The words “domestic violence” conjure an immediate mental image. Most people have a largely physical understanding of the phrase. It’s no wonder. “Violence” is right there in the term. But physical assault is only one of many forms of abuse that fall under the umbrella of “domestic violence”. This wording narrows the meaning of the phrase in the literal sense, which may limit understanding of the scope of abuses it covers. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (#DVAM2021), a fitting time to explore the various definitions and terms, how they are used, and alternative language that better educates and empowers.

What is “Domestic Violence”?

Most domestic violence shelters, advocates, counselors, therapists, social workers, medical personnel, and higher-ed instructors define “domestic violence” as a pattern of coercive control that one individual intermittently exerts over another. Abuse is about power and control. Violence is one method abusers use to exert their power and maintain control. “Intimate partner violence” is an often-substituted phrase that specifies the relationship of “intimate partners”, whereas “domestic violence” can occur between individuals who are related by blood or marriage, reside together in the same household, are or have been in a dating relationship, have a child in common, or have been physically intimate.

“Domestic Abuse”, frequently used interchangeably with “domestic violence”, may better express the wide range of controlling behaviors which also encompass emotional, psychological, and financial abuse. These can be at least as damaging and controlling as physical assaults.

The Legal Definition

In contrast, the law enforcement community (police, district attorneys, judges, defense attorneys, and victim witness advocates) in Massachusetts are bound by the statutory definition of “domestic violence” as having one or more of four specific elements:

    • caused physical harm
    • attempted to cause physical harm
    • placed another in fear of imminent serious physical harm
    • caused one to engage in sexual relations by using force, threats, or duress

While encompassing intent and fear as well as actual attack, the legal definition focuses exclusively on physical harm, a threat of harm, fear of serious harm, or sexual assault. The result of this narrower definition is that direct police action and legal prosecution of perpetrators may be limited or unavailable for survivors who suffer under the non-physical forms of domestic violence, but are still experiencing a devastating and debilitating impact.

Forms of Abuse

Abuse can take many forms, which may or may not be readily apparent to either the abusee or others outside the relationship. Any method by which a person employs coercive control or exerts harmful, oppressive power over another should be considered abusive. Here are some of the most common ones:


Physical abuse is the most easily identifiable and often leaves marks, bruises, and broken bones. Hitting, punching, choking, kicking, restraining, and pulling hair are all common forms of assault. It may not be limited to violence against one’s person, however. Punching a wall or throwing objects around, for instance, are physical means to intimidate, threaten, and instill fear without touching the victim. Abusing pets is a stark demonstration of what could happen to the abusee.  Physical abuse can also be less obvious, such as grabbing a phone out of a victim’s hand to prevent them calling for help, invading their personal space, yelling in their face, or blocking doorways to keep them from escaping.  All these behaviors imply physical abuse is imminent, threatened, and probable – leading to the very same intimidation and control engendered by direct bodily attacks.


Emotional or psychological abuse can be trickier to identify but is similarly detrimental. Examples of this form of abuse include telling someone what to wear or who they can see, isolating them from friends/family/community, making unreasonable demands, manipulating, and gaslighting them (learn more about gaslighting in our July 2021 blog post). It can also involve threats, intimidation, and humiliation designed to make victims feel wrong, ashamed, self-doubting, dependent, and unable to leave the relationship.  Using children as pawns to spy on the abusee or to participate in the abuse, threatening harm to children or pets, undermining or berating the abusee’s ability as a parent are all devastating tactics that are far more controlling than physical assault.


Verbal abuse is a tactic used to reinforce emotional and psychological abuse but can be separated as its own category. Name calling, put-downs, and shouting/yelling are more obvious forms of verbal abuse, but subtle and relentless criticizing, humiliating, threatening, demeaning, or isolating comments can be extremely effective in exerting control, being obeyed, and destroying an abusee’s sense of agency and self-esteem.


The Massachusetts legal definition of domestic violence specifically mentions and includes sexual assault, as it involves physical abuse of an intimate nature. Sexual abuse can be unwanted touching, rape, or even pressure to exchange sexual favors for “privileges” or an allowance controlled by the abuser. It may take the form of extreme public displays of affection or unwanted touching or public humiliation. Conversely, the tactical withdrawal of affection, neglect, and indifference also falls into this category effectively eroding an abusee’s sense of self-worth, attractiveness, and value.


Controlling access to money and/or the ability to earn money constitutes financial abuse. It may also involve diversion of income, hiding assets, theft of money or property, and destruction of credit, educational opportunities, or career prospects. Medical bills from injuries (physical, mental, or emotional) inflicted by an abuser and reproductive coercion can cause financial difficulties for many years. Restricting or cutting off funds makes it more difficult for an abusee to leave their abuser and can have consequences throughout survivors’ lives, even if they do leave. Almost all  abusive, coercive control relationships involve financial abuse that completely entraps the abusee.  Learn more about individual and community economic effects of financial abuse in our August 2021 blog post.


Regardless of which faith one practices or whether one is religious at all, abusers can use religion as a means of control. They may prevent victims from practicing religious activities they believe in or force them to participate in religious practices they don’t believe in. Certain tenets of many religions, such as the sanctity of marriage vows and a focus on forgiveness, can easily be twisted into control through spiritual belief. Abusers may draw on specific passages from religious texts to “prove” their point.  Separating one from their religion is another devastating form of isolation, stripping an abusee from a vital avenue of comfort and guidance.


With technology so ingrained in most peoples’ lives, new avenues of control have opened up for abusers. Ready access to victims’ email, calendars, social media, online accounts, browsing history, etc. is easy to gain—especially if they live in the same household.    A myriad of tactics are available to a tech-savvy abuser, such as controlling access to technology, tracking whereabouts via phone apps, spying through webcams, sending unpleasant messages to the abusee or to others on behalf of the abusee, and using smart technology to control features in the home such as security systems, lighting, and internet access. Many of these and other technologically controlling actions can be implemented without the victim’s knowledge.


Stalking is different from domestic violence in legal terms and is also a crime. Perpetrators may or may not be in a domestic relationship with their victim. Repeated contact or communication that causes the victim fear or emotional distress is considered stalking. Other forms of abuse may be used as stalking tactics. Waiting outside a victim’s home or workplace, following or spying on them, unexpectedly showing up where they are, leaving unwanted gifts, or sending unwanted communication through letters, email, phone, text, and social media.  Additional terrorizing stalking behaviors include vandalizing a victim’s property, spreading rumors, threatening them, their family, pets, friends, or colleagues, and harassing them or their colleagues at work and possibly forcing them to leave work or to be fired.

Abuse vs. Violence vs. Coercive Control

While most who work to support survivors and end “domestic violence” understand the term to mean more than physical assault, this is often in contrast to public perception and the letter of the law. It is the most generally known phrase but not the most encompassing one. Maybe in order to change awareness of what constitutes abuse, we need to change the language we use to define it. By focusing on the “violent” aspect of abuse, both in common terminology and legal definitions, we imply that physical abuse is the only part worth noticing, acknowledging, and punishing as a society or the only one that is a serious enough problem to criminalize. Other abusive behaviors, such as stalking, are illegal but are separated from the umbrella of “domestic violence”, which reinforces the cultural perception that the term only encompasses physical abuse. Perhaps “coercive control” more fully covers all aspects of domestic violence.  Describing and defining “coercive control” in legal terms would be a complex but important means of beginning to move more effectively toward ending “domestic violence”.

Victim vs. Survivor

In a similar vein, there is debate about whether to call those who have experienced abuse “victims” or “survivors”. The argument is that the word “victim” has a negative connotation that implies one is trapped, passive, or lacks strength and the will to persevere.  Yet, the term “survivor” acknowledges horrible experiences while at the same time suggesting resilience, agency, strength, and progression. RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, proposes that those two terms are not interchangeable. When one’s experience is recent or in relation to court proceedings, RAINN uses “victim” but chooses “survivor” for those who have gone through a recovery process or when discussing effects in general. This post includes both terms, which have been used with this variance in mind, while the term “abusee”—an infrequently used term—has been employed as well to sharpen the reader’s perception of the terms they expected to be see: “victim” or “survivor.

The Power of Words

In many spheres of life, people are becoming more aware of word choice. Definitions change over time and connotations can vary widely from person to person. Particularly in relation to coercive control, certain terms can be triggering or poorly incorporate all that they entail, which can lead to avoidable distress and skewed public perceptions. “Domestic violence”, “abuse”, “victim”, “survivor”, none of these are perfect terms. They all have the power to provoke reaction and reinforce cultural norms, be they negative or positive. We can only be sensitive and choose our words thoughtfully to progress understanding and affect transformation.

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