Family violence can take many forms – physical, verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual and more. Family violence is about power and control, and it’s never OK. If you’re worried that someone you know is experiencing family violence, or you think you are, you have many support options.

What is family violence?

Family violence is when a family member is threatening, controlling and abusive towards another family member. Family violence can happen between:

  • adults in a family – for example, between partners or spouses, between adult children and parents, or between extended family members
  • adults who used to be in a family – for example, between former partners or spouses.

The person in a family who is violent is often called the perpetrator.

The person in a family who experiences the violence is often called the victim.

Family violence is sometimes also called domestic violence, intimate partner violence or domestic abuse.

Family violence is an umbrella term used to describe all the different types of violence that can happen in families. This article focuses on the family violence that happens between partners and ex-partners.

Types of family violence

Family violence isn’t just physical violence. Family violence includes many different types of violence and abuse.

Verbal, emotional and psychological abuse
This kind of family violence is when words are used to insult, hurt, intimidate and humiliate someone. It includes:

  • yelling, swearing or calling someone names
  • putting someone down, in front of other people or in private
  • using words to intimidate or threaten someone
  • doing or saying things to make someone feel confused or less confident.

Physical abuse
This kind of family violence is any physical behaviour – for example, shoving, pushing, punching, hitting, slapping, biting or choking.

Sexual abuse
This kind of family violence is any unwanted sexual behaviour, including:

  • threats and intimidation to make someone engage in unwanted sexual activities
  • unwanted sexual contact
  • rape.

Harassment, stalking and threats of harm
This kind of family violence is behaviour like:

  • following someone to see where they’re going or who they’re meeting
  • tracking phone calls
  • ringing or texting all the time
  • threatening to harm someone or the people close to them.

Other types of abuse
This includes:

  • economic abuse – not letting someone have money
  • social abuse – stopping someone from going out with friends or talking on the phone
  • spiritual abuse – stopping someone from practising their religion
  • property damage – damaging or destroying someone’s personal belongings
  • animal abuse – using force or cruelty against family pets to intimidate someone.

Women, men and family violence

Family violence can happen to both men and women, in heterosexual and same-sex relationships.  It happens regardless of age, income, education, culture or religion.

But women are more likely than men to be victims of family violence. Women are also more likely to live in fear of an intimate partner or ex-partner and to be injured because of family violence.

Children are also often caught up in family violence – both as victims themselves, and as witnesses. Witnessing family violence has the same negative effects on children as physical violence against them.

For many women, pregnancy can be a trigger for family violence to start. For women in an abusive relationship, pregnancy can make the abuse worse. This is because abusive men often feel jealous during pregnancy and left out after the baby is born. You can read more about anger and violence in pregnancy.

Signs of family violence in someone you know

Family violence happens to one in four Australian women. So you’ll probably come across someone who has experienced family violence of some kind.

But victims of family violence often don’t tell people about the abuse directly. They’re scared the abuse will get worse if the perpetrator finds out they’ve told people about it. Also, victims sometimes blame themselves for the abuse or feel ashamed about it, so they don’t want to talk about it.

If you think someone you know is experiencing family violence, there are signs you can look out for. The person:

  • has physical injuries like scratches or bruises – the person might say that the injuries don’t matter or are because of a clumsy accident
  • seems afraid of their partner or of a family member 
  • has a partner who seems to make all the decisions in the relationship
  • speaks about their partner as being jealous or bad tempered
  • describes their partner as controlling – for example, the person has to get their partner’s approval to do things or go places, and the partner expects to know where the person is all the time
  • seems to have changed – for example, seems more anxious or depressed
  • doesn’t socialise as much as in the past
  • doesn’t want to leave children with their partner.

These are only some of the signs of family violence, and sometimes these signs happen because of other things going on in a person’s life. But a combination of these signs can tell you that someone might be experiencing family violence.

What to do if you’re experiencing family violence, or someone you know is

If you’re experiencing family violence
If you or your children are in immediate danger, call the police on 000.

If you need support to get away from the family violence, you have a few options:

  • Speak to your GP or child and family health nurse.
  • Call a telephone support service like 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).
  • Speak to a trusted family member or friend for support.

If someone you know is experiencing family violence
If you think that a friend or family member is experiencing family violence, let them know you’re concerned. If they don’t want to talk about it right away, let them know that they can trust you, and that you’re there for them when they’re ready.

Find out about local support services so you have some practical options to offer when the person is ready to talk to you.

It’s important to avoid judging the victim for being in an abusive relationship. Leaving an abusive relationship can take many attempts and can be a very difficult and long process. Your support can help someone leave an abusive relationship and move on with their life. 

Why does family violence happen?

Family violence is about power and control. The purpose is to scare the victim so that the victim does what the perpetrator wants. By making the victim afraid, the perpetrator keeps power and control in the relationship.

There is no excuse for family violence. Family violence is never OK. It’s never justified by family circumstances, or by a victim’s behaviour, or by a perpetrator’s feelings, background or use of alcohol and other drugs.

No matter how long the victim stays with the perpetrator in the family, or how many times the victim and perpetrator get back together after separating, the victim is never to blame

Alcohol or other drug use can increase the severity of family violence and the seriousness of victims’ injuries. But alcohol and other drug use doesn’t cause the abuse in the first place or excuse it afterwards.

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Last updated or reviewed
01-08-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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