Story: Domestic violence

Page 1. Defining violence

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Domestic violence is psychological, physical, sexual or economic abuse that occurs among intimate partners, former partners, or whānau/family members. Increasingly the term used for this form of violence is ‘intimate partner violence’ – or ‘male partner violence’, since police investigations of violence between intimate partners overwhelmingly identify male perpetrators.

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.

Physical assault (for example, hitting, stabbing, or attempts at strangulation) often occurs alongside attempts to control a partner or former partner. Coercive behavior includes damaging cellphones to limit contact with others, monitoring conversations with friends and family, stalking, killing or hurting pets, or threatening to kill children or other family members.

Different types of violence

Studies have categorised different kinds of domestic violence:

  • coercively controlling 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 to deal with problems in their relationship. Although it typically involves minor forms of violence (such as pushing, shoving and throwing things), it sometimes involves serious forms of violence.

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 and focus on particular incidents of conflict rather than patterns of control or threats of 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 protection order against her partner after he had seriously assaulted her many times discovered he had been inside her house and 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 could get her whenever he wanted to.1

Features of domestic violence

Domestic violence is different from other violent behaviour because it is seldom a one-off act but a pattern of repeated behaviour towards intimate partners or former partners that has wide-ranging negative effects. Because it occurs in private, 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 poverty, substance abuse or mental health issues.


Increasingly a distinction is made between one-off acts of violence – situational couple violence –  and coercively controlling violence, a systematic pattern of assaults and intimidation that creates a climate of fear and self-regulation.

Battered women live with fear so profound and demoralising that they can find it very difficult to leave the relationship. Their abusive partners may threaten to harm their children, other family members, their pets or their property if they leave. They often also face economic uncertainty if they are in a low-paid job or reliant on benefit payments. Women who are sole parents may also be stigmatised, especially if they are on state benefits. All these factors can stop women from leaving abusive relationships.

Women experiencing intimate partner violence may become increasingly cut off from friends and family, and lose self-worth and self-confidence, and also a sense of their capacity to make decisions and exercise agency.

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. If their partners or family members are known to the police for other reasons, they may not feel comfortable about reporting the abuse. These problems can make it difficult for women who are physically or psychologically abused 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. There is now evidence that children are directly impacted by being exposed to domestic violence, and are emotionally damaged even if they are not physically harmed. Children in these situations may imitate the violent behaviour and become violent adults.

Incidence of intimate partner violence

It has been suggested that domestic violence is one of the most common forms of violent crime in New Zealand. In 2016 the New Zealand Police conducted 118,910 investigations relating to family violence. Fifty-five per cent of those who were violent towards females were partners, ex-partners, boy/girlfriends or ex-boy/girlfriends. Many cases are not reported, so these statistics may indicate just the tip of the iceberg.

According to police figures, reported domestic violence 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. Lower tolerance for domestic violence may also explain the growth in use of refuges. In 2015/16 women’s refuges affiliated to the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges received about 73,000 crisis calls and 2,446 women and children used their safe-house services. Just over 11,000 women and children accessed advocacy services in the community in relation to experiences of family violence.

A troubling aspect of domestic violence in New Zealand is its prevalence among Māori. In 2017 Māori were more than twice as likely be victims of intimate partner violence as other New Zealanders. They were also twice as likely to experience coercive and controlling behaviours. Māori women were just over 15% of the female population but 29% of those using refuge services.

  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 14 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 19 Jul 2018