The term “domestic violence” (DV) is sometimes considered controversial for a few reasons, the main reason being that the phrase can be seen as outdated and stigmatizing. The history of the term has typically reinforced gender roles and often wrongfully placed violence in the home as a “private family issue” to be ignored, instead of framing it as a systemic public health one. The most commonly used alternative terms are “intimate partner violence” or “gendered violence.” All three terms basically encompass the same issue: a cyclical pattern of violence at the hands of a loved one.
Why I Use the Term
The reasons I use the term domestic violence specifically, instead of other potential definitions, are because 1) it is the most commonly understood phrase and people are more likely to engage with it, and 2) it includes family violence.
“Family violence" refers to the abuse of power that can occur within a family dynamic. One definition:
Family violence is an abuse of power in a family or other trusting relationship where people rely on each other. When someone experiences family violence, their well-being, security and survival are threatened.
Family violence is a broad term that includes: domestic violence, intimate partner violence, sexual violence, child abuse, neglect and sexual exploitation, child sexual abuse, elder abuse and neglect, and witnessing the abuse of others in the family (Source: Alberta.ca, What family violence and domestic violence is).
Because I work with and write about the violence the occurs between intimate partners, I prefer to use the term “domestic violence" as encompassing family violence instead of the other way around.
What I Mean by “Domestic Violence"
The National Domestic Violence Hotline describes DV as such:
Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.
Domestic violence includes 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. It includes the use of physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse and economic deprivation. Many of these different forms of domestic violence/abuse can be occurring at any one time within the same intimate relationship.
Not every bad relationship is domestic violence.
I think that point is important to emphasize due to the amount of confusion around what does and does not constitute abuse. Not even every relationship that includes violence is “domestic violence.” This is because DV is a specific relationship between an abuser and their victim that relies on a cycle of power and control.
The phrase “cycle of power and control” can be confusing to some, so what I mean by that is a way of living that constantly reinforces how the abuser is in control of the victim and their life. The violent or abusive actions must occur in order to hold power over a partner and seek to control their behavior (or even thoughts).
This specific action of exerting total control over a partner has recently been described as “coercive control.”
Coercive control is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim. This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour.
Coercive control creates invisible chains and a sense of fear that pervades all elements of a victim’s life. It works to limit their human rights by depriving them of their liberty and reducing their ability for action. Experts like Evan Stark liken coercive control to being taken hostage. As he says: “the victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.”
A relationship with domestic violence is one that includes that cycle of power and control.
There MUST be a power imbalance.
There is a spectrum to relationships that ranges from healthy to unhealthy/toxic to abusive.
For a relationship to fall under the umbrella of DV there must be an imbalanced power dynamic that the abusive partner is exploiting. Below is a graphic of the original “Power and Control Wheel,” developed to show the ways victims are controlled and abused in imbalanced cishet relationships. (The wheel has since been updated to include other possible power dynamics like those found in LGBTQAI+ relationships, etc.)
The most obvious power imbalance is between the male and female genders, which is why the majority of DV cases involve cishet-passing couples, and unfortunately why most services cater only to them.
This is not to say that DV can only affect cishet relationships. DV can occur in literally any type of relationship as long as there is a partner willing to exploit the power dynamic. Examples of other imbalanced dynamics that can be exploited in a DV relationship: race, immigration status, disability, sexuality, income level, or the existence of trauma.
Any kind of power dynamic can be exploited in an intimate relationship. That exploitation is what makes it domestic violence instead of just “toxic” or bad.
For more information on the dynamics of domestic violence, The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great resource to start with (and is not just a crisis hotline).
National Domestic Violence Hotline | Get Help Today | 1-800-799-7233
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