Domestic Violence

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Domestic Violence

Topic Overview

What is domestic violence?

Domestic violence is abuse that happens in a personal relationship. It can happen between past or current partners, spouses, or boyfriends and girlfriends.

Domestic violence affects men and women of any ethnic group, race, or religion; gay or straight; rich or poor; teen, adult, or elderly. But most of its victims are women. One Canadian study found that nearly 15 out of 100 women in a current or recent relationship have been the victim of violence by a partner.1

The abuser may use fear, bullying, and threats to gain power and control over the other person. He or she may act jealous, controlling, or possessive. These early signs of abuse may happen soon after the start of the relationship and might be hard to notice at first.

After the relationship becomes more serious, the abuse may get worse.

  • The abuser may begin making threats, calling the other person names, and slamming doors or breaking dishes. This is a form of emotional abuse that is sometimes used to make the person feel bad or weak.
  • Physical abuse that starts with a slap might lead to kicking, shoving, and choking over time.2
  • As a way to control the person, the abuser may make violent threats against the person’s children, other family members, or pets.
  • Abusers may also control or withhold money to make the person feel weak and dependent. This is called financial abuse.
  • Domestic violence also includes sexual abuse, such as forcing a person to have sex against her will.

Money troubles and problems with drugs or alcohol can make it more likely that abuse will happen.

Abuse is also common in teens who are dating. It often happens through controlling behaviours and jealousy.

What should you do if you're being abused?

Get help.

  • Get in touch with a local domestic violence group for information and support. They can help you find out about legal and social services in your area. To find the program nearest you that offers shelter and legal support, call the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence at 1-800-267-1291 or see the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence Web site at
  • Talk to the police.
  • If you are a teen, talk to a trusted adult, such as your parents, family friend, or school counsellor. You can also call the Kids Help Phone toll-free: 1-800-668-6868.

Here are some other things you can do.

  • Make sure that you know phone numbers you can call and places you can go in an emergency.
  • Teach your children not to get in the middle of a fight.
  • If you think you may leave, make a plan to help keep you safe. This will help when you are getting ready to leave. Your plan might include:
    • Putting together and hiding a suitcase of clothing; copies of your car and house keys; money or credit cards; and important papers, such as Social Insurance Number (SIN) cards and birth certificates for you and your children.
    • Opening a savings account or getting a credit card, if you can do so in secret.

What should you do if you know someone who is being abused?

Here are some things you can do to help.

  • Be a good listener and a caring friend.
  • Remind the person that no one deserves to be treated this way.
  • Let the person know that the abuse is against the law and that help is available.
  • Help the person make a plan to stay safe.
  • You can also suggest that the person call the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence at 1-800-267-1291 to find a local domestic violence support group.

Keep in mind that the person may not want to leave. He or she often knows the abuser best and knows what options are safest. But it is important for victims of abuse to know where they can get help.

Why do victims stay?

People who are not abused might find it hard to understand why anyone would stay in a violent relationship. Some people think that if a person stays in an abusive relationship, she or he must be weak or needy. This is not true.

There is more to this issue than simply leaving or staying. A woman may fear that the abuser will hurt her and her children or take her children away. She may have limited financial options. She may blame herself. She may stay for religious reasons or because she does not want to break up the family. Also, she may still love her abuser and hope that things will get better. A man who is being abused may have a similar experience.

What are the harmful effects of domestic violence?

Domestic violence hurts victims as well as their families. Don't ignore it.

People who suffer from abuse can be badly hurt. They are also likely to have long-lasting (chronic) health problems, such as depression, headaches, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This is because of the repeated injuries and stress from living with abuse.

Abuse can happen more often and get worse when women are pregnant. It is dangerous for both the mother and the baby. It can raise the baby's risk of low birth weight, premature birth, and death.3, 4 The pregnant woman is at higher risk of other problems, such as infections and bleeding.

And abuse has a big effect on children. Children who live in a home where abuse happens see violence as a normal way of life. It also raises their chance of being in a violent relationship as adults, either as abusers or as victims.5 Teens are at a greater risk for depression, drug and alcohol use, and bad behaviour.

Signs of Domestic Violence

Most relationships have difficult times, and almost every couple argues occasionally. But violence is different from common marital or relationship discord. Domestic violence is a pattern of abuse that a partner—former or current partner, spouse, or boyfriend or girlfriend—uses to control the behaviour of another.

Domestic violence often starts with threats, name-calling, and slamming doors or breaking dishes, and escalates to pushing, slapping, and other violent acts. If you are concerned about your relationship, ask yourself the following questions.

Does your partner:

  • Embarrass or belittle you or put you down?
  • Say hurtful things to you?
  • Dislike your friends and family and discourage your relationships with others?
  • Make all the decisions in the relationship?
  • Chastise you after social functions for talking with other people?
  • Act jealous of people you talk to?
  • Blame you for his or her mistakes?
  • Try to make you feel worthless or helpless?
  • Forbid or prevent you from working or going to school?
  • Keep money, credit cards, and chequing accounts away from you?
  • Control access to your medicines or medical devices?
  • Threaten to have you deported?
  • Throw dishes or other objects?
  • Abuse your children or pet when mad at you?
  • Push, slap, kick, or otherwise assault you?
  • Demand sex, make you perform sexual acts you are not comfortable with, or sexually assault you?

If any of these behaviours are occurring, you need to seek help.

Do you have a friend, co-worker, relative, or neighbour who you think may be in an abusive relationship? Warning signs that may mean that a person is a victim of domestic abuse include:

  • Bruises or injuries that look like they came from choking, punching, or being thrown down. Black eyes, red or purple marks at the neck, and sprained wrists are common injuries sustained in violent relationships. An injury such as bruised arms might suggest that a victim tried to defend herself.
  • Attempting to hide bruises with makeup or clothing.
  • Making excuses like tripping or being accident-prone or clumsy. Often the seriousness of the injury does not match up with the explanation.
  • Having low self-esteem; being extremely apologetic and meek.
  • Referring to the partner's temper but not disclosing extent of abuse.
  • Having few close friends and being isolated from relatives and co-workers and kept from making friends.
  • Having little money available; may not have credit cards or even a car.
  • Having a drug or alcohol abuse problem.
  • Having symptoms of depression, such as sadness or hopelessness, or loss of interest in daily activities.
  • Talking about suicide or attempting suicide. For more information, see warning signs of suicide.

Encourage this person to talk with a health professional.

What Increases Your Risk

Domestic violence affects all types of people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, and religion. Many people have experienced domestic violence. One Canadian study found that nearly 15 out of 100 women in a current or recent relationship have been the victim of violence by a partner.1

Domestic abuse is also a significant problem among the elderly. It is estimated that between 1.5% and 6.4% of people over 60 years old are mistreated by a caregiver, family member, spouse, or friend.16 For more information, see Elder Abuse.

While domestic violence can affect men, the large majority of its victims are women. In Canada, 8 out of 10 victims of police-reported spousal violence are female.6 Domestic violence occurs among all socioeconomic groups, but poverty increases the likelihood it will occur.7 Poverty can raise the level of stress and conflict within a relationship, which then becomes more prone to violence. Poverty can also make some men feel as though they are powerless and inadequate. This sense of failure may trigger violence toward their partners.

Alcohol abuse also increases the risk of domestic violence. Researchers estimate that in 45% of domestic violence cases, men had been drinking. In 20% of cases, women had been drinking.7

Abuse often increases when a partner is considering leaving the relationship. This might cause the other partner to feel as though he or she is losing control. A victim is at increased risk of stalking, attempted murder, and murder after leaving an abusive relationship.7 In Canadian homicides where the killer was identified, 16% of the adults were killed by their spouses.6

See more risk factors for abuse.

Harmful Effects of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is one of the most common causes of injury to women.

After battering starts, it usually continues and is likely to increase in severity if left untreated. For example, battering that starts with a slap may escalate over time to kicking and shoving and finally choking.2 The repeated injury and stress of living in a violent relationship often results in long-lasting health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, headaches, chronic neck or back pain, depression, and sexually transmitted infections (including HIV/AIDS). Other long-lasting health problems include irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, panic attacks, and pelvic pain. In fact, abused women have a 50% to 70% increase in these kinds of major health problems.8 Women who are abused are also more likely to smoke or abuse alcohol.9

Pregnancy can be an especially dangerous time for women who are in abusive relationships. Abuse may get worse or even start during pregnancy. An estimated 6% to 8% of all pregnant women are battered.17 Problems during pregnancy, such as low weight gain, anemia, infections, and bleeding, are higher for these women. Not surprisingly, babies born to abused women also suffer. Abuse during pregnancy has been shown to increase the baby's risk of low birth weight, premature birth, and death.3, 4

Children who witness domestic violence can also suffer long-term consequences. Many studies have shown that children who grow up witnessing abuse suffer from emotional, behavioural, and cognitive problems. They are at greater risk for depression, poor school performance, withdrawal, and complaints like stomachaches and headaches. Often, on the playground and at school, boys display to some degree the aggressive behaviour they witness at home.18

By the teen years, both boys and girls are at increased risk for depression, drug and alcohol use, and disruptive behaviour. Affected teen girls attempt suicide more often.10

The legacy of domestic violence is passed on when children are raised to believe that violence is a normal way of life. Children who witness domestic violence are more apt to be involved in violent relationships as adults, either as abusers or victims.11

And children often suffer directly. Men who batter their wives also frequently assault their children. Violence or the threat of violence toward a victim's children is often used to control a battered woman. In 30% to 60% of these violent homes, the children are also abused.12

Children often believe that somehow they are the cause of the violence in the home. You can help your children by assuring them that they are loved and not at fault. Children need to feel that they are protected and safe. When you leave an abusive relationship, you show by example that violence is wrong.

Why Victims Stay

People who are not abused might find it hard to understand why anyone would stay in a violent relationship. Victims are often blamed. Some people falsely believe that if a person stays in an abusive relationship, she or he must be weak or needy. This is not true of victims of domestic violence.

The issue is more complex than simply leaving or staying. People stay for many reasons. Remember, abusers use psychological, emotional, and physical abuse along with apologies, promises, and affection to control their victims. The victim is often confused and holds on to the hope that the batterer will change. The batterer may ask for forgiveness, make promises to stop, and be affectionate and doting. Along with painful times, there may be loving moments and happy memories. The abuser may be a good provider or parent.

Abused women and men are often depressed and emotionally drained from the ongoing conflict. Abusers try to isolate victims from family and friends so that the victims do not have anyone to support them if they do leave. Victims often feel tremendous shame and embarrassment and use denial as a way of coping with the abuse.

Money is often tightly controlled, so a woman may fear losing financial support and may question how she will be able to support herself and her children. She may even fear losing child custody. In some cases, religious counsellors, relatives, or friends may encourage women to stay to keep the family together.

Immigrant women might stay in an abusive relationship because they are afraid of being deported. Not being fluent in English or French might also be a challenge for immigrant women. Women who are elderly or have disabilities may not feel they have any other options than to stay with their abusive partner.

A woman may realistically believe that it is more dangerous to leave than to stay. In many cases, the abuser has threatened to kill her, himself, or the children if she tries to leave. (This is also true of men who are abused.) In fact, a woman is at increased risk of stalking, attempted murder, and murder after she leaves an abusive relationship.7

How to Help

Many victims of domestic violence are willing to talk about their relationship when they are approached in a kind and understanding manner. But don't confront a victim if the person is not ready to talk. Let the person know you are willing to listen whenever she or he wants to talk. Be understanding if the person is unable to leave. He or she often knows the situation best and when it is safest to leave.

Reassure the person that the abuse is not his or her fault and that no one deserves to be abused. If the person has children, gently point out that you are concerned that the violence is affecting them. Many victims do not understand that their children are being harmed until someone else voices the concern.

Remind the victim that domestic violence is against the law and that help is available. You may be able to help a victim understand his or her options. Be willing to assist in any way you can with transportation, money, or child care. Encourage your friend to talk with a health professional.

The most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence is when the person is leaving an abusive relationship, so any advice about leaving must be knowledgeable and practical. Encourage the victim to get advice from an advocacy agency with experience in the area of domestic violence.

Helping a person contact local domestic violence groups is an important step. If you know someone who is being abused, call the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence at 1-800-267-1291 or see the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence Web site at to find the nearest program offering shelter and legal support. There are many programs across the country that provide options for safety, advocacy, support, and needed information and services.

Encourage and help your friend develop a safety plan. This is a strategy to keep the person and his or her children safe during a violent incident, when preparing to leave, and after leaving. For more information, see the Developing a Safety Plan section of this topic.

Developing a Safety Plan

A violent relationship puts you and your children at risk for injury and even death. Developing a plan will help provide for your safety and the safety of your children. A good safety plan considers which steps to take if you choose to stay in the relationship or if you choose to leave.

Steps to take if you are in the relationship:

  • Contact a local advocacy group for support, information, and advice on how to stay safe. Call the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence at 1-800-267-1291 for the nearest advocacy program. The hotline is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in English, French, and other languages. Also, see the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence Web site at to find the program nearest to you that offers shelter and legal support.
  • Make a list of people you can call in an emergency and places you can go. Memorize important numbers. Teach your children how to call for help in an emergency.
  • If you or your children are in danger, leave immediately.
  • Consider telling neighbours about the violence. And ask them to call the police if they hear loud noises coming from the house.
  • Establish a code word or sign that can be used to alert family, friends, teachers, or co-workers when to call for help.
  • Teach your children not to get in the middle of a fight.
  • When an argument occurs, go to a safe room. Avoid rooms with no exits such as closets or bathrooms, or a room such as the kitchen with objects that can be used as weapons. Also, keep your children out of these unsafe rooms.
  • Keep change with you at all times to make emergency phone calls.

Steps to take when preparing to leave:

  • Contact a local advocacy group for information about how and where to go, what kinds of legal help you can expect, and what other social services are available. Or call the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence at 1-800-267-1291.
  • Put together a suitcase with items to take when you leave. This should include duplicate car and house keys, clothing, money or charge cards, and important papers, including Social Insurance Number (SIN) cards and birth certificates for you and your children, your marriage licence, leases or deeds in your name or both your and your partner's names, insurance policies, and any photos or police or medical reports that document past incidents of abuse. Hide these items in a place (possibly outside of your house) where they will not be discovered.
  • Open a savings account and obtain a credit card and a telephone card if it is possible to do so secretly.
  • Keep change with you at all times for phone calls. Remember that any long-distance calls or calls you have made on a telephone card before you leave can show up on statements and point your abuser in your direction.
  • At work, tell your supervisor and the human resources manager about your situation. Discuss scheduling options and other safety precautions to provide for your well-being. Give a recent photo of the abuser to your human resources manager, and if possible, ask to prohibit the abuser's access to your workplace.

You can ask a police officer to be present at your home when you leave or when you need to collect clothing or property from your home.

After you have left, you may have to take extra measures to stay safe. Your local advocacy group can help you get in touch with legal and social services in your area. This group may also provide information on counselling and support groups that can help you recover emotionally from your abuse.

Legal Protection from Abuse

Many women and men are reluctant to call police when they are beaten. Victims fear that their partners will retaliate or that police officers will be insensitive and embarrass them, among other concerns. But many communities have made great progress in educating police officers and other people in the criminal justice system about domestic violence.

Police officers may arrest the abuser if they believe domestic violence has occurred. In some communities, assistance from local victim's advocacy groups and provincial social services are requested at the same time. Along with these services, the law can be another tool you can use to increase your safety and independence.

Police officers can help you obtain an emergency protective order (or restraining order) at the scene of the crime. These orders usually last until a permanent protective order can be issued.

In general, protective orders require the abuser to stay away from you, your home, your workplace, or your school—to stop all contact, whether by telephone, notes, e-mail, or other means—and to stop harming or threatening you. You can request a protective order at any time. An abuser can be arrested for violating a protective order.

Protective orders are available in all provinces, but each province has its own laws governing them. In some provinces, you may be able to get a protective order without an attorney. Keep your protective order with you at all times, and keep a copy in a safe place. If you travel to another province, check to see if your protective order is valid in that province. Some provinces enforce protective orders from other provinces, but many do not.

While protective orders do not automatically prevent you from being abused, they do deter abusers. In one large study in the United States that followed women for 12 months, women who obtained permanent protective court orders were 80% less likely to be physically or psychologically abused than those who did not get permanent protective orders.13

Contact your local domestic violence group, legal aid society, or family court for help. See the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence Web site at to find the program nearest to you that offers shelter and legal support. Also, the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence hotline (1-800-267-1291) can provide you with contacts.

The court may also award temporary custody of children to you, along with child support, spousal support, and use of the home and car along with the protective order. The court may be able to order the batterer to pay your legal costs and fees. As a victim of a crime, you may also be eligible for additional financial support from the court.

The court can also extend the protective order to your children and order the abuser to have no contact with them, your children's doctors, daycare, or school.

Batterer intervention programs may be available in some areas. These programs try to make abusers accountable for their behaviour and educate them about healthy alternatives to their abuse. Batterer intervention programs report varying degrees of success, although so far, studies have not verified that success. Most experts believe that batterer programs are most effective when the abuser recognizes that his or her behaviour is abusive, and wants to change.14

Teen Relationship Abuse

Abuse in dating relationships is common among teens. By the time they are adults, 40% of teens report physical or sexual abuse by an intimate partner.19

Teen dating abuse is like domestic violence in adults in that it also is a pattern of abusive behaviour used to control another person. Teen dating abuse can include emotional or mental abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse.

For teens, relationship abuse often takes the form of extreme possessiveness and jealousy. Abusers try to manipulate their dating partners by making all the decisions, putting them down in front of friends, threatening to kill themselves, stalking them, or forcing them to have sex.

Like adult domestic violence, teen relationship abuse affects all types of teens, regardless of their how much money their parents make, what their grades are, how they look or dress, their religion, or their race. Teen relationship abuse occurs in heterosexual, gay, and lesbian relationships.

Unlike adult domestic violence in which women are more often the victim, in teen relationship abuse both boys and girls report abuse about equally.15 But boys tend to start the violence more often and use greater force.15

The pattern of abuse in teens is often similar to adult abuse with repeated violence that escalates over time. Often, the abuser quickly apologizes and promises to change.

Relationship abuse not only poses direct dangers for teens but also puts them at risk for other problems. Teens who experience violent relationship abuse are more likely to take sexual risks, do poorly in school, and use drugs and alcohol. Girls are at higher risk for pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and suicide attempts.15 Sometimes teens do not have the experience or maturity to recognize that they are involved in an abusive relationship.

If you question whether your relationship might be abusive, see the Signs of Domestic Violence section of this topic. There are many resources available for teens. If you think you might be in an abusive relationship, talk to your parents or another adult family member, a school counsellor or teacher, or call the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence hotline (1-800-267-1291) or the Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868).

Other Places To Get Help

Online Resources

Hot Peach Pages: Canada
Web Address:

This Web site provides a list of resources and agencies against domestic violence in Canada and throughout the world. Information is available in over 70 languages.

Stopping The Violence
British Columbia Ministry of Community Services
Web Address:

The Community Programs Branch of the Ministry of Community Services is responsible for projects and counselling programs for women who have experienced violence. The Web site includes information on transition houses, safe homes, counselling for children and their familes, and outreach services.


Kids Help Phone
300-439 University Avenue
Toronto, ON  M5G 1Y8
Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (hotline number for kids and youth)
(416) 586-5437 (national office)
Fax: (416) 586-0651
Web Address:

Kids Help Phone provides children and teens access to counsellors 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Counsellors also respond to questions posted online. At the Web site, visitors can find information on issues specific to children and teens, such as on bullying, dating, girls' and boys' health, and violence and abuse.

National Clearinghouse on Family Violence
Family Violence Prevention Unit, Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)
Jeanne Mance Building, Address Locator #1909D1 Tunney's Pasture
Ottawa, ON  K1A 1B4
Phone: 1-800-267-1291
(613) 957-2938
Fax: (613) 941-8930
TDD: 1-800-561-5643 or (613) 952-6396 (local)
Web Address:

The National Clearinghouse on Family Violence (NCFV) provides resource referrals and information on protection, prevention, and treatment of domestic violence.



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By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Andrew Swan, MD, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Brigid McCaw, MD, MS, MPH, FACP - Family Violence Prevention
Last Revised June 22, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.