Domestic or family violence is the abuse of power and control. It is a pattern of behavior used by one person to control another through force or threats. The violence may include:

  • Striking
  • Hitting
  • Kicking
  • Punching
  • Threatening

Domestic violence may include physical and/or sexual abuse and threats. These violent acts are criminal and the batterer can be prosecuted for committing them. The acts are a means of controlling the victim's thoughts, feelings and behavior. The violence often increases in frequency and severity.

Emotional abuse and insulting words are almost always part of the abuse pattern, but are not considered criminal acts. The wounds from these injuries, however, may be more difficult to heal.

Domestic violence is not caused by or provoked by the actions or inactions of the victim. Alcohol or drug abuse, depression, lack of money, lack of a job, mental illness or abuse as a child do not directly cause domestic violence. However, existing problems often create additional stress in a relationship and may increase the risk of violence. Many abusers blame the victim or other things for their violent acts and do not take responsibility for their abusive behavior.

The Legal Definition of Abuse

Chapter 209A, the Massachusetts Abuse Prevention Act, defines abuse as:

  • Actual physical abuse
  • An attempt to harm another
  • Placing another in fear of serious physical harm
  • Causing another to engage in sexual relations by force, threat of force or duress

Characteristics of the Abuser

Abusers have a need to control. They will use physical as well as psychological means to do so. It has been documented that abusers' public behavior often differs greatly from their private behavior, and they have many excuses for their behavior. These excuses include claiming loss of control, attributing their behavior to alcohol or drug abuse, minimizing or denying their conduct, citing their good intentions and placing blame on others (often the victim). The following are signs to look for in an abusive personality:

Explosive Temper - An abuser may explode over every day events such as noisy children, bad television reception, a dropped cell phone call, or not being fed on time.

Extreme Jealousy - An abuser may accuse the victim of having affairs with others. The abuser wants to know where the victim is at all times, may check odometer readings, phone calls and messages and demand specific explanations of any time spent away from the house.

Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde Personality - An abuser may appear to be a kind and loving person one minute, and an ugly, violent monster the next.

Isolating and Controlling Behavior - The abuser may forbid the victim from talking to friends and relatives. The abuser may demand control of family income and decisions.

Denying Responsibility for the Violence - The abuser may blame the victim for the violence. The abuser may even claim the victim's actions or inactions caused the violence.

Verbal Abuse - The abuser may say things that are cruel, hurtful and degrading, causing the victim to feel stupid, inferior and unable to function independently.

Breaking or Striking Objects - The abuser may destroy and break the victim's personal possessions including beloved objects or pets. This damage is meant to send a message to the victim that the abuser has power over the victim and who may be targeted next.

What Makes It Difficult to Leave?

Though there are many reasons why victims of domestic violence find it difficult to leave the abusive relationship, the following list represents some of the reasons:

Fear - Victims often fear that the abuser will inflict devastating harm on them and their children if they attempt to leave.

Financial Considerations - Victims are frequently financially dependent on their abusers and may have no idea how to survive on their own.

Low Self-Esteem - Through constant badgering victims often feel responsible for the abuse. They may feel unable to make decisions, unable to escape and feel unworthy.

Guilt - Victims may feel guilty for being unable to stop the violence or in some way feel responsible for the abuser's behavior.

Promises to Change - Abusers often apologize after an incident of violence and promise to change their behavior. Victims may still love the abuser and believe that change is possible.

Denial and Minimization - As a survival skill, victims often either minimize the impact of the violence or completely deny that the abuse is occurring. The dynamic can be exacerbated by the abuser who may also minimize and deny the behavior.

Social and Professional Concerns - The victim may have concerns about losing their social and professional relationships. Victims also fear that their private business will become public knowledge.

Religious/Cultural Beliefs - The victim's religious/cultural beliefs may prevent them from leaving. In a time when they need it most, victims may lose the support of their religious/cultural community. Support from those communities can be invaluable in providing a psychological as well as a physical safety net for victims.

Sense of Responsibility or Loyalty to the Abuser - Victims may be reluctant to leave an abuser, particularly if the abuser has physical, emotional or psychological problems. Abusers may express suicidal thoughts as a way to manipulate the victim into staying.

Exhaustion - The mere strain of trying to make it through each day can leave victims with little energy to expend on any other decisions or plans.

What to Do if You Are in an Abusive Relationship

Coping with an abusive relationship is very challenging, since the very nature of the situation leaves the victim isolated and feeling worthless. It is important for victims to know that they are not alone and that under no circumstances is abuse acceptable.

A first step for a victim of abuse is to talk to someone who understands the problem. There are many agencies that provide free, confidential assistance to people in abusive relationships. Services often include counseling, support groups, safety planning, legal assistance, shelter/housing and help with filing a restraining order.

It is important to understand that it takes time and often several attempts to get out of an abusive relationship. Leaving can be a dangerous time for victims; however, there is hope and support available.

Restraining Orders

An Abuse Prevention Order (also called a "209A Order or a "Restraining Order") is a civil court order that provides protection from physical or sexual harm caused by force, or threat of harm from a family or household member. An Order can be obtained against:

  • A spouse or former spouse
  • A present or former household member
  • A relative by blood or a present or former relative by marriage
  • The parent of a minor child, even if the parents never married or lived together
  • A person involved in a substantial dating relationship with the victim.

A restraining order may be obtained in any district, superior or probate and family court in Massachusetts. An emergency restraining order is available through any police department after court hours and on weekends.

A sworn statement (affidavit) describing the facts of recent or past incidents of abuse is required on the application. It is also important to provide information about the abuser, such as work address, telephone, birth date and social security number.

Victim Witness Advocates are available in district courts to assist in filing for a restraining order. Victim Advocates from the domestic violence agencies can also assist in filing for a restraining order.

What Does A Restraining Order Do?

The Court can order the abuser to:

  • Stop or refrain from abuse
  • Have no contact with the victim
  • Leave and remain away from a house or workplace
  • Surrender firearms, licenses to carry firearms and FID numbers
  • Order medical costs and property damage payments, if needed.
  • Award temporary support and custody of minor children to the victim

What Happens if the Order is Violated?

Once a restraining order is issued, violation of its terms is a criminal offense and the abuser is subject to arrest. The victim should contact the police immediately if the abuser violates the order.