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Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a major social and health problem in America. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that a woman is beaten by her intimate partner every fifteen seconds. The American Medical Association [AMA] reports that about 50% of all women will experience some type of domestic violence in their lifetime, and the U.S. Surgeon General declared domestic violence the nation's number one health problem (AMA, 1992).


Domestic violence is a pattern of violent and coercive behaviors whereby one attempts to control the thoughts, beliefs or behaviors of an intimate partner or to punish the partner for resisting one's control (Ashcraft, 2000; Jacobson & Gottman, 1998; Lobel, 1986). This control over another person is gained through fear and intimidation (Robertson; 1999; Walker, 2000). The domestic violence legal definition (1995) is "any assault, battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another who is or was residing in the same single dwelling unit". Dutton (1995) has argued that domestic violence is a learned behavior including any action or words that hurt another person. This is achieved by the use of threats, force, and physical, sexual, emotional, economic and verbal abuse (Ashcraft; Davis, 1988; Liddle, 1989).


A batterer is someone who uses not only physical abuse, but emotional abuse, sexual abuse, economic abuse, and other behaviors that assert control and power (Walker, 2000). Physical abuse occurs when one threatens, hits, kicks, pushes, shoves, slaps, punches, or uses a weapon against another. Walker (2000) cites other examples of physical abuse which include refusing to help someone who is injured, sick or pregnant, abandoning someone in a dangerous place, and locking someone out of one's house. Emotional abuse occurs when one continually ridicules, insults, puts down, humiliates, or criticizes another person. Other examples of emotional abuse, according to Walker (2000), include withholding approval or affection, threatening to leave or harm someone or their children, manipulating with lies, and continually finding fault with another. Verbal abuse is also part of emotional abuse (Walker, 2000). Verbal abuse occurs when the abuser says blatantly hurtful things, criticizes one, calls one names, or constantly puts one down.

Types of Abuse and Behaviors

Types of Abuse


Physical Abuse

Punching, shoving, slapping, biting, kicking, using a weapon against partner, throwing items, breaking items, pulling hair, restraining partner

Emotional/Verbal Abuse

Putting partner down, calling names, criticizing, playing mind games, humiliating partner, making partner feel guilty

Financial Dependency

Keeping partner from getting a job, getting partner fired from job, making partner ask for money or taking one's money, expecting partner to support them

Social Isolation

Controlling who partner sees and talks to and where one goes, constantly checking up on partner (calling or following)

Sexual Abuse

Forcing partner to perform sexual acts which are uncomfortable to them, engaging in affairs, telling partner they asked for the abuse, telling partner what to wear, accusing partner of affairs, criticizing sexual performance, withholding affection


Making light of abuse, saying abuse did not happen, saying the abuse was mutual, blaming partner for abuse



Making partner afraid by looks or gestures, destroying property, hurting pets, displaying weapons, threatening to leave, take children, or commit suicide


A large majority of batterers are male (McConnell, 2000; Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). In fact, it has been reported in the literature that the male is the abuser in 95% of domestic violence cases (Dutton, 1995; Island & Letellier,1991; Walker, 2000). The batterer comes from every social, economic, ethnic, professional, educational and religious group (Selinger, 1996). Most batterers do not have criminal records and are almost never violent with anyone except their partner (Dutton, 1995, Gondolf, 1992). To those outside the family, a batterer usually appears to be a good provider, a loving father, and a law-abiding citizen. Nevertheless, he usually has a dualistic personality referred to as a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality and is manipulative, unpredictable, possessive, jealous, unrealistic, and controlling (Dutton, 1995). Batterers frequently have low self-esteem and believe others are to blame for their problems. The batterer fears abandonment such as divorce, separation, imagined infidelity, or pregnancy and tends to resort to violence rather than looking for other solutions to the problem (Dutton, 1995).

According to Gondolf (1992), there are three types of batterers. The first type, the typical batterer, usually has no diagnosable mental illness or personality disorder, is no more likely than anyone else to have substance abuse issues, is not violent to people outside the family, and has no criminal record. The sociopathic batterer views violence as an acceptable way of dealing with problems (Gondolf, 1992), may have a diagnosable personality disorder, and is likely to have a problem with substance abuse. However, he is unlikely to have a criminal record because he does not "get caught" very often. His violence is likely to be more severe than the "typical batterer" and he is more likely to use weapons or injure his victims. He is not apologetic, often threatens to kill the victim or do more violence, and has a tendency to make sexual demands after violence. He may justify his violence with religious beliefs and uses power and control in many areas of his life (Gondolf, 1992). The anti-social batterer usually has diagnosable mental illnesses or personality disorders, substance abuse problems, and criminal records (Gondolf, 1992). Their violence is far more severe and frequent. As a result, they are more likely to get caught and to have a criminal record.


Lenore Walker (2000) developed the "cycle of violence" in the late 1970s. It describes a succession of moods and behaviors that are usually experienced in an abusive relationship. The cycle of violence has three phases that vary in both time and intensity. In phase one, the tension building stage, minor battering, including verbal and emotional abuse occurs. This phase can last for days, weeks, or months. Partners try to calm batterers through nurturing, compliance, attempting to relieve their stress, or staying out of the way. They also believe they can help their battering partners overcome their anger and they do this by trying not to antagonize or provoke them. Therefore, the victim takes on the responsibility for the abuse. Any withdrawal on the part of the victim results in the batterer remaining oppressively close. The tension becomes unbearable and once started, nothing the victim can do will stop the abuse from occurring (Jacobson & Gottman, 1998).

The result is phase two, the acute battering incident this is usually brief but can result in serious physical and psychological harm. The batterer is aware that the abusive behavior is inappropriate and thus is not likely to occur in public. After a violent incident occurs, victims are shaken, nervous, afraid, disoriented, dazed, and shocked that their partner is capable of hurting them. Both partners tend to rationalize and minimize the incident of abuse (Jacobson & Gottman, 1998). Many victims believe the violence is a one-time mistake, tend to forgive the perpetrators, and fail to label it abuse. During this time, victims are unable to make decisions to report the abuse, leave their partners, or take legal action. When victims feel helpless and hopeless that their situation will never change, they feel trapped and will stop trying to break the cycle of domestic violence (Island & Letellier, 1991; Walker, 2000).

The third phase is the honeymoon phase that brings peaceful, loving, and kind behavior. The batterer usually begs for forgiveness, professes their love, and promises to never do it again. This is the period of time when a victim is most likely to leave. However, the batterer begins to use guilt to keep the victim in the relationship and convinces the victim that something awful will happen if the victim leaves such as threatening to commit suicide (Walker, 2000). The victimization is then complete as the victim remains in the relationship and finds that the kind loving behavior gives way to more verbal and emotional abuse and a new cycle of violence begins.


Like the abusers, victims who are battered come from all walks of life. Although there is no psychological profile of those who will be battered, there are common characteristics of victims once they have been abused. All victims of domestic violence experience shame, embarrassment, isolation, and repressed feelings (Akpodiete, 1993; Walker, 2000). A number of researchers have found a high correlation between a history of family violence and the potential to become a victim of domestic violence (Lobel, 1986; Renzetti, 1992; Walker). Victims of domestic violence are from every ethnic, religious, economic, professional, educational, and social background, and of varying ages (Selinger, 1996).


Both abusers and their partners can be extremely dependent upon each other as a result of negative self-images (Dutton, 1995; Jacobson & Gottman, 1998). The fear of more abuse keeps victims isolated and prevents them from telling anyone about the abuse they have endured (Island & Letellier, 1991; Jacobson & Gottman). Also, after a battering incident, the batterer frequently is the sole source of support and comfort for the victim due to isolation. When victims have been isolated, they feel that they have no control over their life (Walker, 2000). This perpetuates the cycle of abuse as they move into the honeymoon phase where the abuser is remorseful, apologetic, and affectionate (Walker).

Victims stay with their abusive partners because of fear, love, hope, pride, embarrassment, loyalty, financial dependence, low self-esteem, religious beliefs, children, and ignorance (Ferris et al., 1997; Jacobson & Gottman, 1998; Island & Letellier, 1986; Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980). In addition, victims do not want their partners arrested as it can lead to family embarrassment and severe financial loss. Most importantly, victims stay because they fear retaliation by an angry and humiliated partner. There is genuine fear of worse physical violence or death if one leaves, calls the police, or gets a restraining order (Jacobson & Gottman, 1998; Lobel, 1986). Research reveals that violence usually escalates after a separation or the threat of a separation (Jacobson & Gottman; Island & Letellier, 1991; Walker, 2000). Consequently, victims are usually worried about their health and well being because they are very aware that danger will likely increase if they attempt to leave (Shea, Mahoney, & Lacey, 1997; Walker).

Some victims do not know where to find help. Some victims are not able to seek help from family and friends who fear getting involved or feel they should stay out of the situation (Walker, 2000). In some cases, family and friends fear the abuser themselves. In fact, abusers regularly track down their partners at the home of family and friends and at their place of employment and continue to assault them.

The establishment of a safety plan is a key component of crisis intervention. According to CASA (2000), two decisions must be considered in developing a safety plan: the decision to stay or to leave. If the decision is to stay, the following suggestions are offered: (1) identify a safe place in the home, being careful to avoid rooms without exits (bathrooms) or rooms with weapons (kitchen); (2) remember that the abuser may be able to trace incoming and outgoing phone calls via phone redial, caller ID, and numerous other codes; (3) develop a support system via trusted family members, friends, co-workers; (4) call the police if there is danger; (5) consider preparing “an emergency bag” that will allow for quick escape if the situation escalates. The emergency bag should include spare keys, extra money, copies of important papers (birth certificates, Social Security cards, driver’s license, medications, and important phone numbers, including that of a local shelter when possible), and a change of clothing (CASA). However, should the victim choose to leave, he/she should: (1) bear in mind that the decision to leave may increase the danger level of an abusive situation; (2) call the police if there is danger; (3) plan ahead and gather information regarding shelters, available legal protection, and type of assistance from other agencies; (4) prepare an emergency bag; and (5) begin to vary any routines to work, school, shopping, etc., keeping in mind that the abuser may be looking for them.


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American Medical Association. (1992, June). Diagnostic and Treatment Guidelines on Domestic Violence.

Ashcraft, C. (2000). Naming knowledge: A language for reconstructing domestic violence and systemic gender inequity. Women and Language, 23, 1-3. CASA. (2000). Domestic violence: An overview. St. Petersburg, FL. Author.

Davis, N. (1988). Shelters for battered women: Social policy response to interpersonal violence. The Social Science Journal, 25, 401-419.

Domestic violence legal definition, Fla. Stat. § 741.28 (1995).

Dutton, D.G. (1995). The batterer: A psychological profile. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Ferris, L.E., Norton, P.G., Dunn, E.V., Gort, E.H. & Degani, N. (1997). guidelines for managing domestic abuse when male and female partners are patients of the same physician. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 278 (10), 851-857.

Gondolf, E. (1992). Discussion of violence in psychiatric evaluations. The Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 7(3), 334-349.

Island, D., & Letellier, P. (1991). Men who beat the men who love them. New York: Harrington Park Press.

Jacobson, N.S. & Gottman, J.M. (1998). Anatomy of a violent relationship. Psychology Today, 31(2), 60-69.

Liddle, A.M. (1989). Feminist contributions to an understanding of violence against women--three steps forward, two steps back. Canadian Review Sociology & Anthropology, 26, 759-776.

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McConnell, E. (2000). …About domestic violence. Nursing, 39(4), 69.

Renzetti, C.M. (1992). Violent betrayal: Partner abuse in lesbian relationships. London: SAGE Publications.

Robertson, N. (1999). Stopping violence programmes: Enhancing the safety of battered women or producing better-educated batterers? New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 28(2), 68-78.

Selinger, J. (Producer). (1996, May 30). Domestic Violence: The Faces of Fear. New Jersey: The New Jersey Channel Productions, PBS.

Shea, C.A., Mahoney, M., & Lacey, J.M. (1997). Breaking through the barriers to domestic violence intervention. American Journal of Nursing, 97 (6), 26-33.

Straus, M.A., Gelles, R.J., & Steinmetz, S.K. (1980). Behind closed doors: Violence in the American family. New York, NY: Anchor Press.

Tjaden, P. & Thoennes, N. (1998). Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Walker, L.E. (2000). Battered woman syndrome. New York, NY: Springer Publishing.



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