How many of us actually ask ourselves, ‘what is violence?’ For many, it seems obvious what constitutes violent behavior and what doesn’t. 

Unfortunately, violence isn’t always so easy to identify. It isn’t like it is on TV or in the movies. Real life violence happens in living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms- out of view from the rest of the world. 

Understandings of Violence

A further division exists in what each discipline that interacts with violence recognizes as such. For example, there are variations in what the law recognizes as violence, versus what is actually experienced as violence by survivors, versus what psychology and social work classify as violence.

This makes sense given each discipline has unique functions and requirements. However, this renders the question of what is violent all the more hazy. 

It is also important to know where we draw the line for each of these disciplines. What is violence versus maltreatment? Does intention matter or is purely the consequences of a person’s behavior? What is merely high conflict as opposed to violence? What is merely ‘bad parenting’ and what is child maltreatment?

Both legal (1) and psychological (2) sources have stated that violence need not be intentional- it is the resulting harm that classifies it as such.

How can we reliably recognize violent behavior, and thereby prevent or end it? As with all things, our first step is understanding. 

Types of Violence

Psychological Maltreatment (Emotional Abuse)

Psychological maltreatment is the erosion and degradation of one family member by another.  The nature of this violence is often subtle, and constitutes behaviors that onlookers may view as ‘joking’ or ‘tough love’.

Examples of behaviors that can be psychologically violent include:

  • Belittling and mocking a person,
  • Threats to self or others, (eg. threats of suicide)
  • Name calling, put downs or insults, (eg. you’re fat, you’re worthless).
  • Humiliating a person publicly,
  • Sharing a person’s private information,
  • Shaming someone for their tastes, feelings, or beliefs,
  • Forcing a person to dress or look a certain way,
  • Blaming a person for things outside of their control (eg. another person’s substance use).

It is important to understand that a person may not literally say ‘you’re worthless’. However, the message is conveyed to the victim via tone, implication and non-verbal communication.

Financial Control

A hallmark of violent relationships is financial control. A violent person will often hold access to all assets and financial accounts. This type of violence is often used in conjunction with other forms, as a method to keep the victim dependent.

Examples of behaviors that can be financially violent include:

  • Holding all assets in the violent person’s name,
  • Blocking the victim’s access or knowledge of financial affairs,
  • Spending money or accruing debts with the understanding the victim will be viewed as liable to pay said debts,
  • Blocking the victim from taking a job or earning an income,
  • Blocking a person from obtaining their own assets or destroying those they have.

A person without assets cannot leave. This is why violent people so often control financial information, or destroy the victim’s ability to be financially sound.

Physical Violence

Physical violence is what we most clearly understand as ‘domestic violence’. When portrayed by the media and other sources- this is the type of violence that is focused on.

In reality, this kind of violence receives the most attention because it is the most obvious and easily substantiated. Often it results in police reports and hospital records- which is also where we obtain most of our statistics on the prevalence of violence in our communities.

Examples of physical violence include:

  • Hitting, kicking, biting,
  • Strangulation,
  • Holding down, or confining,
  • Hair pulling,
  • Throwing the victim, or objects at the victim,
  • Hitting with objects.

We assume that physical violence will always be obvious. However, this isn’t always the case. The violent person may not exert enough pressure to leave marks. For example, a person may be shoved or held down without much evidence of the act. Further, where marks are left, they may not be visible to observers.

Sexualized Violence

Sexual violence is abhorrent to us as a society. However, it was not until the 1980’s that sexual violence was even identified as legally possible within an intimate relationship.(1)  The complete right an individual holds over their own body and its determination, is yet to be evenly recognized.

Examples of sexualized violence include:

  • Unwanted touching,
  • Unwanted intercourse,
  • Forcing a person to perform sexual actions,
  • Revealing intimate information about someone,
  • Releasing or threatening to release sexualized photos or conversations,
  • Purposely tampering with contraceptives.

Sexual violence goes beyond actual sexual acts. It includes all facets of a person’s sexuality- including their decisions about what they enjoy, what they dislike and who they share their body with.

Exposure to Intimate Partner Violence

When the above actions are perpetrated by a partner against another partner- this is understood as intimate partner violence (IPV). However, when a child observes directly or indirectly these incidents of violence, that in itself is a kind of violence against the child.

Examples of exposure to IPV include:

  • Overhearing verbal, physical or sexually violent exchanges,
  • One parent engaging in psychologically violent descriptions of the other (eg. ‘ you’re mother is x’, ‘should I kill your mother?’)
  • Using the child as a pawn or tool to injure the other parent (eg. tricking the child into revealing information that the violent person then uses).

Exposure to IPV need not be direct to be experienced as violence by the child. We often fail to give children the credit they deserve in terms of understanding. While children may not fully comprehend a situation- they are often incredibly talented and noticing if something is off, or if a parent is upset or frightened. A traumatized parent impacts their child. A violent parent impacts their child. 

Different Means, the Same Results

There are many ways to perpetrate violence. Even within this list, there are countless shades of grey in how each may be experienced. This is the problem of violence. This is why it remains a massive public health concern.  

While each type of violence represents unique behaviors, all types of violence have shockingly similar outcomes on adults and children. To learn more about common consequences of violence, check out this page.

(1)D.N.L. v. C.N.S., 2014 BCSC 1417

(2) Ruth Gilbert et al. Burden and conequences child maltreatment in high-income countries. Lancet 2009; 373: 68-81.