Domestic Violence Overview

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.

 FindLaw's Domestic Violence Overview section contains articles and resources covering the basics of domestic violence, including a brief legal history of how law enforcement began to take the crime seriously. This section also covers 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, and other related matters.

What is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one party to gain or maintain control over another. Domestic violence occurs regardless of the gender, religion, age, race, sexual orientation, or education of the parties involved. Previously referred to as "wife" or "spousal" abuse; domestic abuse now recognizes that victims include children, unmarried partners, cohabitants, and other family members in addition to spouses.

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.

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.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Victims of domestic violence can press charges against their abuser
  • The ability or requirements to press charges varies in each state
  • Contacting a family law attorney or advocacy groups for advice is essential

Some attorneys represent victims of domestic violence. Others defend the rights of those accused of domestic abuse or other related crimes. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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