What is intimate partner violence?

Gender Spectrum Collection

A note on language: we honor and respect that different people will use different terminology and language to identify and describe their experience(s) and their identity. Survivors are not a homogenous group and experience abuse and support differently based on a variety of intersecting social locations.

The term intimate partner violence (IPV) describes the abuse of power by one partner in a dating, common-law, married, or otherwise intimate relationship. This abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional, financial, social, cultural, or a combination of some or all of these.

This form of violence falls under the umbrella term/category of gender-based violence, which is a term used to more broadly encapsulate gendered violence such as sexual violence, human trafficking, rape, assault, stalking, etc. as well as IPV.

This violence can also be referred to as domestic violence and intimate partner abuse. Most often in heterosexual relationships, IPV is perpetrated by men against their female partners, and therefore is sometimes referred to as woman abuse. However, IPV can impact anyone, regardless of their gender or sexuality.

Like all forms of gender-based violence, IPV is rooted in power and control.

Intimate Partner Violence is intentional

The perpetrator uses abuse to gain and maintain power and control over their partner.

They may do this by using physical or sexual force or by threatening to use that force. The abuser wants to control their partner's behavior by creating and weaponizing fear.

Abuse does not occur because the abuser has “lost control.” Most men who abuse women are not violent or abusive to other people. Alcohol use, stress and mental health issues do not cause a man to be an abuser but may trigger or exacerbate an abusive episode. However, these are never excuses or causes of abuse.

The United Nations defines intimate partner violence (IPV) as “a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. Abuse is physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound someone.” (UN).

IPV can happen to anyone and can occur within a range of relationships including marriage, dating, common law, couples living together, etc.

This violence can occur during an intimate relationship, during separation, or after they have separated.

The World Health Organization identifies IPV as a major global public health concern. This is because it impacts millions of people and negatively impacts mental, physical, economic, and social health.

Tactics of abuse

IPV is not usually limited to one act. It is a pattern of behavior, involving a number of tactics. When it happens in an intimate relationship, the violence usually follows a pattern that gets more serious and dangerous over time.

The list below highlights the most common tactics of abuse in intimate relationships. In most situations, people are subjected to a combination of tactics. Whichever tactics an individual abuser uses, the goal is the same: to control their partner through fear, guilt, manipulation, reliance, or any means necessary.

Some tactics of abuse overlap, for example, there may be physical and emotional abuse.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is the most obvious kind of violence, but it is not the most common. It includes physical actions such as:

  • slapping, shoving, punching, strangling, kicking, burning, stabbing and/or shooting
  • using a weapon or other objects to threaten, hurt, or kill
  • Abduction, confinement, or imprisonment

Sexual abuse/assault

Sexual abuse is any form of forced, coerced, or non-consensual sexual or sexualized activity, including:

  • rape/sexual assault
  • molestation or non-consensual intimate touching
  • forcing someone to watch or take part in pornography
  • image-based sexualized violence
  • ridiculing sexual performance or sexual organs
  • using weapons or other objects to penetrate or make sexual contact or threats
  • touching or acting in any sexualized way that a woman/survivor does not want
  • forcing, coercing, or pressuring someone into sexual acts
  • forcing, coercing, or pressuring someone into sex work

Psychological/emotional abuse

Many abuse survivors say they think psychological abuse is worse than physical abuse because it makes them feel humiliated and lose self-confidence. It can be difficult to explain psychological abuse to other people because there are no physical signs of it and the impact of it can last long after the abuse has ended. Psychological or emotional abuse can include:

  • verbal aggression/abuse including insults, belittling, name-calling, or descriptions such as “stupid,” “crazy” or “irrational”
  • stalking or harassing
  • controlling their actions
  • forcing a survivor to do degrading things
  • forcibly confining a survivor
  • engaging in deliberately threatening behaviours (e.g. driving dangerously or playing with weapons)
  • threatening to harm or kill children, other family members, pets, or prized possessions
  • threatening to remove, hide or prevent access to children
  • threatening to have them put in an institution
  • threatening to commit suicide
  • denying affection or personal care
  • taking away a person's mobility device, teletype writer (TTY), medication, hearing aids, or guide dog
  • leaving a person without transportation or any means of communication, especially in isolated or rural communities
  • attacking one's self-esteem in other ways

Social abuse

Social abuse is behaviour that takes place in front of a survivor/victim's family, friends, or co-workers or that is intended to isolate them from those people and can include:

  • putting them down or ignoring them in public
  • not letting them see their friends or family
  • making a scene or embarrassing them when they are with friends, family, or co-workers
  • being charming with others and aggressive with their partner
  • embarrassing them in front of their children, using children as a weapon, not taking responsibility for children
  • placing limits on them about the people with whom they can talk on the phone or visit
  • cutting them off from friends and family

Stalking/harassment

Stalking includes repetitive harassing or threatening actions that make the woman/survivor afraid. A stalker may be trying to get his partner back or may wish to harm her/them as punishment because they left. It can include:

  • harassing them at work
  • repeated phone calls, sometimes with hang-ups
  • following or tracking them
  • using technology to find them
  • watching them with hidden cameras
  • showing up where the woman/survivor is, at home, school, work, in the grocery store, at a movie, or in a restaurant
  • harassing them with unwanted emails, text messages, or through social media
  • sending unwanted packages, flowers, cards, gifts, or letters
  • monitoring their phone calls or computer use
  • contacting their friends, family, co-workers, or neighbours to find out about them
  • going through their garbage
  • threatening to hurt the woman/survivor or their family, friends, or pets
  • damaging their home, car, or property
  • using the children as an excuse to repeatedly contact her or to show up where she/they and the children are (at the children’s school or daycare, at their extracurricular activities)
  • engaging in legal bullying during family court proceedings

Legal bullying

Legal bullying is the use of family law/family court processes to maintain power over and intimidate a woman. It can include:

  • dragging out the proceedings to wear the woman or abuse survivor down emotionally or deplete her/their financial resources
  • refusing to sell the matrimonial home
  • delaying providing financial disclosure
  • appearing charming and conciliatory to the judge or other legal personnel and denying the abuse, raising questions about the credibility of the survivor’s story
  • not allowing children to call home on access visits
  • acting as his own lawyer
  • making repeated motions over minor or inappropriate issues
  • using intimidation and threats if the woman/survivor doesn’t agree to financial arrangements that the abuser wants
  • pressuring her to accept mediation and joint custody arrangements or to trade away some legal rights (e.g. the right to property or financial support) in exchange for others (e.g. custody of the children)
  • contacting the woman/survivor out of court, claiming it is to talk about the case
  • threatening to obtain sole custody of the children if she insists on leaving
  • making malicious reports to the court and other officials (child protection authorities, police, housing personnel, Ontario Works, etc.) about the woman
  • threatening harm or death if the woman/survivor pursues legal proceedings
  • using stalking behaviours (property damage, excessive phone calls, phone threats and verbal abuse, phoning and hanging up, etc.), particularly if the woman/survivor takes a stand against what the perpetrator wants
  • attempting to interfere in the professional relationship a woman has with her lawyer in an effort to reduce her confidence in her own lawyer
  • if he has been criminally charged, pressuring her to change bail conditions or to try to have the charges dropped
  • having her charged by the police

Immigrant abuse

Sponsored immigrant and refugee women as well as women who are in Canada with no legal status are especially vulnerable to abusive relationships. Some common tactics of abuse include:

  • threatening to have a woman/survivor deported
  • threatening to withdraw sponsorship
  • threatening to report her to the authorities
  • misinforming them about their legal status or the status of the immigration/refugee case
  • threatening to remove financial support
  • interfering with her ability to learn about Canadian laws, her legal rights, and services that may be available to her
  • preventing her from attending ASL classes
  • telling her he will get custody of the children
  • threatening to remove the children from Canada
  • controlling her access to her passport or immigration papers
  • isolating her from her cultural, religious, or linguistic community
  • threatening to harm her family in the country of origin

Economic abuse

Economic abuse includes any act or behaviour that gives the abuser control of financial resources or maintains a woman/survivor's financial dependence. It can include the following:

  • withholding money for basic necessities (e.g. food, clothing, diapers, medication, transportation, etc.) or for emergencies
  • forcing her to pay a disproportionate share of household expenses
  • preventing a woman from getting to work, controlling where she works, not allowing a woman to work, forcing her to work
  • spending or mismanaging family income, including a woman’s earned income and/or savings, and leaving her and the children with little or no money
  • controlling a woman’s spending, including where purchases are made, what is purchased, etc. and forcing her to account for and justify all spending
  • using credit cards without her permission and destroying her credit rating
  • obtaining credit or incurring bills in her name without her knowledge or consent
  • forcing her to turn over benefit payments or entitlements
  • denying access to education/training opportunities that may lead to increased earnings or employment
  • threatening to make false allegations about fraud to Ontario Works

Spiritual abuse

Some abusers use a woman/survivor's spiritual or religious beliefs to control them. This could include:

  • punishing or ridiculing a woman/survivor for her religious beliefs
  • preventing a woman/survivor from practicing her religious beliefs or engaging in religious practices
  • forcing a woman/survivor to practice certain beliefs and engage in rituals
  • putting down or attacking her spiritual beliefs
  • preventing a woman/survivor from going to church, synagogue, temple, mosque, or other religious institution of her choice
  • forcing a woman/survivor to join and/or stay in a cult

Homophobic control/transphobic control

The abuser exploits societal homophobia/transphobia and the woman/survivor's possible internalized anxieties about their sexual orientation/gender identity to further control them by:

  • exploiting societal heteronormativity and homophobia/transphobia
  • Denies their partner access to medical treatment or hormones
  • threatening to “out” them to family, friends, employer, police, church or community
  • questioning or belittling their sexual orientation/gender identity
  • threatening to take custody because of their sexual orientation/gender identity
  • making homophobic/transphobic comments to the children
  • threatening their new partner
  • reporting them to child protection authorities for being unfit because of their sexual orientation/gender identity
  • misgendering or “deadnaming” their partner

To learn more about power and control, please look at The Power and Control Wheel is based on the Duluth Model and used with permission from Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs.

Learn about Technological Abuse elsewhere on this website.