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What is domestic violence?

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed October 2023

Domestic violence takes many forms. When one person in a relationship tries to control and overpower the other person, that is domestic violence.

Does the abuse have to be physical, like hitting or punching?

Domestic violence is not limited to physical abuse . Abuse includes many ways that your partner, or family, or household member might use to control or take power over you. For example:

  • Physical abuse: pushing, shoving, hitting, biting, kicking, throwing things at a person, using a weapon, forced sex or touching, rape, choking;
  • Isolation: keeping you from seeing people; controlling who you see and talk to; wanting to control where you are all the time;
  • Emotional abuse: calling you names; putting you down; playing mind games; humiliating you in public;
  • Economic abuse: taking your money; making you ask for money; controlling all the money;
  • Sexual abuse: treating you like a sex object; forcing you to have sex or do sexual things when you don't want to;
  • Using children: using parenting time or visitation as a way to harass you; pumping the children for information about you; insulting you in front of the children;
  • Threats: saying they will take the children; telling you that you will never see the children again; threatening to hurt you; threatening to report you to DTA or DCF; threatening to hurt your family; threatening to hurt themselves;
  • Insisting on being in charge: treating you like a servant; making the big decisions;
  • Intimidation: using looks; hurting pets; destroying your property.

The "Power and Control Wheel" and the "Equality Wheel" made by the Duluth (Minnesota) Abuse Intervention Programs give more examples of abusive and non-abusive behavior. The examples on these wheels might help you think about your situation.

I feel so alone. Are many people in this situation?

Anyone can experience domestic violence. Domestic violence impacts people of all age groups, genders, and sexual orientations. Domestic abuse is a serious public health threat. Thousands of people are abused by their partner, ex-partner, or other family member every year. 

Is domestic abuse a crime?

Some forms of domestic abuse are crimes. For example, physical violence and forced sex are crimes. It is also a crime if your partner threatens to use physical force against you or your children. Other forms of domestic abuse may also be crimes.

Can a judge order the abuse to stop?

You can go to court to ask for orders to protect you from further harm. These court orders are referred to by various terms, including “Abuse Prevention Orders,” “restraining orders,” and “protective orders.” Most of these orders are issued under the authority of Chapter 209A of Massachusetts General Laws, and the orders are sometimes called “209A” orders.

See 209A Restraining Orders.

I am afraid my children are being abused. What are the different kinds of child abuse?

Some types of child abuse are:

  • making a child witness domestic violence
  • sexually assaulting a child or
  • physically assaulting a child.

Is it a crime to abuse children?

Yes, it can be. Some forms of child abuse are crimes. See Criminal Complaints for more information about reporting crimes. 

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) can also get involved with your family if there are concerns about protecting your children. "Mandated reporters" are people who have a responsibility to file a report with DCF if they think children were hurt by a caregiver or if the children witnessed their parent being abused. See the Department of Children and Families section for more information about this.

If you think you might need a restraining order to protect your children from abuse, see How can a 209A Restraining Order protect my child?

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