A definition of domestic and family violence

Domestic violence refers to violent behaviour between current or former intimate partners – typically where one partner tries to exert power and control over the other, usually through fear. It can include physical, sexual, emotional, social, verbal, spiritual and economic abuse.

Family violence is a broader term that refers to violence between family members, which can include violence between current or former intimate partners, as well as acts of violence between a parent and a child, between siblings, and more. Family violence is the preferred term for violence between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as it covers the extended family and kinship relationships in which violence may occur.i

Behaviour towards victims can include limiting their access to finances, preventing them from contacting family and friends, demeaning and humiliating them, threatening them or their children with injury or death, and acts of physical violence.ii

Both men and women experience violence, and most men are not perpetrators of violence. However, there are gendered patterns in violence perpetration and victimisation. Women are much more likely than men to experience violence from an intimate partner, and with more severe impacts including hospitalisation or death. Understanding gendered patterns is crucial for understanding domestic and family violence and developing effective responses including preventative measures.iii

Risk factors

There are a number of risk factors for the perpetration or victimisation of domestic and family violence, including individual, relationship, community and societal factors:

  • Individual factors can include low income or unemployment, heavy alcohol or drug use, anger and hostility, social isolation, belief in strict gender roles, and a history of abuse.
  • Relationship factors can include dominance and control by one partner over the other, economic stress, recent separation between partners and unhealthy family relationships and interactions.
  • Community factors can include poverty and associated issues (including overcrowded housing), low social capital, and weak community sanctions against domestic and family violence.
  • Societal factors can include condoning of violence against women and rigid gender roles, including men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence in public and private life.

Know the signs

Domestic and family violence can involve a range of different behaviours. Knowing the signs can help you recognise when violence may be occurring and allow you to take appropriate steps to intervene:

Physical abuse - including direct assaults on the body, use of weapons, driving dangerously, destruction of property, abuse of pets in front of family members, assault of children and forced sleep deprivation.

Emotional abuse - blaming the victim for all problems in the relationship, constantly comparing the victim with others to undermine self-esteem and self-worth, withdrawing all interest and engagement (e.g. weeks of silence).

Sexual abuse - any form of sexual activity without consent, causing pain during sex, assaulting the genitals, coercive sex without protection against pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease, criticising, or using sexually degrading insults.

Social abuse - systematic isolation from family and friends through techniques such as ongoing rudeness to family and friends, moving to locations where the victim knows nobody, and forbidding or physically preventing the victim from going out and meeting people.

Verbal abuse - continual ‘put downs’ and humiliation, either privately or publicly, with attacks following clear themes that focus on intelligence, sexuality, body image and capacity as a family member, parent or spouse.

Spiritual abuse - denying access to ceremonies, land or family, preventing religious observance, forcing victims to do things against their beliefs, denigration of cultural background, or using religious teachings or cultural tradition as a reason for violence.

Economic abuse - complete control of all monies, no access to bank accounts, providing only an inadequate ‘allowance’.

Know how to respond

It can be hard to know what to say to a person experiencing domestic and family violence. Here are some ideas of effective ways to support someone experiencing abuse:

Listen – Being listened to can be an empowering experience for a person affected by violence. Give them space to tell their story and be empathetic and compassionate.

Validate and believe them – Often people are not confident to tell their story in case they are not believed. You can help a person feel stronger by showing you believe what they say, no matter what they share.

Be clear that they are not to blame - People who are experiencing domestic and family violence can often feel incredibly scared and unsure of themselves. You can say things like: ‘Violence is unacceptable. You do not deserve to be treated this way.’ Avoid asking: ‘Why don’t you leave?’, ‘What could you have done to avoid this situation?’ and ‘Why did they hit you?’, as these might suggest they could control the violence by managing their behaviour.

Above all, help them seek help –You don’t need to try to fix the situation or be a counsellor. Refer them to services that can support them. More details are listed at the bottom of this page.


Know someone affected by domestic and family violence?

If you are experiencing abuse or violence it is not your fault. There are support services that can help you. If your life is in danger, call 000. For 24/7 domestic violence counselling call the National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).

Where to get help

Acknowledging that one of your relationships may be unhealthy or potentially harmful can be overwhelming to cope on your own. It can also be difficult to see the bigger context when trying to look at a relationship outside of our own lens. Whether it’s a relationship you need help navigating, a behaviour you want to change or advice to support a loved one involved in an unhealthy relationship, reach out to:

  • If your life is in danger, contact emergency services on 000 immediately.

iCouncil of Australian Governments (2011), National plan to reduce violence against women and their children, s.l.: s.n.
iiAustralian Institute of Health and Welfare (2018), Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia, 2018, Canberra: AIHW.
iii Our Watch, ARROWS and VicHealth (2015), Change the story: A shared framework for the primary prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia, Melbourne: Our Watch.

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Understanding domestic and family violence

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