A person does not have to be physically harmed to be a victim of domestic violence. Abuse takes many shapes and forms.
“We define domestic violence as being a pattern of coercive behavior used by one partner in a relationship to exert and maintain power and control over the other partner,” said Jessica Spector, a staff attorney with Urban Justice’s Domestic Violence Project.
Nadine Bosson, a social worker with Safe Horizon, said, “We see physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, economic abuse.” She added that other ways a victim may be abused are through threats, using children, male privilege, intimidation and isolation.
When it comes to physical abuse, Bosson explained that it can include hitting, kicking, throwing things, biting, slapping, strangling, grabbing or twisting a person’s arm. The abuse can control a victim, preventing them from leaving or seeking help.
“Often people can sustain bruises or injuries as a result of physical abuse,” Bosson said, adding that physical abuse can range from minor to moderate to severe violence.
Sexual abuse can involve a person being treated like a sex object, being sexually attacked, making a person do sexual things against their will either with the abuser or with another person and having the sexual parts of the victim’s body attacked. One result could be unwanted pregnancies. Bosson said this abuse can make a person feel powerless and that a lot of shame is involved.
Victims can also be abused emotionally. The abuser might make them feel bad about themselves, call the victim names or play mind games. They might try to minimize the abuse, deny that the abuse even happened and shift responsibility by blaming the victim.
“The victims will often think that they’re going crazy,” Bosson said. She said that if the victim’s self-esteem becomes low, they might start to internalize what the abuser is saying, which can lead to depression, anxiety and isolation.
There are many ways that a victim can be abused economically. It could mean forcing the victim to work or not work, not providing financial support, taking the person’s money, limiting how much money they are given, accounting for every cent spent, making the victim ask for money or having full control of the finances. Identity theft could also be a part of it, including applying for credit cards under the victim’s name.
“It can make the victim very dependant financially on the abuser and often makes it very difficult to leave the relationship,” Bosson said.
Threats are commonly used by an abuser to try to assert power and control over their victim. An abuser might threaten that they will commit suicide, call immigration or out a gay partner. Weapons might also be used to threaten more violence.
“That can make the victim feel like the violence is going to escalate and it can be enough, just a threat, to control a victim,” said Bosson.
Bosson explained that abusers can also use children against a victim, such as by using visitations as a way to harass the victim, falsely reporting child abuse or neglect, and undermining the victim’s authority over the children.
“Often victims are worried if they try to escape the relationship the other parent will try to take the children away from them or make false allegations through the courts against them,” she said.
Through “male privilege,” Bosson said there is a “master of the castle mentality,” where there are strict gender roles; the abuser is the only one allowed to make important decisions and the victim is treated like a servant. This can make a woman feel like she has no rights.
Intimidation can be another form of domestic abuse.
“Putting fear into a victim alone can be an extremely dynamic form of domestic violence,” Bosson said.
Actions, gestures, raising their voice or acting as if they are doing to do something can intimidate victims. Bosson said this can create fears of escalation and retaliation.
Abusers also may isolate their victims from family, friends and networks. They might control who the person talks to, where they go and want to know where they are at all times.
“There’s usually an escalation from emotional to verbal abuse to threats and intimidation to physical assault,” Bosson said. “Eventually intimidation and threats can be the only form that is needs to control someone.”