Ann Huey, Human Development and Family Studies, University of Missouri-Columbia
Jennifer Hardesty, Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Nursing, Johns Hopkins University
Kim Leon, Former State Extension Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies, University of Missouri-Columbia
Stephanie McGhee, Human Development and Family Studies, University of Missouri-Columbia
What is Domestic Violence?
There are four types of domestic violence:
- Physical abuse is what most people think of when they think of domestic violence. Physical abuse includes hitting, punching, slapping, kicking, choking, shoving, being hit with objects, or being held against one’s will.
- Emotional abuse includes yelling, name-calling, repeated insults, isolation, threats, or hurting pets. Emotional abuse also includes “crazy-making,” a process that questions the victim’s sense of what is real and what isn’t.
- Sexual abuse includes, among other things, unwanted sexual touching, demanding sex, and rape. Marital rape is also a type of sexual abuse. Marital rape is defined as any sexual activity by a married or cohabiting partner that is performed without the consent of the other partner.
- Stalking includes following someone when they leave the house, harassing phone calls, purposefully running into the victim in public places, and calling or stopping by the partner’s work too often.
The abusers’ need for power and control is often woven through many domestic violence situations, regardless of the type of abuse.
Power and Control
There are many different ways that abusers may try to control their partners. They may:
- Threaten to hurt their partners or themselves in order to get what they want.
- Exert power over their partners by acting based on the idea of “male privilege.” Male privilege includes: treating partners like servants, making all of the decisions, and being the one to determine how men and women should behave.
- Economically abuse their partners by preventing them from having a job, making partners ask for money, or not giving partners access to the family income at all.
- Isolate their partners from family and friends so there is nowhere to turn if they decide to seek help.
Following break-up or divorce, abusers may:
- Use the couple’s children to control partners.
- Threaten to take children away or use visitation as an opportunity to harass their ex-partners.
- Intimidate their partners by destroying property, showing partners their weapons, and abusing pets.
Cycle of Violence
Domestic violence tends to follow a specific pattern over time called the “cycle of violence.” The cycle of violence is a pattern of behavior that occurs over and over in a relationship. This cycle can occur in couples who are dating, living together, or married. It happens in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. There are several stages in the cycle:
Calmness: In this stage the relationship seems fine. To
outsiders the relationship appears normal.
Tension building (sometimes called Stress): The abuser
gets angry easily. Often abusers verbally
harass partners during this stage. It might
seem like the abuser is picking a fight.
Conflicts may get out of control. The abuser
may isolate the partner from friends or
family. The partner may feel like she/he is
walking on eggshells to avoid a violent
episode. The abuser gets more and more
controlling, demanding, and jealous during
this stage. There may be some emotional,
verbal, or "mild" physical abuse during this
phase. Partners often make excuses for
abusers’ behavior during the
Acute abusive incident: This stage is also sometimes called the
crisis phase. In this stage, the physical,
verbal or emotional abuse is at its worst.
There may be a violent physical attack
(battering), severe emotional or verbal
abuse, or a combination. Abusers are
extremely unpredictable and often seem to be
out of control. Abusers blame their partners
for the abuse. At the end of this stage the
abuser may say that his/her actions were
wrong. The partner may feel some relief, as
in “it’s over”. Partners often minimize the
abuse (“It’s not that bad”) to themselves or
others who may question them.
Honeymoon stage: During the honeymoon stage, the abuser
apologizes over and over. The abuser may try
really hard to “woo” the partner with gifts.
The abuser may promise that it will not
happen again and agree to seek help. In this
stage the couple may feel really
affectionate with one another, and believe
that everything will be “ok”. The partner
may feel even closer to the abuser and talk
about how the abuser can be “so sweet” or a
The couple will then move from the honeymoon stage back into the calm
stage and the cycle repeats itself. Over
time, the tension-building and honeymoon
stages get shorter and the battering
increases. This pattern results in battering
incidents that become increasingly longer
and more severe.
This cycle works to keep partners in abusive relationships by
controlling them. Partners hope that abusers
do not mean to harm them and will change.
Secrecy, fear, lack of opportunity, and low
self-esteem all combine to make leaving an
abusive partner extremely difficult. Leaving
may also be difficult because abusers often
escalate violence in order to keep their
partners in the relationship. The most
dangerous times for those who decide to end
the relationship are when they leave and
right after leaving. The abuser often feels
like he/she has nothing left to lose or may
feel a need to punish the former partner for
breaking up. However, there are ways that
survivors of relationship violence can
remain safe and protect themselves.
For more information about staying safe, see:
Most couples need help from professionals who have experience working
with domestic violence to end the cycle of
violence. If you or someone you know is
experiencing domestic violence, call the
National Domestic Violence Hotline:
1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224
Domestic Violence Intervention Services. http://www.dvis.org, March 23, 2006.
Flynn, C.P. (1987). Relationship violence: A
model for family professionals. Family
Relations, 36(3). 295-299.
Oakland County Coordinating Council Against Domestic Violence (2004) Domestic Violence Handbook. Retrieved from http://www.domesticviolence.org/, March 23, 2006.
Last Updated 05/12/2009