900

 New South Wales

Domestic Violence Line – 1800 656 463

Northern Territory

Dawn House – (08) 8945 1388


DV Connect – 1800 811 811

South Australia

Domestic Violence Crisis Service Line – 1800 800 098


Family Violence Response and Referral Line – 1800 633 937

Family Violence Counselling and Support Service – 1800 608 122


Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre – 1800 015 188

Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria

Western Australia

Women’s Domestic Violence Helpline – 1800 007 339 or (08) 9223 1188

Men's Domestic Violence Helpline – 1800 000 599 or (08) 9223 1199

If you have been triggered in any way by this article and can recognise some of this in yourself or loved ones, please do not hesitate to access the very helpful services above.

Additionally, book an appointment with a doctor for further support as well as potentially looking at a Mental Health Care Plan . With an MHCP you are entitled to a number of mental health Psychology appointments covered by Medicare.



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