Forms of
family violence

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Family violence can take many different forms including, but not limited to, physical abuse.

Family violence very rarely happens as a single incident. Rather, it is a pattern of ongoing behaviour that can include multiple tactics used to intimidate, control and abuse someone. The frequency and severity of family violence can escalate over time.

This abuse takes many different forms, none of which are mutually exclusive. While physical violence may be the most widely recognised, other forms such as sexual, emotional, spiritual and economic abuse can be equally harmful.


Emotional abuse
Emotional abuse is behaviour that does not demonstrate respect for someone’s feelings, opinions and experiences. Emotional abuse can undermine a victim survivor’s self-worth, confidence and independence, and help the perpetrator maintain power and control. Even though emotional abuse can have a profound and long-term impact on victim survivors it is often the most difficult form of violence to identify. Emotional abuse can include:

  • name calling, insults and put downs
  • deliberately undermining someone’s confidence, or ability to trust themselves (sometimes referred to as ‘gaslighting’)
  • threatening self-harm, or harm to the victim, another family member or a pet
  • ridiculing, rejecting or shaming someone,  such as their body, beliefs, skills, friends, sexuality, occupation, identity or cultural background
  • intentionally embarrassing or undermining them in front of others
  • making someone feel guilty
  • threatening suicide
  • threatening to ‘out’ someone’s gender, sexuality, intersex status or HIV status to their family, friends, community or workplace
  • questioning someone in a hostile way
  • handling guns or weapons in front of someone
  • threatening to report someone to authorities such as Immigration, Child Protection or Centrelink.

Physical abuse
Physical abuse is any actual or threatened attack on someone’s physical safety or bodily integrity. This also includes harming or threatening to harm pets or possessions. Behaviours can be physically abusive even if they don’t result in visible or lasting injuries or damage. Physical abuse can include:

  • smashing, destroying or throwing things
  • using intimidating body language such as angry looks or threatening gestures
  • following someone or loitering near their home or workplace
  • recklessly driving a vehicle with someone else in the car
  • pushing, shoving, hitting, slapping, choking, hair-pulling, punching or using weapons
  • murder
  • physical neglect of someone reliant on care, for example an older person, child or someone with disability.

Sexual abuse
Sexual abuse is any actual or threatened sexual contact without consent, such as unwanted touching, rape, exposure of genitals or making someone view pornography against their will. Sexual abuse can include:

  • rape, including being forced to perform unwanted sexual acts, or to have sex with others
  • pressuring someone to agree to sex
  • unwanted touching of sexual or private parts
  • disclosing intimate knowledge, including threatening to share private photographs or information about sexual orientation to generate fear
  • expecting someone to have sex as a form of reconciliation after using violence against them
  • having sex with someone without consent, or who is unable to give consent due to age, ability or intoxication.

Social abuse
Social abuse is behaviour that limits, controls or interferes with someone’s social activities or relationships with others. Social abuse can include:

  • excessive questioning
  • monitoring movements, internet use and social communications
  • being aggressive towards others who are viewed as ‘competition’, and acts of jealousy
  • preventing someone from having contact with family or friends
  • verbally or physically abusing someone in front of others
  • preventing someone from having contact with people who speak their language or share their culture
  • spreading rumours about someone through their support networks to discredit them
  • using someone’s intersex status, sexuality, gender expression, transgender or HIV status against them
  • forced marriage
  • stalking.

Financial abuse
Financial abuse is a form of family violence. It can include taking someone’s money, withdrawing access to household funds, controlling all the household spending or excluding someone from financial decisions that impact them. Financial abuse can happen to anyone.

Financial abuse can include:

  • denying someone access to money, including their own
  • stopping someone from earning their own money
  • demanding that the family live on inadequate resources, or not contributing to household expenses
  • incurring debts in someone’s name
  • making significant financial decisions without consultation
  • selling someone’s possessions
  • stealing money or property
  • dowry-related abuse.

Spiritual abuse
Spiritual abuse is behaviour that denigrates someone’s religious or spiritual beliefs, or prevents them from attending religious gatherings or practicing their faith. Spiritual abuse can include:

  • ridiculing or putting down someone’s beliefs and culture
  • preventing someone from belonging to or taking part in a group or ceremony that is important to their spiritual beliefs, or practicing their religion
  • manipulating religious teachings or cultural traditions to excuse violence.

Not all experiences or behaviours are easy to categorise and some fit into more than one form of violence. For example, threats to harm can be emotional, verbal or physical abuse. People experiencing violence might also see these categories as interchangeable or inseparable.

Some of these behaviours are criminal offences, such as stalking, physical assault, sexual assault, threats, animal abuse, property damage and theft. Behaviours that are not necessarily criminal may still be considered family violence and can be the subject of a family violence intervention order in Victoria. If this intervention order is breached this can also result in criminal charges.

Read about family violence safety notices and intervention orders on the Victoria Police website.

Coercive control is a defining feature of all family violence

Coercive control is not a distinct form of family violence. Rather, it describes the pattern of abusive behaviours perpetrators use to control, manipulate and dominate (Laing, L., Humphreys, C., & Cavanagh, K. (2013)). These tactics instil fear in victim survivors, wear down their sense of identity and independence, and entrap them in a violent relationship by closing off options for accessing safety and support.

Coercive control is complex. It includes behaviour that a victim survivor considers abusive but may be hard for others to identify. Things like body language, the click of a pen, a look or a deliberately chosen word can instil fear and dread when it’s part of a pattern of controlling behaviour. This makes it hard to consider as evidence or prosecute within the criminal justice system.


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Search our directory of specialist family violence services in Victoria.


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