Domestic Violence

The term domestic violence refers to abusive behavior in any personal relationship that allows one partner to intimidate, or to gain power and control over the other. This is often thought of to occur between married spouses or in other intimate relationships, but actually refers to any family relationship, or persons living in the same home.

Domestic violence includes physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse, as well as threats of violence or economic control. These are behaviors intended to intimidate, frighten, terrorize, humiliate, manipulate, coerce, blame, or injure someone. To explore this concept, consider the following domestic violence definition.

Definition of Domestic Violence


  1. The infliction or threat of acts of violence or abuse against another person living in the same household, especially a family member or intimate partner.


1890s   English (first known use of the term)

History of Domestic Violence

Historically, through the late 1800s, violence and abuse committed against women within the confines of their marriage was implicitly accepted as a husband’s right. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that domestic violence started gaining recognition as a crime of violence, and it took another 20 years for federal and state legislation to catch up, providing protection against, and serious punishment for, such acts.

While the term was initially used to label physical assaults against women by their husbands, the fact is, acts of domestic violence are committed by both men and women, against their spouses or same-sex partners. Modern domestic violence laws extend to protect any members of the same household, including siblings, cohabiting individuals, and roommates.

Domestic violence statistics estimate that about 4 million women each year are subjected to abuse committed by their male partners. It is the leading cause of serious injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44, and more than 30 percent of women murdered each year are killed by a former husband or boyfriend. Unfortunately, statistics regarding domestic violence committed by women against their male partners, and within same-sex partnerships, are scarce, as these individuals are less likely to report such acts due to fear of ridicule. While substance abuse and the stresses of poverty contribute to the prevalence of domestic violence, it occurs in all cultural, socioeconomic, educational, and religious environments.

What is Domestic Violence

Many forms of abuse fall under the umbrella of domestic violence. In addition to hitting, shoving, kicking, slapping, and throwing objects, domestic violence applies to intimidation, domination, stalking, and other illegal acts.

  • Physical Abuse – Includes such physical acts as shoving, grabbing, pinching, hitting, slapping, hair pulling, and other acts that could cause injury. Denying medical care, forcing alcohol or drugs upon someone, and restraining them from seeking help are also considered physical abuse.
  • Sexual Abuse – Includes coercing sexual contact, rape (including marital rape), attack on sexual body parts, forcing sex following physical violence, and sexually demeaning another.
  • Emotional Abuse – Involves the destruction of a person’s self worth or self esteem. Acts of emotional abuse include name-calling, constant criticism, disparaging an individual’s abilities and talents, and damaging an individual’s relationship with his or her children.
  • Psychological Abuse – Involves creating fear and a sense of isolation and helplessness. Acts of psychological abuse include causing fear through intimidation, threatening to harm a spouse, partner, children, family, friends, pets, or self. Also, intentionally isolating a person from family, friends, school, work, and extracurricular activities.
  • Economic Abuse – Involves exerting control over another individual by maintaining total control of financial resources, withholding a partner’s access to money or financial assets, or hindering or forbidding employment or education.

While domestic violence is seen as a pattern of acts that constitute abuse, some acts are so malicious as to be considered criminal in and of themselves. These include such acts as stalking, intentional endangerment, criminal coercion, kidnapping, and unlawful or false imprisonment.

How to Obtain a Domestic Violence Restraining Order

Domestic violence laws enable victims of domestic violence may seek a restraining order from the court to protect themselves from further abuse. While the exact process of obtaining a domestic violence restraining order varies slightly by jurisdiction, most involve obtaining an emergency protective order (“EPO”) from police who respond to the scene of a domestic violence incident. The EPO prohibits the perpetrator from approaching or contacting the victim for a specified period, giving the victim time to file for a domestic violence restraining order with the court.

An application for a domestic violence restraining order (some states use the term “Protective Order”) may be filed with the court with no court fees required. While an attorney may be used to accomplish this, the courts make standardized forms, which are easy to fill out, available for victims to file on their own. In the application, the victim must provide identifying information for the perpetrator, as well as a detailed accounting of the abuse. It is important to include as much detail as possible, including dates and times of abuse if known, injuries sustained, medical treatment sought, and how each incident made the victim feel both physically and emotionally. Photos of injuries and/or property damages may be included.

A hearing will be scheduled within a few days, until which a temporary restraining order is in place. At the hearing, if the victim shows valid need for an order of protection, the judge may order a permanent domestic violence restraining order (“DVRO”), which will last from one to five years. The restraining order will specify certain conditions of which a violation brings an immediate penalty of arrest and incarceration, as well as potential misdemeanor or felony prosecution.

  • No Contact – Prohibits the perpetrator from approaching, attacking, stalking, calling, texting, emailing, or otherwise contacting the victim.
  • Stay Away – An order for the perpetrator to stay a minimum amount of distance, usually 100 yards, from the victim, as well as the victim’s home, job, school, and car.
  • Move Out – Requires the perpetrator to move out of the home shared with the victim immediately. This order often requires a police officer to be present as the perpetrator removes his belongings.
  • Firearms Surrender – Requires the perpetrator to surrender any firearms he or she possesses, and prohibits him or her from purchasing or possessing another firearm for the duration of the restraining order.
  • Peaceful Contact – In situations in which the parties have children in common, the abuser may be allowed “peaceful” communication with the victim for specified purposes, usually regarding the care and transfer of the children.

Who is Covered by a Domestic Violence Restraining Order

Domestic violence laws allow other people, in addition to the victim, to be covered by a Domestic Violence Restraining Order. Just who is protected by a single order is specified in the order. Individuals covered under a single DVRO may include family members and anyone in a close day-to-day relationship with the victim, such as children, parents, roommate, or current romantic partner of the victim. In this case, the Stay Away and No Contact provisions of the order apply to the other listed individuals as well as the victim. In some jurisdictions, the family pet may be included in the protective order, to prevent the abuser from harming the pet to inflict emotional distress and fear.

Child Custody and Visitation

When the victim and abuser have children in common, a very specific order regarding child visitation will be included in the DVRO. This is usually a temporary order, and often specifies supervised visitation. The order for child custody and visitation may be changed or updated as the divorce and child custody matter progresses through the court system.

Moving to Another State

Many victims of domestic violence find themselves moving to another state to escape the abuse. The Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution requires that a protective order issued by one state be upheld in any other state. This helps protect the victim in the event the abuser stalks him or her to the new state of residence. It is a good idea for the victim to present the current protective order to the local law enforcement agency so they can keep a copy on file. The court in the new state may issue a new order specific to that jurisdiction.

Publicity Bought by the O.J. Simpson Case

A spotlight was shone on the issue of domestic violence in the 1990s, when former professional football player O.J. Simpson was accused of, and tried for, murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. While still together, the couple had a history of reported domestic violence incidents, including spousal battery and death threats. Although Nichole eventually left the marriage, it appeared that the pattern of abuse continued, finally resulting in her violent death. Although Simpson was acquitted of the murder charges, the view on the issue of domestic violence in the U.S. was changed forever.

States began making changes to their judicial and law enforcement systems to afford greater protections against domestic violence, including mandatory arrests at the time of the incident, and harsher punishments.

Filing a Civil Lawsuit for a Domestic Violence Case

Some people mistakenly believe that, if a person has been put on trial in criminal court, such as for domestic violence charges, he or she cannot be tried in civil court for the same acts. This is not true. The Fifth Amendment prohibits trying an individual for the same charges in criminal court, where his or her freedom is at stake. Most domestic violence cases may be sued in civil court as well as charged in criminal court. Victims of domestic violence may file civil lawsuits for damages due to injuries sustained, including such claims as medical bills, psychological trauma, and pain and suffering.

After a jury in the O.J. Simpson murder trial found him not guilty, the victims’ families filed a civil lawsuit for wrongful death. Because, in a civil lawsuit, the burden of proof is must less stringent than in criminal court, the families were able to prove, by a “preponderance of evidence,” that Simpson was responsible for the deaths, and were awarded $85 million.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Stalking – The act of pursuing game, prey, or a person by stealth; the act of harassing an individual in an aggressive, threatening, or illegal manner.
  • Coercion – The act of using force or intimidation to ensure compliance.
  • False Imprisonment – The unlawful restraint of a person within a limited area, depriving him of his right to freedom of movement. False or unlawful imprisonment applies to that committed by private individuals as well as governmental agencies.
  • Endangerment – Conduct that is wrongful or reckless, and likely to result in grievous bodily harm to, or death of, another person.
  • Emotional Distress – A negative emotional reaction, such as anguish, humiliation, or grief, resulting from the conduct of another individual. Also referred to as “mental anguish.”
  • Preponderance of Evidence – The belief by a jury or judge that evidence presented by one party in a civil lawsuit is more convincing, or believed to be more truthful, than that presented by the opposing party. In other words, it is more likely than not that such evidence is true.