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The Many Faces of Domestic Violence: Understanding Mental, Emotional and Sexual Violence


Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

When most people think of domestic violence, they are immediately flooded with images of one spouse hitting another. However, domestic violence goes deeper than just physical violence. In this article, we provide insight into other behaviors that fall into the category of domestic violence to facilitate awareness and understanding on this intimate topic.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, domestic violence is “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” Let’s look at some patterns of domestic violence behaviors that go beyond the physical. 

Emotional Abuse 

Many people aren’t aware that the emotional abuse that occurs in a domestic violence situation can have a long lasting effect and, in some cases, take a greater emotional toll on domestic violence victims than physical abuse. Emotional abuse is present in domestic violence relationships when one partner deliberately attacks the emotions of another with an intent to undermine their overall well-being. 

Common forms of emotional abuse are name calling, shaming, and withholding affection. Name calling can cause a person to feel worthless, as over time they may internalize the words being hurled at them as weapons. Shaming works to make the victim feel ashamed of themselves whether this is in the form of their physical appearance, the way they think or other characteristics that are an indistinguishable part of their personality. 

Withholding affection is a common tactic of domestic violence abusers used to make their victims feel small, isolated, and alone. Ironically, the result of emotional withdrawal is usually the victim trying harder to get the attention and affection of their abuse to ease the feelings of isolation and loneliness. 

Getting into an argument or getting mad and saying something you regret usually isn’t considered emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is the constant humiliation, insulting, or unneeded criticism of someone. Gaslighting is a common form of emotional abuse that domestic violence perpetrators use to keep their victims off-balance, confused, and questioning the validity of their reality. 

Sexual Abuse 

When people think of sexual violence, they often imagine a rape where the perpetrator is a stranger. However, sexual abuse and assault can (and often does) happen between intimate, dating, and married partners. Consenting to dating, marriage, and relationships are not consenting to sex at someone else’s whim 100% of the time. Sexual harassment and sexual violence are domestic violence present in some married and dating relationships.  

Being forced by your partner to have sex (without your consent) is sexual abuse. For example, your partner making unwanted sexual advancements or comments toward you (when you have asked them to stop), is sexual harassment. 

Both you and your partner have the right to choose when and where you have sex. The timing of your sexual engagements should be a mutual decision between couples. 

Financial Abuse 

Financial abuse occurs in intimate relationships when one partner is preventing the other from having access to and managing their own finances. Financial abuse has occurred when one spouse prevents the other from having a job or furthering their education to increase their financial prospects. 

The financially abused partner has no access to individual or joint resources and has to become dependent on their partner for meeting basic everyday needs and expenses. When financial abuse is present in relationships where both partners are employed, they require the abused partner to turn over all of their earnings to the partner who is considered as being “in charge.” 

This is normally stated to the abused partner as “being for their own good.” As a result, the financially abused partner feels controlled as they have no say so over their own lives.

Controlling Behavior 

Finally, a subtle form of abuse that many domestic violence victims aren’t aware of is controlling behavior. Controlling behavior happens when one partner tries to control the movements of the other partner (100% of the time). The following are examples of four controlling behaviors that are often present in domestic violence relationships.  

Four examples of controlling behavior in intimate relationships: 

  1. Your partner tracks the gas mileage on your vehicle – every time you leave the house. 
  2. Monitoring your personal phone calls and social media accounts, or demanding your cell phone passwords. 
  3. Your partner doesn’t allow you to have any alone time, even when you ask directly. 
  4. Your partner feels it’s their responsibility to hand-pick your friends and associates as you find your social circle getting smaller. 

If someone ever told you they can’t do something because of their partner, then that’s often a sign that this person is being controlled by their partner. If you see someone who isn’t allowed to have friends of the opposite sex or they can’t go out by themselves, there is a high likelihood that this person is being controlled. 

Left unchecked, controlling behaviors often escalate into other damaging behaviors, including physical violence. Controlling behavior is an overt form of domestic violence that can have lasting results and affect the quality of your relationships for the rest of your life. 

The Cycle of Domestic Violence Operates in Three Phases

What makes domestic violence so prevalent is that many people aren’t aware that domestic violence is a cycle that needs to be broken. We know the repetitive cycle of domestic violence as the cycle of violence. Understanding how the cycle of violence works can help abuse victims and abusers to learn what is driving these violent incidents. Let’s review the cycle of violence phases below. 

Cycle of Violence: Three Phases 

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the Cycle of Domestic Violence plays out in three phases. We outline the three phases below. 

Phase 1. Tension-Building – During the tension-building phase, tensions in the relationship are building towards a violent incident. There may be instances of name-calling, gaslighting, and threats begin to heighten during this stage. 

Phase 2. Abusive Incident – The tension breaks and an abusive incident occurs. The incident may be physical, emotional, or verbal in nature. Abuse victims are often afraid and unsure how to react as their world seems upside down in this stage. 

Phase 3. Honeymoon Phase – The tension has broken and the abusive incident has passed. At this stage, abusers often show remorse for their actions and apologize to the victim. Victims may accept the apology, not knowing that this is a cycle that will begin again or because they have no other options and nowhere else to go. 

Ending the Cycle of Domestic Violence 

One of the common questions people ask victims is “Why didn’t you just leave?” Financial dependence forces many domestic violence victims to stay because they have no way to support themselves as their abuser has isolated them (or removed from) close friends and family.

Learning how domestic violence happens and gaining access to support services and resources like online therapy is a good place to start along the pathway of ending the cycle. If you are in a domestic violence situation, calling a domestic violence hotline is also a good first step. The National Domestic Violence Hotline may help. 

Always consider your surroundings and safety when reaching out for domestic violence support. Reach out for help in the most discreet way possible by calling your local authorities or National Domestic Hotline if you are being closely monitored or if you are in immediate danger. 

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