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Spouse or partner abuse is commonly termed "domestic violence". While it is a crime that is perpetrated by both genders, it is a crime whose victims are primarily women and often children. It is a crime that annually leaves 3 to 4 million women in the United States battered by their husbands or partners. It is a crime committed every 15 seconds, according to some estimates, with a woman and possibly her children, being victimized, most often in the one place where they should feel safe...the home.

The battering of spouses and partners is also a public health problem in American society. It has, for far too long, gone unnoticed, been tolerated, or been given attention sporadically. Just as it took many years for the public recognition of child abuse and neglect to emerge, the recognition of spouse/partner abuse has also been a long time coming. Mounting statistics tell the severity of the problem but not what can be done to prevent it.

Today numerous organizations are working to raise public awareness about spouse/ partner violence and yet, there is still much to be done to educate society toward prevention of this most devastating form of abuse.

The National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence has prepared this information as a part of its commitment to help educate the public toward the prevention of domestic violence on spouses and partners.

The following information includes basic facts, types of abuse, help to understand both victims and abusers, and suggestions as to how you can help in your community’s prevention efforts.

We hope you will join with the NCCAFV in its commitment to prevention, by first becoming informed about the problem, and then sharing this information with others. Prevention is a task we must all participate in if we are to see a decline in the abuse of spouse/partners and children.


Domestic Violence Defined

What is domestic violence toward spouses and partners?

The term "domestic violence", also referred to as "spouse/partner abuse", is used to describe a form of family violence which, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, is the leading cause of injury and death to American women.

Victims of domestic violence are found among all male/female relationships, married or not. Domestic violence includes physical abuse, sexual violence, psychological and/or emotional abuse of a woman by her mate or companion.

Accurate statistics on the extent of spouse/partner abuse are difficult to calculate. However, we know that physical battering accounts for more injuries to women in America than mugging, rapes or even car accidents. In addition, we know that spouse/partner abuse in domestic violence is the most common unreported crime in America today, occurring in families from all economic, social, cultural, religious and educational backgrounds. Sexual violence and emotional abuse, including threats, verbal insults, deprivation, harassment, etc., often accompany physical violence.

There are three major forms of domestic violence from which victims suffer. Each of these can be noted by certain characteristics.


Physical Abuse

Kicking, biting, hitting, pushing, choking and assaults with weapons are behaviors most often associated with physical domestic violence.


Pregnant women who are victims of physical abuse often sustain injuries to the abdomen and, potentially to the unborn child. A victim of chronic abuse may have bruises on her face, neck, arms, legs, or torso which are in a variety of healing stages or show signs of swelling or puffiness in the face or around the eyes. She may have a ready explanation for such injuries, not wishing to raise any suspicions on the part of relatives, neighbors, or co-workers.

Sexual violence, also referred to as "marital rape", is a form of violence whereby sex is used to hurt, degrade, dominate, humiliate and gain power over the victim. It is an act of aggression. Forced sexual activity and sexual sadism are forms of sexual domestic violence and threats often accompany such abuse.

Sexual Violence


Emotional/Psychological Abuse


This form of violence has the power to destroy the victim’s self-esteem over time. Although not as visible as physical or sexual violence, the scars of emotional and/or psychological abuse are traumatic and long lasting. This form of abuse is almost always present in families where physical and/or sexual domestic violence occur.

Intimidation, e.g. looks, gestures, yelling, smashing things or destroying the victim’s property, threats to harm a child or children or keep them from the victim, isolating the victim from family and friends and economic domination are common ways in which abusers cause emotional and/or psychological damage to their victims.

Common Causes


Why Is domestic violence so common?

The roots of domestic violence are embedded in attitudes toward women which have existed for hundreds of years. Even today there are numerous societies where a woman is treated as the property of her husband and he is seen as having the right to use physical force in relating to her, if necessary. Although not spoken aloud, there are segments in our American society where this attitudes still exists.


As with all social problems, the causes of domestic violence are many and sometimes complex. Factors which keep domestic violence from being recognized as a crime include:

  • a lack of understanding that verbal and physical violence are learned behaviors, often learned from role models such as parents, relatives or friends;

  • a lack of understanding that violence in relationships is often used as a way to reduce emotional stress, as a defense mechanism, or as a way to maintain control in the relationship;

  • a lack of recognition that there is a high correlation between alcohol and substance abuse and domestic violence;


  • continual exposure to violent behavior in entertainment, sports and the media;

  • reinforcement of sexual roles condoning aggressive and violent behavior by males; and,


  • a lack of public awareness regarding the severity of the problem with many still believing it is a private matter within the family instead of a criminal issue and, therefore, best left alone.


The Victim

What about the victim?

Although there is no one profile of the battered woman, there are some common characteristics which victims of spouse/partner abuse share.

  • Battered women come from all sectors of society, from every social, economic, religious, and racial group, from all walks of life and all lifestyles.

  • Battered woman often feel degraded and worthless.

  • A battered woman’s lack of positive self-esteem may keep her from telling anyone about her abuse. She may fear being seen as a "failure" as a wife and mother, or worse yet, she may believe she "deserves"" the mistreatment.


  • A battered woman may have been brought up to believe that it is her duty to keep the family together, no matter what the cost. She will, therefore, endure the abuse for the sake of the children, often leaving when the violence is directed at them.


  • A battered woman may not reveal her abuse because she believes that society generally ignores domestic violence, or that she will be blamed for provoking or accepting the violence.


  • A battered woman is frequently totally dependent on her husband financially and often faces severe economic hardship if she leaves. If the victim married young and has several children, she may have few job skills to make her feel confident enough to support her family without the financial support of a spouse or partner.


  • A battered woman is often forced into isolation by the battering spouse or partner, cut off from family and friends. This isolation further victimizes her by giving her abuser power and control over her life.

For many victims leaving is not an alternative. There may be nowhere to go if few or no resources exist within the community to offer her help.

Battered women frequently face the most physical danger when attempting to leave a domestic violence situation. The victim may be threatened with death or attacked if she attempts to flee. Fearing for her safety and that of her children and those who may try to help her, she may continue to endure the abuse in silence.

It is important to remember that most victims want the violence to end, not the relationship. When a victim of spouse/partner abuse leaves the home it is often as a last resort, having previously tried many ways to stop the abuse.

What about male victims?

Men are rarely thought of being victims of spouse/partner abuse and are less willing to report if they are being abused. Therefore, it is more difficult to determine the extent of male victimization in spouse/partner abuse.

Spouse/partner abuse may be considered a gender neutral issue in rare instances when men suffer abuse at the hands of a spouse.  However, the number of such cases, although no less important, is extremely small when compared to the number of women who suffer this type of abuse at the hands of a male.


The Batterer

Why does he batter?

This is a frequently asked question for which, unfortunately, there is no simple answer. A natural response is to think that the male batterer is "sick", perhaps suffering from some sort of mental illness. However, we know this is not the case.

The following are some of the reasons given for why men batter:

  • Battering is a learned behavior, not a mental disorder.

  • Many batterers were raised in a violent home where they witnessed the abuse of their mother, siblings, or perhaps were themselves a victim of childhood abuse.

  • Witnessing domestic violence in the childhood home is the most common risk factor for becoming a batterer in adulthood.

  • The batterer has learned to used physical force as a way to maintain power and control in his relationships with women. Battering is the ultimate expression of a belief in male dominance over females.

  • The batterer has learned to use physical violence as a means to handle anger, frustration, or guilt, and lacks the communication skills necessary to handle these emotions in non-violent ways.

  • The batterer generally has low self-esteem and low self-control, often displacing his anger at his boss, or himself onto his spouse/partner and children.

  • A batterer may experience some remorse after the battering and even seek forgiveness from his victim, promising it will never happen again. Such promises are rarely kept. Good intentions will not cure battering.

  • Men who batter choose to do so and, until recently, there has been no consequence for this behavior.

  • Acts of violence committed within the family, which would be considered assaults with penalties if perpetrated on a stranger, have gone unnoticed by society and unpunished.


What You Can Do

What can you do to prevent domestic violence?

The prevention of spouse/partner abuse is dependent upon national, community and individual efforts. It must begin with a national awareness of the problem and education toward understanding how such violence effects women and children in our society.


Prevention also means that domestic violence must be seen and responded to as the crime that it is. Victims must be supported and protected and offenders must be arrested and convicted of their crimes.


Members of the criminal justice system, e.g. police, prosecutors, and judges must participate in prevention efforts. In the past, intervention occurred only in cases where severe injury or death was involved.


Change in attitude must occur toward victims of domestic violence and their families. It cannot be assumed that all women and children are safe in their own homes.


Community based agencies and organizations must make a commitment to take action, become involved in seeking solutions to domestic violence, provide help to troubled families, and educate the public.


Shelter and counseling services must be made more readily available to victims. Attorneys and legal aid programs need to increase services to battered women seeking restraining orders, needing help with a divorce, or help with custody issues.


Courts must have simpler, more effective and efficient procedures to restrain abusers and states need stronger more effective laws governing domestic violence crimes.

It is important to remember...

Domestic violence must never be considered acceptable or a "natural" part of family life. Without adequate services for victims and their families, efforts toward prevention cannot hope to break the cycle of abuse.

NCCAFV’s American Campaign for Prevention of Child Abuse and Family Violence

In keeping with its commitment to the prevention of child abuse and all forms of intergenerational family violence, NCCAFV has prepared this information to help you better understand all forms of spouse/partner abuse. Prevention can only occur when we understand the problem and commit ourselves to sharing this information with others in our community.

We hope you will find this important information helpful and will join with NCCAFV in helping to prevent spouse/partner abuse.

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