Many people equate "domestic violence" with an angry husband hitting his wife. In reality, that's only one possible scene. Although women are much more likely to be victims of domestic violence, it's not so uncommon for wives to hit husbands, boyfriends to hit or verbally abuse girlfriends, girlfriends to hit or abuse boyfriends. There's more than one way for a relationship to turn violent or abusive.
Domestic violence can happen to families of all income and education levels. According to a 2006 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 4.8 million women suffer physical assaults and rapes from intimate partners every year, while about 2.9 million men are the victims of intimate partner related assaults. Women of all races are almost equally vulnerable to being abused by someone with whom they're involved. The cost of spousal abuse is not just physical and emotional the CDC estimates that domestic violence costs more than $8 billion each year in medical and mental health services and loss of productivity.
What is the definition of domestic violence?
Domestic violence happens when one person in a relationship uses violent, threatening behaviors and actions to intimidate or control another person. The abuse doesn't have to be physical. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, domestic violence can be divided into three overlapping categories: physical battering, sexual abuse, and psychological battering.
Battering is the physical abuse -- being shoved, slapped, punched, attacked, and even murdered -- that people normally associate with domestic violence. If you're being physically battered, chances are there's a sexual element to the abuse as well. Abusers frequently force their partners to have intercourse or perform sexual acts against their will. Psychological abuse is when an abuser routinely insults, belittles, mocks, harasses, or intimidates with words or gestures.
There's often a predictable pattern to domestic violence. Infrequent threats or insults can escalate, sometimes culminating in a violent assault. Attacks can also become increasingly brutal and occur more regularly the longer you stay in the relationship. Here's a typical scenario: You try harder and harder to please your significant other, but nothing is good enough. Tension mounts until the inevitable verbal or physical attack occurs. Afterward, abusers will often apologize and swear it will never happen again. Although you may be tempted to just forget the whole incident, unfortunately, this rarely means the abuse is going to end, and apologies do not make such treatment okay. No one deserves to be hit or intimidated under any circumstances.
Where can I go for help?
In an immediate crisis, call 911. Try to remain calm and stay on the line with the operator until help arrives. Be sure to let them know if you are trapped in a particular room, whether weapons are involved, and if anyone is hurt. If possible, also give the police the abuser's name and let them know whether this has happened before.
For less urgent crisis intervention, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Counselors at the hotline have access to a nationwide database and can provide referrals to local shelters and assistance programs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each month, the hotline answers approximately 19,500 calls from domestic violence sufferers as well as their friends and families. You can call the hotline from all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and interpreters are available in about 140 languages.
What is my legal protection?
When you call the police to report an incident of domestic violence, they are required by law to stay until you (and your children) are no longer in danger. The police can arrest an abuser without a warrant if the officer has good reason to believe that an assault has taken place, or if a protection order has been violated. They have to advise you about shelters and other services in your area, and can provide transportation to one if you choose to go. They will also file a report of what happened to you, which is helpful if you want to file charges or get court-ordered protection.
In most places a judge can order the abuser to stay away from you and your children, leave your home, or attend a violence intervention program. Court orders can also award you temporary custody of your children and give you possession of the car or other belongings. Laws vary from state to state, but your local police department and domestic violence shelter will be valuable resources for navigating the court system.
Once you're involved in the court system, you may also need an attorney for custody or criminal proceedings. You may qualify for free or low-cost legal services, so check with your local shelter or domestic violence advocacy program. The Domestic Violence Hotline can give you a referral, or you could call your state bar association for a list of attorneys experienced in domestic violence cases.
How can I help a friend I suspect is being abused?
Many women, especially those who are not actually hit, don't consider themselves "abused" or "battered." Others think that they cause or deserve the abuse. When confronted, even by close friends, many women will rationalize their situation. Some do this out of denial, others because they fear what will happen to them once the person expressing concern is no longer around to protect them.
Whether you bring up the subject with someone you suspect is being abused, or a friend chooses to confide in you, the most you can do for her is listen attentively, offer unconditional support, share information on resources, and ultimately respect her decision. If you have evidence that children are being abused, you can call Child Protective Services and ask for an investigation.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence P.O. Box 18749 Denver, CO 80218. http://www.ncadv.org
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Domestic Violence. 2011. http://www.acog.org/publications/patient_education/bp083.cfm
JAMA patient page. Intimate partner violence. 2008. http://www.acog.org/publications/patient_education/bp083.cfm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Intimate Partner Violence. 2006. http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/dvp/ipv_factsheet.pdf
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Domestic violence facts. 2007. http://www.ncadv.org/files/DomesticViolenceFactSheet(National).pdf