Domestic Violence Laws

This article will also help you learn how to find legal help for victims of domestic violence. For immediate help, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Domestic violence refers to violent acts committed by a family or household member against another, such as child abuse or the mistreatment of one’s spouse.

Use the links below to learn more about specific topics, or continue reading on this page for an overview of domestic violence basics:

Families used to avoid talking about domestic violence. However, people now feel more comfortable sharing their stories. This article will discuss some of the most commonly asked questions about domestic violence, such as:

  • What is domestic violence?
  • What are the different types of domestic violence?
  • What are the ways to stop domestic violence?

FindLaw's Domestic Violence Overview section contains articles and resources covering the basics of domestic violence. You will find information including:

  • Legal history of how law enforcement began to take the crime seriously
  • Related workplace issues
  • The relationship between stalking and domestic violence
  • Battered women's syndrome
  • Harassment
  • The possession of firearms in abusive households
  • How to file a domestic violence lawsuit

What Is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is a pattern of harmful behavior that happens within an intimate relationship. A person usually commits this act of violence to exert authority or control over the other.

Domestic violence occurs regardless of the gender, religion, age, race, sexual orientation, or education of the parties involved. It was previously referred to as "wife abuse" or "spousal abuse."  Today, domestic abuse now recognizes that victims include children, unmarried partners, cohabitants, and other family members in addition to spouses. Visit FindLaw's Child Abuse section to learn more about domestic violence against children.

The victims of crime may not realize the abuse early in the relationship. In most cases, they fail to take action until the situation escalates to a violent crime.

What Are Types of Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence comes in various forms. Reducing the prevalence of this crime requires knowledge of the different types of abuse.

Domestic abuse takes many forms including abuse that is physical, sexual, emotional, economic, and psychological. Abuse includes threats, stalking, and cyberstalking. Abuse includes both directly harmful acts and manipulative or controlling acts such as preventing a person from seeing a doctor, forcing them to use drugs or alcohol, preventing them from accessing their financial assets, or keeping them from attending work or school.

Physical Abuse

Physical violence is the most common type of domestic abuse. It often involves the use of force to injure or cause physical harm. It includes violent acts such as battering, punching, slapping, or any other physical attack. Victims often look for ways to hide the effects of violent behavior out of fear, embarrassment, or shame. Despite these common feelings, victims of domestic violence have done nothing wrong. Physical abuse is the most violent of the types and can put lives at risk. It can lead to serious physical injury that requires medical care or result in disability and even death.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is forced sexual activity. It can happen to individuals of any gender or sexual orientation. Sexual abuse includes physical contact, such as kissing or touching. Sexual abuse does not need to involve sexual contact, however. Indecent exposure is an example of sexual abuse that does not involve direct contact. Other forms of sexual abuse include dating violence, sexual assault, and rape. Dating violence is most common among young people. But abusive relationships can happen in a marriage or dating relationship. Victims of sexual abuse may feel confused. They may not even realize the act is wrong until it results in sexual violence.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse occurs when someone says or does things that affect another person's mental health and well-being. The abuser could verbally humiliate their victim or attack their self-esteem. It can appear in different forms, such as belittling, name-calling, or neglecting. The goal of these acts is to make the victim feel intimidated or manipulated.

Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse usually involves verbal abuse. Abusers commit these acts to control, intimidate or manipulate another person. Some forms of psychological abuse include gaslighting or social isolation. Victims of the crime feel helpless, powerless, and completely reliant on the abuser.

Financial Abuse

Financial abuse occurs when one person controls their partner's money. It is a form of family violence where the victim has limited access to money. Victims are prevented from getting an education or job or using money without the abuser's consent. As a result, victims of financial abuse often feel trapped. They feel like they cannot leave the abusive situation.

Battered Women's Syndrome

Battered woman syndrome (BWS) is a mental disorder that, despite its name may afflict any victim of domestic battery, though woman have been and continue to be the largest demographic impacted by domestic violence. BWS is a response to serious, long-term abuse that results in a state of learned helplessness for the victim. Studies of the disorder have identified three stages in the abusive cycle leading to BWS.

First, the abuser engages in behaviors that create relationship tensions. Second, the tension explodes when the abuser commits some form of abuse: physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, or otherwise. Third, the abuser tries to fix his wrongdoing and apologizes. This stage is referred to as the "honeymoon" stage when the abuser is forgiven and the cycle starts all over again.

Those suffering from BWS exhibit certain observable characteristics. Common characteristics include the victim taking full responsibility for the abuse, fearing for their safety, and holding an irrational belief that the abuser is all-powerful and will hurt them if they contact authorities or seek help. Signs of depression and anxiety are common, as well as a lack of enthusiasm, or the abuse of drugs and alcohol.


Situations involving domestic violence frequently include incidences of stalking by a current or estranged partner. Stalking generally involves the perpetrator's repeated threatening or harassing behaviors such as phone calls to the victim, following or shadowing them, appearing at the victim's home or place of employment, vandalizing property, or any other activity that makes a person fear for their safety.

Stalking laws vary from state-to-state and laws may require a minimum number of acts, while others require an imminent threat of harm. Some states include acts such as lying-in-wait, surveillance, and non-consensual communication as stalking.

Ways to Stop Domestic Violence Cases

Various law enforcement procedures can help stop intimate partner violence. For example, any state law allows the request for orders of protection. Protection orders can prevent an abuser from having contact with the victim. If necessary, they can also help provide safer ways to manage children and other related matters.

The 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) created a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. These organizations provide further information. In many states, officers will arrest the person believed to be the "primary aggressor" if further evidence supports the victim's description of the event(s). Local law enforcement may collaborate with other agencies to attain criminal justice.

Please note, however, that the ability of victims of domestic violence to press charges against their abuser may vary in each state. Contacting a family law attorney or advocacy groups for advice is essential.

An inquiry may also be made to the local police department or office of the district attorney (sometimes referred to as the State's Attorney or Commonwealth's Attorney). Most are affiliated with victim-witness assistance programs. Private family law attorneys and criminal defense attorneys may also offer competent advice.

Importantly, in some states, a victim of abuse does not typically have the authority to withdraw or "drop" the charges once initiated against the abuser. The prosecuting attorney will often decide how to proceed with the case.

It is also crucial to provide a comprehensive approach outside of law enforcement. This includes bringing to light awareness of different forms of domestic abuse.

There is a loud call nationwide to end violence against women, sexual abuse, and exploitation. Both publicly and privately funded organizations are taking steps to address the issue. These organizations help effectively advocate for persons affected by abuse. Law enforcement agencies and organizations in every state provide training on the signs of abuse. They also provide resources to assist survivors and create a safety plan to exit the relationship.

Violence Prevention and Legal Help for Victims of Domestic Violence

If you are a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, contact 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). This is the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You can also call 911 if you are in an urgent situation.

An experienced family law attorney can also provide support services. They are available to help you understand the definition of domestic violence, its risk factors, and the application of domestic violence law. They can also help the victim or family members file restraining orders and protection orders.

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