Types of Domestic Violence

Victims of domestic violence often experience feelings of helplessness, low self-esteem and even self-doubt. Understanding the different types of domestic abuse can help victims identify the problem and take steps to stay safe in the future.

When most people think of domestic violence, they imagine a situation where the abusive partner causes physical injury to an intimate partner. However, physical harm is only one form of domestic violence. Domestic abusers may use various types of abuse to exert control over their victims. Domestic violence can be:


Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is the most recognizable form of domestic violence. It involves the use or threat of use of physical force against the victim, often causing injury. A punch or a kick, shoving, stabbing, shooting, strangling, slapping, biting, pinching, forcibly moving a person against their will — all these actions amount to physical abuse. Notably, physical violence can also occur by deceptive or forced use of alcohol or drugs or the denial of proper health care.

Physical abuse definitions normally include an attempt to cause harm. There doesn't have to be actual harm caused by the abuser. Of course, physical abuse can lead to serious bodily injury or even death. For example, if an abuser slaps a victim, causing only minor injuries that don't require a visit to the hospital, it is still abuse. Although the injury is minimal, the slapping would constitute domestic violence.

Criminal offenses associated with domestic violence vary by state, name, and degree. Domestic violence cases include misdemeanor crimes of simple assault and menacing as well as felony crimes of aggravated assault, felonious assault, rape, attempted murder, and murder. Most states today provide for felony enhancement in domestic violence cases as well. Therefore, a simple assault in domestic violence may be raised to a felony offense due to the abuser's prior history of domestic violence (normally, one or more prior convictions).

Notably, all states also provide methods for domestic violence victims who have suffered physical abuse to obtain criminal or civil protection orders. These no-contact or restraining orders can grant a victim exclusive use of a residence. They can also address temporary custody and parenting time for parties with children. Offenders who violate protection orders will be subject to additional criminal charges.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse involves the destruction of the victim's self-worth and is brought about by persistent:

  • Name-calling
  • Insults
  • Humiliation
  • Criticism

Emotional abuse often occurs in cases of dating violence. Emotional abuse can be a difficult type of domestic violence for many people to understand. On the surface, it appears to be quite common in unhealthy relationships.

In most states, emotional abuse is not enough on its own to bring criminal domestic violence charges. Typically, evidence of emotional abuse occurs alongside evidence of physical abuse. Thus, emotional abuse may provide evidence of motive or intent in the domestic violence offender's abusive behavior. Unfortunately, emotional abuse may also underly a victim's decision to recant domestic violence allegations or to otherwise decline prosecution.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is a common form of domestic violence. It includes sexual assault, rape, and unwanted sexual contact. It also includes instances where an offender uses alcohol or drugs to induce an intimate partner into sexual activity. However, sexual abuse can also take the form of harassment, such as unwelcome touching and other demeaning behaviors. Many victims don't realize how broadly sexual abuse is interpreted. For example, abusers may coerce an intimate partner into not using contraception (the pill, a condom, an IUD, etc.) or having an abortion. Most experts would cite this as sexual abuse. This form of abuse may be known as reproductive coercion.

The law does not recognize all forms of sexual abuse as criminal offenses. Therefore, victims and law enforcement must review state criminal law where an incident of sexual abuse occurred. They must confirm whether an individual state law prohibits the conduct in question. Most states today provide criminal offenses for sexual assault, rape, and unwanted sexual contact. The penalties for offenses will be enhanced where the victim of the offense is a minor or in a special relationship with the offender (e.g., parent, stepparent, teacher, coach, minister, or counselor). Some states also prohibit an offender with a sexually transmitted disease (e.g., HIV) from engaging in sexual activity with a partner without previously disclosing their status.

Financial Abuse

Of the types of domestic violence, financial or economic abuse may be the least obvious to the outside observer. Financial abuse may include a husband preventing his wife from obtaining an education or a job outside the home. A common form of financial abuse occurs when those in an intimate relationship have pooled their money into joint accounts (with the abusive partner controlling the funds) and where little or no other family member support exists.

Financial abuse often occurs alongside other family violence. Often, the victim is completely dependent on the abusive partner for money. With no access to money, the victim has little means to leave the violence and cannot set up a separate residence. The abusive partner may withhold money for food, clothing, and more. This can overlap with neglect when involving children.

Similar to emotional abuse, state law prohibitions on financial abuse are limited. Married parties are particularly vulnerable to financial misdeeds and fraud committed by a partner. Most marital credit and debt are jointly held, allowing either party to engage in dubious financial transactions. This may cause harm to one or both parties. When parties are not married and have not combined their finances, there may be more actionable criminal offenses (e.g. credit card fraud, theft) that police or prosecutors can consider.

Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse is basically a catchall term for intimidating, threatening, or fear-causing behavior. This behavior must be persistent and significant. A one-time event may not be enough to bring a domestic violence action in court. Like emotional abuse, psychological abuse may not, on its own, be enough to bring a domestic violence action unless it's especially severe.

A wide variety of behaviors fall under the umbrella of psychological abuse. Some common examples include:

  • Preventing the victim from talking to people unless they have "permission"
  • Preventing the victim from leaving the house
  • Threatening the victim with violence
  • Emotional blackmail for doing something that the abusive partner opposes
  • Threatening or causing harm to pets or personal property

Whether psychological abuse will rise to the level of a criminal offense depends on your local jurisdiction. Most states have laws prohibiting:

  • Stalking
  • Intimidating victims and witnesses of a crime
  • Making threats of imminent physical harm
  • Cruelty to animals
  • Holding another against their will

Victims and law enforcement should review the laws of the state where the incident of psychological abuse occurred to determine what action may be warranted.

Use of Technology to Commit Domestic Abuse

The rise of technology in the internet age has also opened up new ways for domestic abusers to engage in domestic violence. Oftentimes an offender will use technology such as social media, text, and phone communications to engage in a pattern of abusive behavior directed at the victim. These acts will cause emotional and psychological harm to the victim. This may include unwanted, repeated, and vulgar text messages, phone calls, and posts through various websites. Sometimes an offender will use technology to track or record a victim through cameras and video equipment or tracking devices placed on vehicles or a victim's personal property.

Crimes associated with technology abuse may be new or developing in your local jurisdiction. Sometimes crimes committed with technology may be pursued under existing laws such as stalking and telecommunications harassment. Check with local law enforcement to learn if there are specific actions that can be taken when an abuser uses technology to commit abuse.

Intimate Partner or Other Family Relationship

Finally, all forms of domestic abuse actionable in courts as domestic violence must include an intimate partner or other family relationship. States may vary in their definition of domestic violence in this regard. Most often, to qualify as domestic violence, the abuse must occur between:

  • Intimate partners who have resided together for a period of time
  • Married persons or former spouses
  • Persons who have children in common whether or not they ever lived together
  • Other family or household members related by blood or marriage that have lived together at some time

Obstacles for Victims in Getting Help

Anyone assisting victims of domestic violence should be aware that there may be obstacles in getting help to victims. Oftentimes, victims do not want to report domestic violence by an intimate partner or household member for a variety of reasons which may include:

  • A lack of self-awareness as to the extent of abuse in the relationship
  • Promises by the abuser that they will not repeat the abuse
  • Lack of financial independence from the abuser
  • A desire to avoid fights over custody or parenting time if the parties separate
  • Threats made over the children or to pets
  • Threats of future harm made to the victim
  • Religious beliefs related to marriage

For these reasons, victims should be encouraged to talk to a victim advocate or victim services representative or counselor. It may take time before a victim feels ready to leave an abusive situation.

Questions About the Types of Domestic Violence? Get Help From an Attorney

If you or someone you know may be a victim of domestic violence, there are many ways to get help. You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at any time at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You can also reach out to local law enforcement, victim service organizations, or medical providers.

Although some types of domestic violence are more likely to be the basis for legal action, all forms of violent behavior are harmful to the victim. If you think you're in a domestic violence situation, you should seek help. Reach out to an experienced family law attorney who knows the domestic violence laws in your jurisdiction to learn how you can protect yourself.

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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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