What is Domestic Violence?


We recently observed Domestic Violence Awareness month, which prompted a lot of questions about what is and is not domestic violence. It turns out that the answer isn’t so simple. We explain domestic violence a bit elsewhere on our website, but wanted to go into a little more detail here. 

To start, there are multiple definitions of domestic violence: the behavioral definition and the legal definition. 

Behavioral domestic violence is a broader definition. It is a pattern of abusive behavior that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over the other partner. Domestic violence can take many forms*: 

  • Physical abuse: This looks like hitting, punching, slapping, choking, throwing objects at, and otherwise physically harming. Because there are often visible signs, physical abuse is generally the most easily recognizable form of domestic violence.

  • Sexual abuse: This looks like forced penetration (oral, anal, or vaginal) and unwanted sexual touching. “Force” does not mean that there is a threat of violence; rather, it means that the encounter was not consensual. A victim does not have to physically fight back, scream out, or even say no for an encounter to be non-consensual.

  • Financial abuse: This looks like controlling access to employment, transportation, bank accounts, and credit cards, such that a victim is dependent on her abuser for survival.

  • Emotional abuse: This type of abuse encompasses many different behaviors, including isolating, guilt-tripping, threatening to reveal private, personal, or humiliating information (immigration status, sexual history, private photographs or videos), manipulating situations such that the victim begins to question his/her perception of reality (gaslighting), and berating (name-calling, making derogatory comments, being overly critical, talking down, etc.)

The legal definition of domestic violence, however, is more limited, and is what courts are bound by when victims are petitioning for relief. In order to obtain a Domestic Violence Protection Order in Washington state, the parties need to be in a specific kind of relationship. Qualifying relationships include: spouses and former spouses, domestic partners, parents of a child in common, adults in a dating relationship, and parents and children. The definition of domestic violence that courts use is: (1) physical harm, bodily injury, assault, or the infliction of fear of imminent harm, bodily injury, or assault; (2) sexual assault; or (3) stalking. If the requisite relationship is present, and the legal definition is met, the court shall grant the petitioner a protection order. While courts will consider behavioral domestic violence as well (especially to get a fuller picture of the abuse), in order to grant a Domestic Violence Protection Order, the legal definition of domestic violence must be met. 

If you are experiencing domestic violence, we urge you to seek help. You are not alone. There are many resources available to help those in need, including safety planning, transitional housing, and legal assistance.  

*This list is not exhaustive. If you are experiencing the above or any other concerning behavior, we would recommend you reach out to someone you trust or a community advocate. 

Note: when referring to perpetrators, we use he/him pronouns, and when referring to victims and survivors, we use she/her pronouns. This is solely for consistency and ease of reading. We recognize that both men and women can perpetrate or be victims of domestic violence, but the sad truth is that the majority of perpetrators are male, and the majority of victims are female. 

This publication is for informational purposes only. It does not contain any legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for consulting an attorney. We always recommend that you consult an attorney for advice regarding your specific situation.