Breaking down the ABS report ‘Domestic Violence: Experiences of Partner Emotional Abuse’

Wednesday 31 August 2022

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According to a new report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 3.6 million Australians have experienced emotional abuse from a partner.

In the report Domestic Violence: Experiences of Partner Emotional Abuse, the ABS provides an analysis of data from the 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS), identifying key characteristics that are associated with an increased likelihood of experiencing emotional abuse from a partner. 

Let’s break this down.  

What does the ABS mean when they refer to ‘emotional abuse?’ 

According to the report, the ABS defines ‘emotional abuse’ in the PSS as specific behaviours or actions that: 

“…are aimed at preventing or controlling [a person’s] behaviour, causing them emotional harm or fear. These behaviours are characterised in nature by their intent to manipulate, control, isolate or intimidate the person they are aimed at. They are generally repeated behaviours and include psychological, social, financial (also known as economic abuse), and verbal abuse.”

Examples of emotional abuse as defined by the ABS include: 

  • Trying to stop a person from contacting their friends, family, or community 
  • Constantly putting someone down 
  • Limiting a person’s access to household money 
  • Threatening to remove access to a person’s child/children. 

With this definition in mind, the data collected in the PSS found that an estimated one in four women (or 2.2 million) have experienced emotional abuse since the age of 15, from either a current or former partner. 

Does this differ to coercive control? 

The term ‘emotional abuse’ is often used interchangeably with coercive control, but they are not the same. Coercive control is not a separate form of family violence – rather, it is a part of all family violence, including emotional abuse. 

Think of it this way: coercive control is a pattern of abusive behaviours and tactics used by a perpetrator to gain power and control over a victim survivor. It is not a ‘standalone’ type of family violence. All forms of family violence can be used by a perpetrator to gain and maintain power and control. 

It’s also important to remember that when we talk about family violence, we are talking about patterns of abusive behaviours that are used to control someone in a family, family-like or intimate relationship, and to make that person feel afraid for their safety and wellbeing. It can take many forms – not just physical or sexual abuse. Similarly, all forms of family violence can be separate, or can occur together. 

The behaviours defined by the ABS as emotional abuse include a range of tactics associated with other forms of family violence, such as financial abuse. 

With that in mind, what does the ABS data say? 

Women with disability, single parents and people experiencing financial stress were more likely to experience abuse 

The report highlighted several characteristics that were linked with higher rates of emotional abuse. 

For instance, women aged between 30 and 54 experienced the highest rates of emotional abuse, while women aged over 65 were less likely to experience abuse. 

6.3% of women with disability or a long-term health condition had experienced partner emotional abuse, compared to 4.1% of women without disability or a long-term health condition.  

Women who were single parents of children under 15 years old were more than twice as likely to experience partner emotional abuse, compared with women from all other household types. 

Both men and women living in households who had experienced cash flow problems within the last 12 months were more than twice as likely to experience partner emotional abuse as those who did not experience cash flow issues. Similarly, women living in households that were unable to raise $2000 in a week for something important were almost twice as likely to experience partner emotional abuse. 

The most common emotional abuse experienced was threatening and degrading behaviours 

76% of women who had experienced emotional abuse by a current partner had experienced that abuse in the form of threatening or degrading behaviours. 41% had experienced abuse in the form of controlling financial behaviours. 

Significantly, of the 1.7 million women who experienced emotional abuse by a previous partner, 88% experience threatening or degrading behaviours, and 63% experienced controlling social behaviours. 

The data from this report further highlights that regardless of what forms it takes, family violence is always underpinned by power and control. Coercive and controlling behaviours are found across all types of family violence, not just emotional abuse. 

Find out more about different forms of family violence here. 

For more information on family violence, including how you can seek support for yourself or a loved one, visit Are You Safe at Home? 

Page last updated Wednesday, August 31 2022


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