Story: Domestic violence

Page 1. Defining violence

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Domestic violence is psychological, physical and sexual violence that occurs within the home or among whanau/family members. Both adults and children can be victims. Sometimes this form of violence is referred to as 'family violence'. The term child abuse is used to refer to abuse of children inside or outside their families. Often domestic violence is used to refer specifically to violence between intimate partners.

Different types of violence

Studies have categorised different kinds of domestic violence.

  • Power and control violence involves psychological abuse, often accompanied by physical and sexual abuse. This is mostly perpetrated by men on women and children, and is the most damaging in its effects.
  • Resistive violence is when a victim of power and control violence – usually a woman – retaliates, often in self-defence.
  • Situational partner violence is when couples use physical force (for example, pushing, shoving and throwing things) to deal with problems in their relationship. It is rarely serious.

Gender issues

Police, courts and social services deal mainly with cases of men assaulting women and children. However community surveys suggest women assault their partners as much as men do. This apparent contradiction is explained by the fact that people responding to surveys tend to report low-level situational partner violence. Also, women assaulting men are less likely to cause serious harm, whereas men may inflict significant physical injuries on women.

Mind games

Psychological threats are often part of domestic violence. A woman who had taken out a non-molestation order against her partner after he had seriously assaulted her many times discovered he had been inside her house and had done the dishes. Police were puzzled that she wanted him arrested for doing the dishes – but to her it was a chilling message that he knew where she was and could get her whenever he wanted.1

Features of domestic violence

Domestic violence is different from other violent behaviour because it occurs in intimate relationships and within whānau/families. It may involve behaviour that in isolation seems harmless, but which in combination with other acts is destructive. Because it occurs in private, other people, even family and close friends, may not be aware that it is happening, or may choose to ignore it. This makes it particularly difficult to assess and overcome.

Domestic violence crosses ethnic and class boundaries, and occurs in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. It often happens in families where there are other problems such as substance abuse, mental health issues and poverty.


Experts distinguish between one-off acts of violence, and battering – a systematic pattern of assaults and intimidation that creates a climate of fear. Battered women live with fear so profound and demoralising that they can find it very difficult to leave a relationship.

Women who live with ongoing domestic violence may develop trauma symptoms such as severe depression and anxiety. They may also use alcohol and drugs to numb their emotional and physical pain. These problems make it more difficult for them to seek or receive help.

Hurting children

The impact of domestic violence on children is expressed in a letter written by a boy to the judge when his mother’s violent partner appeared in court: ‘I have tried to take my life because I haven’t been able to deal with the things he has done to me and my family. Sometimes I feel like I have failed my family because I haven’t been able to protect them from this man.’2

Often child abuse and violence between partners coexist in a home. There is also evidence that children witnessing domestic violence are emotionally damaged even if they are not physically harmed. Children in these situations may imitate the violent behaviour and become violent adults.


It has been suggested that domestic violence is one of the most common forms of violent crime in New Zealand. In 2014 the police attended 101,981 such incidents – one every five and half minutes. Many cases are not reported, so these statistics may indicate just the tip of the iceberg.

According to police figures, reported domestic disputes more than doubled between the 1990s and early 2000s. This reflects changes in police policy and recording practice, and growing public awareness of the problem and willingness to report incidents. In the 2010s, around 20,000 women and children used Women’s Refuge services each year. Refuges answered a crisis phone call every 6.5 minutes.

A troubling aspect of domestic violence in New Zealand is its prevalence among Māori and rates of death due to intimate partner violence among Māori. In the period 2009 – 2012 Māori were 2.8 times more likely to die as a result of intimate partner violence and offenders were 2.5 times more likely to be Māori than non-Māori or non-Pacific peoples. When deaths occurred, men were over 90% of the abusers and women were over 90% of those who died.

  1. Neville Robertson and others, Living at the cutting edge: women’s experience of protection orders, Vol. 1. Hamilton: University of Waikato, 2007, p.6. Back
  2. Quoted in Neville Robertson and others, Living at the cutting edge: women’s experience of protection orders, Vol. 1. Hamilton: University of Waikato, 2007, p.51. Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Domestic violence - Defining violence', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2018)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Mar 2018