What is domestic abuse? Everything you need to know

26 January 2021

  • Author: Pascale Day, Senior Editorial and Web Officer
  • Reading time: 10 minutes

Let’s start with the basics: what is domestic abuse?

By definition, domestic abuse describes violent or aggressive behaviour within the home, usually involving a violent abuse of power by a spouse or partner.

It can establish itself in many different forms. Most will recognise physical abuse, which causes injury to the victim, either using weapons or the perpetrator’s own size and strength to overpower. But there are many other ways for abusers to assert power over their victims, too:

  • Emotional abuse uses insults and criticism to create a lack of self-worth in their victims.
  • Psychological abuse applies humiliation, control and embarrassment to make their victim fear them.
  • Sexual abuse involves the perpetrator sexually assaulting or raping a victim. Again, it’s a form of control: exposing, humiliating and degrading victims by forcing them into sex, secretly filming or taking pictures, showing others, or coercing them into having an abortion.
  • Financial abuse is actually the most common type of abuse, in which the abuser will refuse their victim access to money, control all financial incomings and outgoings, deny them the opportunity to work or become heavily involved in their income. Financial abuse is often the hardest to recognise, but holds many similarities to psychological abuse with its use of intimidation and control to create a sense of isolation.
  • Tech abuse sees the abuser keep control over the victim’s personal technology by demanding access to your devices or online accounts, or keeping track of their movements using spyware.

Domestic abuse can make its way into a home via various routes, and some will be more insidious than others. But if you feel uncomfortable with the way a partner is behaving, don’t ignore that feeling – trust your gut and seek help.

What are the signs of domestic abuse?

If you think you might be experiencing domestic violence at home, the first thing is to remember that it’s not your fault. You might spot signs in your partner such as:

  • Accuses you of having an affair
  • Criticises you
  • Gets aggressive when angry
  • Tells you what to wear or how to look
  • Shouts at you
  • Threatens you or those close to you
  • Keeps cash and credit cards from you
  • Controls how you spend money
  • Stops you from working in a job you want
  • Cuts you off from family and friends
  • Stops you from eating or sleeping
  • Physically attacks you with weapons or with their body
  • Forces you into sex
  • Makes you dress a certain way
  • Purposely gives you an STD

If you suspect someone you know might be experiencing domestic abuse, there are some obvious physical signs such as bruising or injuries, or the covering up of injuries (such as wearing a long-sleeve top on a hot day) - but others are deceptive, manifesting in behaviours rather than a physical appearance. It could be a change in personality or mood; constantly checking in with or desperate to please their partner; constant worrying about how their partner will react; never having money; or skipping work or social occasions.

Of course, this is not prescriptive – there will be different experiences for different people. For example, men may be more likely to experience emotional or psychological abuse (although that’s not to say that they cannot still experience physical abuse). Members of the LGBTQ+ community may live under the threat of being outed, or be convinced that the police won’t help because of your sexual preference or orientation.

What is the significance of domestic abuse at this time?

There are certain periods of time when domestic violence tends to spike – during the World Cup, for instance, or Christmas. Right now, we are experiencing another, more prolonged uptick, thanks to coronavirus.

We are by now all well-versed in the effects of Covid-19 and we know what to expect when it comes to national lockdowns (at time of writing, the UK is currently in its third). As a result, across the UK many families are being forced to shield together for extended periods of time.  

Research shows that across the world, the restrictions that aimed to stop the spread of the virus has made violence in homes more frequent and far more dangerous. In fact, near the start of the UK’s first national lockdown in April 2020 the domestic abuse charity, Refuge, reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day.

What are the things that stop people from reporting?

For people who have long had their autonomy corroded through years of abuse, it can be really hard to navigate life outside of their current situation, particularly the housing system. This often leads to people falling through the cracks and becoming stuck in a perpetual cycle of abuse and homelessness.

For young people in particular, when they’re ready to accept help, there’s then a number of barriers to navigate: they often worry about being judged and not believed, or fear backlash from their abuser. Plus, the legitimate fear of Covid-19 has stopped people reporting abuse – hospitals are overcrowded with Covid patients, and shelters can be a hotbed for infection if not cared for properly. The risk of infection means survivors are no longer able to sleep on friends’ sofas. With life and work more precarious than ever, some are scared that the unknown outside their four walls could indeed be worse than staying within them.

And there are, of course, factors that go beyond Covid – long-standing prejudices certainly exacerbate problems. It’s certainly true to say that domestic violence is a gendered crime: from March 2016 to March 2018, 74% of domestic homicide victims were female. Of the female victims killed in this time period, in 218 out of 270 cases the suspect was a partner or ex. But that’s not to say that men cannot be victims too: 43 male victims were also killed by a partner or ex during this time.

It has taken a long time for domestic abuse to be taken seriously as a crime. As late as the 1970s, ‘wife beating’ was still viewed as a trivial offence – the harshest punishment would be a slap on the wrist, or sometimes police would have the audacity to accuse the wife of provocation. Women who left their husbands because of abuse were denied welfare. It was viewed as a symptom of working class life.

In the 21st Century we know none of this is true: domestic violence can happen to anyone. It is an issue that defies class and gender. But that’s not to say that people - particularly young people - don’t still fear not being believed, including men, who still struggle to break those gender stereotypes.

Often for vulnerable young people, the fact that they are a victim of domestic abuse only becomes apparent once clear of the situation. Abusers can be manipulative, conflating love with abuse, caring with violence, cruelty with humour: “I was staying with someone I thought was a friend, but they weren’t. It was a toxic situation,” says former CP resident, Cameron* whose 'friend' threw paint stripper in his eye. “I am now partially blind in that eye. It wasn’t safe for me, but I had nowhere else to go. My so-called friend subjected me to physical and mental abuse… they thought it was funny.”

How do I report domestic abuse?

If you are experience domestic abuse, the most important thing to remember is it’s not your fault.

If you are ready to seek help and you are a young person, you can call our Helpline and we will support you from there. Please also see our section on Help When You’re Fleeing Violence, which gives you more information on escaping abuse as a woman, man or member of the LGBTQ+ community. Domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid have a fantastic Survivor’s Handbook that’ll help you to securely take these first steps to safety.

If you’re worried about someone who might be experiencing domestic abuse and you feel comfortable doing so, you can approach the subject yourself: ask them if anything is wrong, let them know you are there to listen and offer help if needed. Encourage them to get help, but don’t push them – go with them to see a solicitor or doctor, but don’t hurry them into an appointment, for example. Again, Women’s Aid and Refuge have some great, comprehensive resources available to help you.

How does this affect young people?

According to our research from 2018, 16- to 19-year-olds experience the highest rates of domestic abuse from a partner or a family member in the UK – around one in eight young women, and one in 15 young men. The next highest group is 20- to 24-year-olds.

A home with domestic violence is not a stable one. Many homeless young people who come to Centrepoint either have grown up in a house with domestic abuse or have experienced it in relationships themselves. Both situations leave them extremely vulnerable and susceptible to further abuse.

Ramona* was sectioned under the Mental Health Act at age 11, and went to live with her boyfriend at 15 where she was abused by both him and his family. “It was like I was a hostage. If I tried to run, his mum would lock the door. If I had bruises on my face, they’d cover them up with make-up. When the police came to the door after my social worker called them, his mother said I didn’t live there and made me hide in the closet.”

Often, victims of domestic violence like Ramona find it hard to see a way out of situations like this, particularly if they’ve grown up with such circumstances. After breaking free from her partner, she felt her only alternative was to join a gang and sell drugs, which offered her the security she felt she needed: “I didn’t see it like I was part of a gang; I was more like a contractor. I just needed someone big and dangerous to protect me from my ex. I’d deliver drugs, but I’d get paid so the protection was an extra.”

So, what do we do at Centrepoint to help young survivors of domestic abuse?

Without intervention, domestic abuse will have a huge impact on a young person’s mental and physical wellbeing – the effects of which will likely last long into adulthood.

At Centrepoint we’re lucky to have two healthy relationships advisors who are dedicated to doing just that: delivering one-to-one sessions with young people that ensure they understand and recognise both healthy and unhealthy relationships. “Whether that’s with their family, partner or friends,” says Healthy Relationships Advisor, Marianne. “For many young people the sessions will focus on identifying abuse and reducing risks in their relationships so that they feel safer.”

Abusers have the ability to reduce a victim’s self-esteem down to nothing, isolating them and making them feel unworthy of help: “A lot of things happened which made me feel as though life wasn’t worth living,” Ramona said of the time she lived with her abusive ex partner.

Our advisors help those who have been affected by domestic abuse by stamping out the stigma and shame that young people often feel overwhelmed by. What is most important to us is, as Marianne puts it, is the crucial, trusting relationships we build with young people that allows them to see their worth and potential: “The realisations they have… There might be someone who has been in multiple abusive relationships; to hear them say, ‘I know I deserve more and I’m going to try and get it’ is very powerful.”

At Centrepoint, young people have the opportunity to find a job and a home and move away from homelessness for good. Such a big part of this is recognising and maintaining healthy relationships in order to break the cycle of abuse and homelessness. As such, relationships remain at the forefront of our fight against youth homelessness.