Domestic Violence vs. Domestic Abuse

The terms Domestic Violence and Domestic Abuse are frequently used to describe the same thing. Both refer to abuse within families, most commonly to abuse within the context of a couple.

In fact, both the government of the United States and the government of the UK define domestic violence as follows:

The US government gives the following definition of domestic violence.

‘…pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner’. Further, it is said that domestic violence ‘can happen to anyone regardless of race, age, sexual orientation, religion, or gender’, and can take many forms, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional, economic, and psychological abuse.

The definition given by the UK government follows:

‘Patterns of behavior characterized by the misuse of power and control by one person over another who are or have been in an intimate relationship. It can occur in mixed gender relationships and same gender relationships and has profound consequences for the lives of children, individuals, families and communities. It may be physical, sexual, emotional and/or psychological. The latter may include intimidation, harassment, damage to property, threats and financial abuse.’

The above definitions, which must be respected, seem to suggest that there is no appreciable difference between domestic violence and domestic abuse, and that the terms are interchangeable. However, there are times when a distinction between the two terms can and must be made. Domestic violence is a criminal matter. While some forms of non violent abuse can be proved in court, others are far harder to qualify.

Literal definitions of ‘abuse’, violence’ and ‘domestic’.

A speech given by the Director of Public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, gives the statistics as follows:

  • Nearly 1 million women experience at least one incident of domestic violence every year.
  • A minimum of 750,000 children per year are witness to incidents of domestic violence.
  • Two women are killed each week by their partner or ex partner.
  • 54% of adult female victims of serious sexual assault were assaulted by a partner or ex partner.
  • Repeat victimization is reported more in cases of domestic violence than in any other sort of crime.
  • 76% of all domestic violence incidents are repeated assaults.
  • On average, a woman will experience 35 assaults of domestic violence before she reports it to the police.
  • 19% of women have experienced stalking from the age of 16 years.
  • A poll undertaken in 2009 showed that 1 in 5 thought that it would be acceptable for a man to slap his wife or girlfriend if she ‘dressed in sexy or revealing clothes in public.’
  • Teenage relationships are also becoming more prone to violence. Some 25% of girls and 18% of boys have experienced some form of violence in relationships.

Literal definitions of ‘abuse’, violence’ and ‘domestic’

If we look more closely at the two terms, it is possible to make a clear distinction.
Domestic abuse is a far broader term than domestic violence. The Oxford dictionary definition of the word abuse (as can be applied to this context) is:

  • To use (something) to bad effect or to misuse
  • To make excessive or habitual use of something like alcohol or drugs.
  • To treat with cruelty or violence especially regularly or repeatedly
  •  To assault someone sexually
  • To speak to someone in an offensive or insulting way.

Violence is defined as:

  • Behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage or kill someone or something
  • The unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exercise of that force

Finally, the word ‘domestic‘ is given to mean:

  • Relating to the running of a home or family relations
  • Used in the home rather than in an office or other environment

Legal Definitions

Already, the difficulty in clarifying the real meaning of the terms is apparent. The picture is even further complicated by the legal situation. Different states and countries have their own laws and definitions. According to Charles E Corry, PhD, writing for the Equal Justice Foundation, the definitions given by the State of Colorado are:

  • Domestic Abuse: …any act, or threatened act, of violence that is committed by any person against another person to whom the actor is currently or was formerly related, or with whom the actor is living or was formerly living in the same domicile, or with whom the actor is involved or has been involved in an intimate relationship. Domestic Abuse may also include any act of violence or threatened act of violence against the minor children of either of the parties.
  • Domestic Violence: …also includes any other crime against a person or against property or any municipal ordinance violation against a person or against property when used as a method of coercion, control, punishment, intimidation or revenge directed against a person with whom the actor is has been involved in, an intimate relationship.

Further, Corry adds that the term domestic abuse can also include psychological harm: ‘The basis for domestic abuse need not even include actual violence or abuse and today it rarely does. In fact, in Colorado, domestic violence is an add on charge for any criminal act, and quite a few that don’t seem criminal, ie. Eavesdropping. ‘
In the same document, Corry states that the United States Center for Disease Control extends the definition of domestic violence even wider:

  •  “In recent years, the term ‘domestic violence’ has begun to include other forms of violence including abuse of elders, children, and siblings. The term ‘domestic violence’ also tends to overlook male victims and violence between same-sex partners. Therefore, at CDC we prefer using the more specific term ‘intimate partner violence (IPV),’ defined as actual or threatened physical or sexual violence, or psychological/emotional abuse by a spouse, ex-spouse, boyfriend/ girlfriend, ex-boyfriend/ ex-girlfriend, or date. Some of the common terms that are used to describe intimate partner violence are domestic abuse, spouse abuse, domestic violence, courtship violence, battering, marital rape, and date rape.”

It’s a complex picture. Can a line be drawn between domestic abuse and domestic violence? Corry’s contention is that only violent acts that have the potential to cause injury should be considered as domestic violence by the courts. He makes a clear and controversial distinction between ‘abusive violence’ and what he calls ‘normal family violence’.  However, many other eminent sources disagree. The British organisation Women’s Aid ( )
clearly does not make this same distinction:

  • In Women’s Aid’s view domestic violence is physical, sexual, psychological or financial violence that takes place within an intimate or family-type relationship and that forms a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour. This can include forced marriage and so-called ‘honour crimes’. Domestic violence may include a range of abusive behaviours, not all of which are in themselves inherently ‘violent’.

Another UK domestic violence help organisation, Hidden Hurt, explains in even more depth.

  • We tend to think of Domestic Abuse as physical violence or assault on a partner. In reality, however,domestic abuse is the summary of physically, sexually and psychologically abusive behaviours directed by one partner against another, regardless of their marital status or gender.

In the Unites States, domestic violence and domestic abuse become even more difficult to define and separate. The link given below shows how different states interpret the terms and apply the laws.

Further difficulties with definitions

So, the literal and legal definitions throw up many anomalies. Even what is meant by ‘domestic’ is open to very varied interpretations. Legal definitions matter, of course, if you are a victim who is taking their abusive partner or other to court. As the picture varies so much from place to place, the best answer here is to use a lawyer recommended to you by a respected Domestic Violence charity or government organisation. To speak to someone in relation to this, contact:



Domestic abuse

Leaving behind the complex legal definitions, it may be helpful to view domestic abuse as a term that covers all family related abuses. It can be seen as a ‘blanket definition’ that includes acts of violence in addition to all the other types of abuse that take place within a family or close relationship setting.

These abuses may be:

Emotional or Psychological abuses

  • Name calling and belittling
  • Screaming and yelling
  • Public humiliation
  • Isolating someone from their friends and family
  • Controlling behaviour (i.e., telling someone what they may or may not wear)
  • Use of cellphones and internet to monitor or control someone or to intimidate them
  • Shifting the blame for abuse onto the abused
  • Stalking
  • Threatening suicide as a means of controlling a person (i.e., an abuser may threaten suicide to prevent a partner from leaving them)
  • Threatening harm: to the abused or to a loved one, pet or even possessions
  • Forcing someone to have sex or making them feel guilty if they do not consent to sex
  • Threatening to expose secrets about someone (e.g.; sexual orientation)
  • Spreading malicious gossip about a person
  • Threatening to take away someone’s children or loved pets

Actual abuses other than physical abuses

  • Stalking (includes following, excessive and unwanted contact by phone, email or on social networking sites, lying in wait, harrassing friends, family or colleagues and actual damage to people or property.)
  • Financial abuse (includes controlling access to finances, stealing or taking money from joint accounts or personal ccounts of the victim, coercing or deceiving the victim into signing financial documents.)

Physical abuse (excluding sexual abuse)

Physical abuse entails any form of physical (bodily) contact that you do not want. It may be that your abuser:

  •  Scratches, slaps, bites or kicks you
  • Pushes, pokes or shakes you
  • Pulls your hair
  • Grabs and pulls at your clothing
  • Throws objects at you
  • Uses a weapon to hurt and intimidate you (a weapon can be anything that can cause physical harm, it doesn’t have to be a gun or a knife)
  • Smacks you even in play or a sexual contact if you do not wish them to do so
  • Forces you to perform a sexual act that you do not want
  • Grabs your face to force you to look at them
  • Physically restrains you if you try to leave

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse may include any of the following if they are unwanted:

  • Kissing or touching
  • Intercourse, oral sex or anal intercourse
  • Sex acts performed on the basis of threats or intimidation
  • Rough or violent sexual acts
  • Sex acts performed after withholding your right to use condoms or birth control
  • Sex acts performed when the abuser knows he may be passing on a disease or infection
  • Rape or attempted rape

Digital abuse

Digital abuse can take the form of stalking or bullying over the internet or mobile phones. Social networking sites are commonly used for this type of abuse. It can also be a control issue that takes place between dating couples. If you are suffering digital abuse you may be experiencing any or all of the following:

  • Your partner tries to control your use of social network sites or your mobile phone, telling you who you should or  should not be ‘friends’ with or contact.
  • Your partner or anyone else insults you on social networking sites or by text message.
  • Your partner or anyone else uses social networking sites or mobile phones to keep track of your movements, thoughts or activities.
  • Your partner or anyone else sends you threatening messages on social networking sites, by email or text message.
  •  Your partner or anyone else uses their own status to put you down
  • Your partner or anyone else sends, or demands explicit sexual or violent videos, photographs and images on the internet or via mobile phone.
  • Your partner or anyone else steals or demands your passwords.
  • Your partner or anyone else hacks into your account or takes your mobile phone
  • Your partner or anyone else demands that you stay in constant contact via mobile phone
  • Your partner or anyone else demands to read your phone or message records, statuses, emails and other interaction with others over the internet.

Wider family abuses

Wider family abuses can include child or elder abuse and sibling abuse. They can be perpetrated by blood relatives or others who are within the home on a regular basis.

Domestic Violence

Although the term ‘domestic violence’ is widely believed to cover all the same areas, it could be, and is, in some circumstances, easier to see as a separate entity.  Taken in its narrowest meaning, it covers all acts of actual violence, whether to a person or their possessions in a domestic context. This, then, includes sexual violence or abuse, all forms of physical abuse as given above and some stalking abuses. However, as threats of violence and emotional and psychological abuses can also be violent in intent and results (to the point of resulting in suicide or self harm), and often escalate into and are conjoined with, physical violence it is, perhaps, dangerous to use this narrower definition.

The term ‘domestic’ can also be used as a ‘blanket term’, and can be separated from partner abuses if we refer to the latter as Intimate Partner Abuse or Intimate Partner Violence.

It seems, aside from legal interpretations, that it is left to the individual to decide what constitutes domestic violence and what constitutes domestic abuse.

  • LM

    I’ve been stalked by a man who I met online and never even met. I only entertained him because I dropped him for someone else initially as I wasn’t interested and felt guilty about it – had no interest in him. He seemed nice at first, but then switched. I had more important things to worry about and focus on which I usually do and ignored the warning signs. He’s from Worcester Park in Surrey. He’s been stalking me via Jonathan Cainer’s horoscopes (…) which lie and put crazy ideas in his head like me being interested in him when I’m not and never was. He was stalking me and posting delusional things on Twitter, writing cryptic messages in Tweets and Favourited things relating to rubbish he’d read. And just because I wasn’t interested he started abusing me and my family, posting vile comments and jokes about my mum dying who’s in care with early onset dementia, my dad, myself and anyone else I knew. Threatened to physically hurt me. Hacked my Twitter account and stalked, abused and harassed me for months. Got his friends to do the same. Sitting behind a computer and cowardly dishing out abuse because his pride was hurt at being rejected. Completely delusional and unable to accept reality. He’s low-class, unattractive and has low intelligence (despite thinking himself smart and attractive) and completely lacks perspective and self-insight. Typical stalker profile. Disgusting, repugnant, scum. Even stalking me now and reporting posts as ‘Spam’. The police will have to deal with him. Insane, psychotic scum.