What Is Domestic Violence?

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Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior in any intimate relationship whereby one partner seeks to gain or maintain power and control over the other.

Abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, and psychological. The abuser takes action or makes threats that influence the other person. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound someone.  Domestic violence can happen to anyone of any race, age, sexual orientation, religion, or gender.

Domestic violence affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels. (Adapted from National Domestic Violence Hotline)

Abuse is a repetitive pattern of behaviors to maintain power and control over an intimate partner. These are behaviors that physically harm, arouse fear, prevent a partner from doing what they wish or force them to behave in ways they do not want. Abuse includes the use of physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse and economic deprivation. Many of these different forms of abuse can be going on at any one time.

The use the POWER & CONTROL WHEEL to describe accurately what occurs in an abusive relationship is the most common tool many advocates use with survivors.  Think of the wheel as a diagram of the tactics your abusive partner uses to keep you in the relationship. While the inside of the wheel is comprised of subtle, continual behaviors, the outer ring represents physical, visible violence. These are the abusive acts that are more overt and forceful, and often the intense acts that reinforce the regular use of other subtler methods of abuse.

The Equality Wheel was developed not to describe equality per se, but to describe the changes needed for people who batter to move from being abusive to non-violent partnership. For example, the “emotional abuse” segment on the Power and Control Wheel is contrasted with the “respect” segment on the Equality Wheel.  So the wheels can be used together as a way to identify and explore abuse, then encourage non-violent change.


Power and Control and Equality Wheel Diagrams explaining healthy and unhealthy relationship behaviors


The Three-Phase Cycle of Violence

Many individuals that experience domestic violence describe living through a repeated cycle of abuse. It often follows a recognizable pattern:

Phase I: The “Honeymoon”

In this phase, the abuser may repeatedly express what appear to be genuine feelings of remorse and may shower his partner with attention or gifts. The abuser may promise to “never do it again” or to get counseling. The individual who experienced the violence may feel relieved that the abuse is over and may be tempted to forgive the abuser. At this time the individual experiencing violence needs support and information to help identify manipulative behavior. It is important to remain focused on safety.

Phase II: Tension Building

In this phase the abuser may be extremely critical, bullying, moody and demanding. The individual experiencing violence still feels some control over the situation and may attempt to pacify the abuser in order to postpone or stop the next battering phase. With the increase in tension, these attempts become less effective. The abuser’s negative behavior escalates and may begin to include direct or implied threats of violence. This may be a time when the abused individual seeks outside help and professional assistance.

Phase III: Explosive

In this phase, the abuser’s behavior escalates to physical or extreme emotional violence and the individual may feel completely helpless in controlling the escalation. Some individuals experiencing violence may even precipitate the battering incident in order to “get it over with” and regain some sense of control. At this stage, appropriate interventions for the abused individual may include medical attention, arranging for safety and/or shelter and crisis intervention.

*You may experience some or all of the above but even if you experience a portion of the phases please still call our 24-hour hotline if you have any questions.*

Get Educated - What is Domestic Violence - Cycle of Violence image


(Adapted from presentations by Derek Marchman on Domestic Violence Training for Law Enforcement, 2002. Used with permission by Marchman Consulting, Inc. 2005)

Abuse is a choice. It is not something that occurs because the abuser “lost control.” If this was the case, co-workers, friends, family, and the general public would witness or be victims of the violent behavior. The abuser is selective about when the behavior occurs, meaning the abuser is in control of it. The abuser will use various degrees of violence to retain or recover control. Using a broad definition of violence from extremely physical to extremely subtle forms of violence, the abuser must read what behavior will produce the desired results.  These are some ways an abuser keeps control and power over a victim. The emotional roller coaster experienced by the victim is driven by the abuser’s behavior not the victim’s, contrary to what the batterer might say. The Continuum below is an example of how an abuser might move between the various types of abuse to maintain control in any given situation, keeping the victim on guard and fearful.



Emotional Abuse:

  1. Isolation – from relationships the batterer believes are a threat.
  2. Degradation – used to humiliate the victim by making the victim feel worthless.
  3. Verbal Abuse – a form of degradation that includes violent language, tone, or threats.


Property Damage:

  1. Systematic – property that specifically chosen to damage that typically had meaning to the victim.
  2. Pets – typically of the victim’s/child’s beloved pet.


Physical Abuse:

  1. Physical Control – a means to restrain a victim, usually by holding, grabbing, and shoving.
  2. One Strike – typically with a hand or object.
  3. Multiple Strikes – used interchangeably with the one strike method, whichever works to control the victim at the moment, this may be when law enforcement is first called.


Sexual Abuse:

  1. Punishment – used as payback for anything the batterer believes is owed to him and/or friends.
  2. Bribery – typically an overt threat is implied.


Lethal Abuse:

  1. Stalking – following, sending letters, subtle threats, sitting outside home/work, hang up calls, peeping, or anything used to harass and/or place the victim in fear of the unknown.
  2. Murder/Suicide – to take the life of the victim/self is the ultimate act of control.
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