The topic of abuse has been in the spotlight more and more over the past few years. Drawing awareness to abuse and abusive relationships is extremely important in helping survivors get help and heal from these experiences. However, we are also seeing a misuse in the language and understanding of abuse, domestic violence, and intimate partner violence. So, what are the definitions of these terms and when/how should we use them?
Abuse is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “improper or excessive use or treatment.” It also defines abuse as “language that condemns or vilifies, usually unjustly, intemperately, and angrily.”
Abuse can be a single incident or multiple incidents. Abuse can be physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, etc. Abuse can occur between any combination of two or more people.
Merriam-Webster defines domestic violence (DV) as “violent or abusive behavior directed by one family or household member against another.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines DV as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.”
The main differences between “abuse” and “domestic violence” are that DV involves a pattern of abuse between people who are in an intimate relationship or are living together in a household. DV (or domestic abuse) can involve a parent abusing a child, a sibling abusing another sibling, a partner abusing another partner, etc. DV can take the form of physical violence, but can also include other forms of abuse.
Intimate Partner Violence
Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is defined by the CDC as “abuse or aggression that occurs in a romantic relationship.” Similarly, the The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines IPV as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.”
The difference between IPV and domestic violence is that IPV strictly involves partners- romantic, sexual, dating, former, current, etc. Furthermore, IPV, like DV, refers to a pattern of abuse and not just a single incident. When there is an isolated incident of abuse by an intimate partner, this is referred to as “situational violence.” What gets tricky is that some people will use the terms “domestic violence” and “intimate partner violence” interchangeably, which is why the National Domestic Violence Hotline defines them in the same way.
Using These Terms
It can be intimidating to learn, understand, and properly use terms describing different forms of abuse. There is even debate within the field of domestic violence surrounding this language. Some people use “Domestic Violence” as an umbrella term to describe all forms of ongoing abuse. Some people will use the term “relational violence” or “relational abuse.” The most important thing to remember is that any kind of relational abuse involves a pattern of behavior aimed at gaining power and control over another. It is also important to mirror the language that the person experiencing abuse uses. Some people are not comfortable calling themselves “survivors.” Some people in abusive relationships might not even recognize or be able to accept that the relationship they are in is abusive. It can be extremely distressing and potentially traumatizing to label a relationship as “abusive” if the person experiencing abuse has not yet accepted this term for themselves. This is why it’s always best to use that person’s preferred language.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You can also text “START” to 88788 or visit their website at https://www.thehotline.org/.
Brittany Momah, LCSW is a Domestic Violence Advocate in the state of Pennsylvania and is a therapist to survivors of many forms of abuse.