What is domestic abuse?

It’s not always physical

Domestic abuse refers to violence, abuse and intimidation between people who are or have been in an intimate relationship and it’s most common between current and former partners.

Contrary to popular belief, domestic abuse doesn’t always leave an obvious bruise. Physical abuse is just one of many ways in which an abusive partner or ex-partner can exert power and control over you.

Domestic abuse is usually gradual and consistent, developing into a pattern of power and control after the ‘honeymoon’ phase of the relationship. This occurs emotionally, verbally, sexually, economically, digitally, and physically through controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, which leaves you feeling disempowered and restricted: a shell of yourself.

In the vast majority of cases it’s experienced by women and is perpetrated by men. This is what makes domestic abuse a gendered crime, and it can happen to all women, no matter what age, race, religion, income, background or sexuality.

Sadly, it’s very common.

1 in 4 women in the UK experience domestic abuse in their lifetime.

Domestic abuse is never, ever your fault, no matter what the perpetrator says to excuse his damaging behaviour and actions. It’s important to remind yourself that you’re not crazy and love should never make you feel belittled, drained or scared.

We know it can be really difficult to be honest with yourself about your situation. Coming to terms with the true colours of the person you love, and the impact it has had on you, can be incredibly confusing and overwhelming. But the most vital step is to recognise it, and know that there is support, there is healing and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Find out more about different types of abuse below.

Useful resources

We’ve also put together a list of films, podcasts, books, leaflets and studies which provide really important insights into domestic abuse, its nature and impact. Check them out, pick one to delve into today and then pass onto a friend to raise awareness.

watching tv sad 1

Coercive control is a form of emotional abuse. It is a pattern of behaviour in which the perpetrator gradually and often subtly insults, shames, judges, controls and humiliates you as the relationship evolves. This instils the feeling of fear and punishment and restricts your freedom. Coercive control is like being in a prison with no walls.

It can be as subtle as a certain look, or teeth grinding to warn you to “stay in line”, sarcasm, dismissing or judging your feelings and instead telling you what you feel.

This might come hand in hand with “love bombing” at the beginning of the relationship and expressions of remorse (which provide hope) but no changes in the abusive behaviour from the perpetrator.

Coercive control / emotional abuse usually results in you feeling uncomfortable, confused, anxious, doubtful, scared and disempowered because you internalise the emotional abuse as your own feelings and are made to believe that you’re to blame for your abusive partner’s behaviour. It can also lead to you having nightmares, increased heart rate, difficulty concentrating and social withdrawal.

Coercive control is domestic abuse.

Emotional abuse is domestic abuse.

  • Under the Serious Crime Act 2015, coercive and controlling behaviour is a criminal offence in England.

Sexual abuse is if you are engaging in sexual activity that physically or emotionally hurts you or that you are not comfortable with, simply for the pleasure of your partner. You might feel “dirty” or “used” after engaging in sexual acts because your partner manipulated or threatened you into the act.

If you don’t feel comfortable saying “no”, it is sexual abuse. If you feel like you are punished for not engaging in sexual acts, it is sexual abuse. If you feel like the only way you receive affection from your partner is through sex, or if you feel you are punished by being forced to have sex, then it is sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse is domestic abuse.

  • Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, marital rape and sexual assault are criminal offence in England.
Economic abuse is the control of a partner or ex-partners money and/or what they do with that money. It’s important to bear in mind it’s not all forbidding to spend money, it’s also the coercion of activities which involve money or have an impact on your finances, by using romance and promises of making your life easier.
If your partner tells you “you can’t access your joint banking app, cards or account as you are not clever enough to use it”, that you will “waste all the money” or that “it’s a man’s job to look after the finances” then it’s economic abuse. If your partner tells you “you’re too good for that job and you should quit as I can look after you” then it’s economic abuse. If they don’t let you go to university, then it’s economic abuse as they are hindering your career development and therefore salary. If your ex-partner repeatedly takes you to court for child access arrangements (not to see more of the children, but to tie you up in repeated legal costs), it’s economic abuse. If your partner doesn’t allow you to claim the benefits you are entitled to or fix better rates on your mortgage, that’s economic abuse – it is easier to hide the abuse is happening if they can blame poverty.
If your partner makes you take out loans in your name for a car for them or catalogue purchases for their benefit and refuses to pay anything towards the payments meaning they are coercing you into debt, it’s economic abuse. If your partner does not allow you any choice in what you buy or makes you provide them with receipts for all your purchases, keep a spending diary or make you justify everything you buy, it’s economic abuse. If your partner keeps breaking your phone, TV or other property so you have to keep buying new ones, it’s economic abuse.
If your ex-partner frequently changes the date of the month they promise your child maintenance, so you get into a debt spiral or do not have the money to feed your family despite it showing they are still making a payment every month, then it’s economic abuse. If your partner convinces you to let them move into your house to save money, when you have only been together for a few weeks or months, it’s economic abuse. If your partner restricts the heating, lighting and Wi-Fi in your house to when they are there, leaving you and your children in the cold and dark, it’s economic abuse. If your partner disrupts your working from home, by cancelling the Wi-Fi or repeatedly interrupting online work meetings or damaging/stealing/hiding your work equipment so that you can’t work and lose your job, it’s economic abuse.
Economic abuse is domestic abuse.
  • Under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, economic abuse is a criminal offence in England.

Digital abuse can take many forms and has become increasingly common in the age of smartphones and smart homes, whereby technology is used by an abusive partner to harass, stalk, bully and intimidate their victim.

If your partner tells you who you can and can’t be friends with online or what pictures you can and can’t upload to your social media, it’s digital abuse. If your partner insists that you share your passwords despite you not feeling comfortable doing so, it is digital abuse. If your partner puts you down, threatens you or blackmails you on social media, or constantly messages you and makes you feel bad for not responding straight away then it’s digital abuse.

If your partner uses spyware on your phone and laptop or puts a GPS tracker on your car to follow your movements, it is digital abuse. If your partner shares intimate photos or videos of you without your consent to cause you distress (revenge porn), it’s digital abuse. If your partner looks through your phone frequently to check your calls, messages, internet search history and pictures, it is digital abuse.

Digital abuse is domestic abuse.

Find out more about how to cover your tracks online here.

Look through Refuge’s useful resource on how to break up digitally.

  • Under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, revenge porn is a criminal offence in England.
  • Under the 1998 Malicious Communications Act, social media bullying is a criminal offence in England.

There are 4 (F.O.U.R) signs to stalking and harassing behaviour: it is fixated, obsessive, unwanted and repeated, and the most common perpetrators of stalking are ex-partners.

If your ex-partner sends you unwanted gifts or bombards you with unwanted, threatening messages and phone calls, it’s stalking and harassment. If your (ex-)partner follows you home or shows up at your place of work, it’s stalking and harassment. If your ex partner sends you unwanted social media friend requests from lots of new different accounts, it’s stalking & harassment.

Stalking is distressing to experience and often has a huge emotional impact on you. Depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, paranoia. Agoraphobia and post-traumatic stress disorder are all common side effects of stalking.

Stalking & harassment is domestic abuse.


Verbal abuse is a type of emotional abuse which also forms part of coercive control. It’s when an abusive partner uses language to intimidate, gaslight, manipulate, assault, scare, ridicule, dominate and degrade you, which makes you lose confidence and self-esteem, among other negative impacts on your wellbeing.

If your partner threatens or harrasses you in private or in public, it is verbal abuse. If your partner insults you, name-calls you or shouts at you, then makes you feel bad for being “too sensitive” or “unable to take a joke”, it is verbal abuse. If you’re scared of being out in public with your partner because you worry about what they might say in front of others, it is verbal abuse. If your partner puts you down by dismissing or insulting what you think, want, do, wear or say, then it is verbal abuse. If your partner gaslights you with words by trying to make you feel like he is the victim and you are the abuser, it is verbal abuse. If your partner constantly interrupts or corrects you when you’re speaking, it’s verbal abuse. If your partner gives you prolonged silent treatment — also known as stonewalling — it is verbal abuse.

Verbal abuse is domestic abuse.

  • Under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and Malicious Communications Act 1998, several types of verbal abuse are criminal offences in England.

The law

The Domestic Abuse Act came into UK law in April 2021, which among other important changes established a definition emphasising that abuse isn’t just physical; it made non-fatal strangulation a criminal offence; and recognised that children who see, hear and experience domestic abuse are victims in their own right.

The Act also importantly gave victims the legal right to ask the police for the offending history of their partner through ‘Clare’s Law’, and this request cannot be refused.

Domestic abuse is defined as any behaviour/pattern of behaviours of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence, or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, an intimate partner or family members, regardless of their gender or sexuality.