The term “domestic violence” (DV) is semi-controversial for a few reasons, the main one being that it is considered by some to be antiquated phrasing that reinforces gender roles and places violence in the home as a private family issue instead of a systemic one. There are a few other terms used interchangeably with DV for this reason, “intimate partner violence” or “gendered violence” are two of them. All three terms basically encompass the same issue: cyclical violence at the hands of a loved one.
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.
The reason I use the term domestic violence specifically, instead of other potential definitions, is because 1) it is the most commonly understood phrase and people are more likely to engage with it, and 2) it includes family violence that is linked to intimate partner violence (i.e. a family where multiple members actively or passively contribute to the abuse a victim experiences).
Because most of my writing on cold cases are linked to an analysis based in domestic violence, I think it is important to go over a few basics of what exactly is involved in DV.
Not every bad relationship is domestic violence.
I think that is important to emphasize. 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 that 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.
Additionally, in order for a relationship to fall under the umbrella of DV there must be a power imbalance that the abusive partner is exploiting. Below is a graphic of the “Power and Control Wheel,” developed in Duluth, Minnesota to show the ways victims are controlled and abused in imbalanced cishet relationships. The wheel has since been updated to include other types of relationships like LGBTQAI+ ones or those involving fragile immigration status, 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. There is a reason the stereotype of DV is an angry man and a cowering woman.
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, and/or trauma. Think a white cishet woman using racial power dynamics to abuse her Black cishet male partner, or a gay cis man using sexual power dynamics to abuse his gay cis male partner who is still “in the closet.”
Any kind of power dynamic can be exploited in an intimate relationship and that is what makes it domestic violence instead of just “toxic” or bad.
I have worked with DV victims/survivors for over seven years now and the majority of people I serve are women as victims in cishet-passing relationships with abusive men. The VAST majority. Again, this is because of how profound the power imbalance is between men and women, and because men are taught explicitly to exploit that imbalance.
For this reason, when I am speaking about DV in my writing I will typically refer to the victim as female and the abuser as male. This is not to erase the different kinds of relationships involved in DV, but to acknowledge the most common participants in it.
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).