Domestic abuse has a legal definition, though this is fairly recent. The legal definition is necessary for intervention, but, the legal definition is inadequate to fully address the nature of domestic abuse in society, in advocacy, and in treatment. For purposes other than legal sanctions, a broader, sociological or 'behavioral' definition is required.
Legal Definition of Abuse- Most states legally define domestic abuse around the concept of harm or threat of harm. This is concentrating on the tactics, not the goal of abuse. In Washington State, for instance, the law defines domestic violence in two places: In RCW 26.50.010 it is defined as a) physical harm, bodily injury, assault, or the infliction of fear of imminent physical harm, bodily injury, or assault, of one family or household member by another, or b) sexual assault, or c) stalking, of one household family member by another. RCW 10.99.020 states that "domestic violence includes but is not limited to any of the following crimes when committed by one family or household member against another: assault, reckless endangerment, interfering with a 911 call, coercion, burglary, criminal trespass, malicious mischief, kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, violation of a Restraining Order, restraining the person or excluding the person from a residence, violation of a Protection Order, rape."
Behavioral (or Sociological) Definition of Abuse Domestic violence is a pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviors that an adult or adolescent uses to gain and maintain power and control over an intimate partner. The goal of the violence is to decrease the survivor’s options. The behaviors can be physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, spiritual, or the destruction of property and pets. Domestic violence is intentional behavior, employing a combination of actions that are unique to each primary aggressor, but similar in their goal.1
Coercion is creating an aversive situation or threatening one, in order to get one's way. Coercion is always present in domestic abuse but is not in itself the totality of it. In domestic abuse. the coercion is continuous and includes coercion not to leave. Coercion not to leave includes stalking and threats and acts of harm, but also includes all contentious processes legal or otherwise that would undermine the security of the survivor and her children if she left. Coercion is grossly under-recognized because the survivor skillfully avoids the aversive consequence almost all the time by submission.
Abuse, while defined by the goal of power and control, consists of both tactics and patterns. Understanding the patterns is essential to understanding abuse since, apart from more extreme acts, it is in the pattern that the coerciveness and control resides. Domestic violence patterns have four major elements: seduction, mistreatment, oppression, and entrapment.
Seduction is a promise that cannot be kept. It is an aggressive effort to give the survivor the illusion that she is special to the primary aggressor and will be treated specially. The false promise of a special relationship disguises boundary transgressions. The element of seduction is greatest at the beginning of a relationship of course, but will re-emerge whenever the survivor starts to pull away (this is sometimes referred to as 'hoovering')
Mistreatment is the least controversial or overlooked element of the four, yet without understanding patterns, the harsh, punitive quality of many 'non-battering' tactics is missed--the menu category of abuse on this site tries to address this.
Oppression is taking away options and capacities for a person to respond to circumstances in the furtherance of her or his safety, sanity, integrity, health, growth and well-being. Oppression, unlike mistreatment, occurs not in episodes but over time. and so is often missed when single incidents (apart from the most severe) are examined.
Entrapment covers all those factors such as children, fear, death threats, poverty, isolation, bonding, seduction, guilt, discouragement, family pressure, stalking, etc.. which make it both realistically impossible to actually end the relationship (at least without outside help), but also impossible to re-negotiate the basis of the relationship in any way. Through entrapment, survivors are left trying just to withstand the abuse. All too often, survivors are blamed for their own entrapment.
The legal system has enormous difficulty seeing the patterns of power and control in domestic violence since it itself is a (hopefully beneficent) power and control system, and tends to focus on the 'merit' or justification of particular acts. That is, the legal system focuses on 'mistreatment' in an isolated and narrow way. The legal emphasis on justification can play into the hands of the primary aggressor, who is 'fed' by justification.
Systematic Emotional Abuse: This is the attempt to destroy the will, needs, desires, or perceptions of the survivor, which is tantamount to destroying the self. This is distinctly different from mere opposition, failure to meet needs, or disagreement. It is a denial of the legitimacy, rightness, and sanity of the will, needs, desires and perceptions. Systematic emotional abuse is part and parcel of behavioral or sociological abuse as described above, but it merits separate mention for the following reason. There are some survivors that may have the option of leaving without suffering physical violence, and/or have some social power and privilege outside the relationship. The survivor may act autonomously in a professional role and travel freely. However, despite this, the survivor may suffer relentless invalidation, gaslighting, and discouragement from her partner in the home. This pattern is commonly associated with narcissism in the aggressing partner. From some perspectives this may not seem to fit the template of domestic violence as outlined in most of this website, which is anchored by overt or complete control. The public safety and public health communities are not interested. However, the effects of bonding, children, and emotional investment have tremendous holding power on the survivor, and so over time in the relationship, tremendous trauma and 'de-selfing' occurs. Also if the relationship is ended, considerable sabotage and financial retaliation is certain.
It is ultimately the goal, not the tactics that defines domestic abuse. Some behaviors are in and of themselves abusive, but some ‘nice’ behaviors are part of a pattern of abuse, if the intent is to control. Domestic abuse is not a sloppy collection of episodic unpleasant behaviors. Whether 'premeditated' or not, it is a systematic effort to gain power and control in a relationship.
1 Credit needs to be given to Anne Ganley for first developing a behavioral definition of abuse upon which mine is based.