Domestic violence is most commonly understood to be violence and abuse perpetrated by a man upon his intimate partner. This understanding and definition is supported by the extensive body of research conducted over the last 50 years, primarily in North America and the United Kingdom.

Domestic violence may sometimes be referred to as intimate partner violence. In the overwhelming majority of incidents domestic violence is perpetrated by a man against a woman. Domestic violence also occurs in LGBTQIA+ relationships.

The term, ‘family violence,’ has also been used to refer to domestic violence, for example, in Australian family law and immigration law, although the strict definition of family violence incorporates violence and abuse occurring within a broad range of intrafamilial and kinship relationships, thus blurring the intrinsic nature and dynamics of the relationship of trust and intimacy and therefore its complexity.

Domestic violence occurs across all cultural and socio-economic groups.

Domestic violence takes several forms and any of them are serious because of the harm they cause:

  • physical violence
  • sexual violence and abuse
  • psychological, verbal, and emotional abuse
  • financial or economic abuse
  • social abuse
  • spiritual and cultural abuse
  • cyber bullying

Examples of these tactics of abuse are:

  • Physical violence: behaviours such as hitting, kicking, punching, pushing, slapping, spitting, hair-pulling, choking, and strangling are forms of assault and are therefore criminal offences; strangulation is now known to be a ‘red flag’ signalling potential homicide
  • Sexual violence and abuse: behaviours include rape or forced or coerced sexual intercourse, any forced or coerced or unwanted sexual contact, forced or coerced or unwanted exposure to pornography; forced sexual contact or intercourse is also criminal
  • Psychological, verbal, and emotional abuse: behaviours include shouting, insults, threats of any kind, including threats of physical injury, threats regarding immigration status and other legal rights, intimidation, stalking, denigrating remarks and put-downs, torture or abuse of pets, threats regarding the safety of children, emotional manipulation, gaslighting (undermining), silent treatment, prolonged periods of sulking; stalking and intimidation are also criminal
  • Financial or economic abuse: behaviours include withholding of the family’s resources, for example, money, limiting or preventing access to money or credit, monitoring and controlling spending including the shopping for food and necessities, denying the partner the use of the family car
  • Social abuse: behaviours include isolating and alienating the partner from friends or family (this can include behaving badly at family gatherings or children’s birthday parties to put family members and friends off visiting or socialising), limiting and controlling contact with friends and family, monitoring phone calls, emails, and text messages, denying the partner a key to the home
  • Spiritual and cultural abuse: behaviours include forced participation in the abuser’s religion or religious customs or other beliefs, denial of the partner’s freedom to worship, denigration of the partner’s religious beliefs or values
  • Cyber bullying: increasingly the use of electronic material and messaging is being used to harass and humiliate women victims of domestic violence (revenge porn), GPS monitoring and tracking (stalking); examples include secretly filming and circulating personal and private photographs or footage

The term, coercive control, encompasses many of the above examples of sexual, psychological, financial, social, spiritual/cultural, and cyber abuse. The NSW Government introduced legislation to criminalise coercive control in 2021.

The NSW Crimes Act 1900 defines a domestic violence offence as a personal violence offence occurring in a ‘domestic relationship’ and goes on to define ‘domestic relationship’ as an expansive range of intrafamilial relationships and even further to include flatmates and residents in group homes.

For the purposes of Mary’s House Services however the definition remains violence and abuse committed by the male partner against his female partner. The critical issue is the abuse and the betrayal of the intimate relationship, and this is characterised by the use and abuse of power to gain and maintain control. Domestic violence is frequently of a serious and prolonged nature, escalating in frequency and intensity over time.

Many women who are victims of domestic violence do not identify their experiences as violence or abuse. Many women report that their experiences are merely a function of stress, communication problems, relationship problems, normal marital ‘discord’ or ‘conflict’ and even a ‘personality clash.’ It is common for women to perceive their experiences as their problem to fix; it is common for women to take responsibility for the health and well-being of the family.

As a result, the actual incidence of domestic violence in Australia has always been difficult to quantify due to reluctance to self-identify and report because of shame, embarrassment and feeling responsible. It is highly likely that many women have been given the message loud and clear that the ‘relationship problems’ are their responsibility or their fault.

Estimates based on women’s safety surveys (of self-report) suggest that at least one in four women have experienced violence and abuse at the hands of their intimate partner. What we do know is that one woman is killed by her partner approximately every ten days (121 women were killed by their male partners and 28 women killed their violent male partners in retaliation and/or self-defence in the four-year period 1 July 2010 to 30 June 2014: ANROWS, 2019).

It is both important and helpful to recognise and understand the use of violence and abuse to gain and maintain control as a function of patriarchal societal structures which reinforce gender inequality – and male power and dominance.

It is critical to recognise and understand the effects of domestic violence on women’s lives. In addition to often life-threatening injury, domestic violence has a profound impact on women’s psychological and emotional well-being, taking a toll on their sense of agency, their life-choices, their self-esteem, their resourcefulness and often their ability to make decisions.

And it is vital that the deleterious impact of domestic violence and abuse on children who are present in the household is identified and called out. There is an extensive body of research to demonstrate the extent of the trauma experienced by children living in such a household. It is common for mothers to deny that children are impacted or affected in any way and the reasons for this are at once understandable and complex.



Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Report: Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia: continuing the national story 2019

Download AIHW REPORT 2019