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  • Stephanie Hormig

What is Domestic Abuse? / Part 1

Updated: Apr 11, 2021

The Real Definition of Domestic Abuse


When I tell people I’m an advocate for survivors of domestic violence, I get very “interesting responses.” I’ve been in this field for over six years, and I talk to a lot of people every single day. So, by now, I’ve heard just about every “response” there is to hear. 

To be fair, most people are sympathetic towards DV victims and my work. But, to be honest, just because someone’s an ally, doesn’t automatically wipe away any cliches, stereotypes, and hidden biases they may be holding onto. 


Many allies still assume that domestic abuse is one (and only one thing): physical abuse.

They hold onto the false story that to be a DV victim you must have been beaten. 

Yes, physical abuse is a part of many domestic abuse survivors’ stories. But, this fact is taken to an extreme in our culture to create this false story that DV is only physical abuse.  

And this false story does more damage than any punch could ever do because the subtext is that if you don’t have a black eye, broken bone, or bruises, you are not a domestic abuse survivor. 

This false story has been used by police to overlook charges, by friends and family to ignore warning signs, and (most insidiously) by a victim to dismiss their own pain and not believe themselves. 

When this happens, a victim may not even seek help from anyone because thoughts like “Oh it’s not that bad,” “I’m over reacting,” or “Everyone will think I’m overreacting” stop victims of DV from speaking up and asking for help. 

But when we tear down this false story, we can all more clearly see the warning signs of domestic abuse. And when we sign the signs, then we can step in to help before these warnings escalate to broken bones and black eyes.


Using power to control another human being is domestic abuse.

The type of power used to control someone can take many forms such as 

  • physical, 

  • Verbal,

  • Sexual,

  • Financial,

  • Emotional, and 

  • Social. 

I’ve found that everyone gets the connection between physical power and control. We can all see how the scenario of “Do what I want or I’ll hit you” fits into the definition of domestic abuse, how physical power can be used to control another person. 

Where I’ve found people can’t as clearly see the connection is how other forms of power can be used to control someone.

For instance, let’s look at financial power. Instead of using physical force to control someone, imagine this scenario within an adult relationship: “Do what I want or I’ll block your debit card.” Doesn’t sound that bad on the surface. (It doesn’t sound great but it sure doesn’t seem at the same level as getting a black eye, right?) Well, let’s look deeper into this scenario. 

For instance, imagine, even though you have your own car, you can’t go anywhere because - with a blocked debit card - you can’t pay for gas.

Now, imagine all the little things you buy everyday from gas to GrubHub to Netflix.

Now, imagine having all of those taken away from you. And now, imagine how you’d feel having to ask (much less having to beg someone) to buy all those things for you.

I know I’d feel pretty lousy. Of course I wouldn’t want to get hit but I would feel just as degraded and humiliated and hurt if I had to ask permission just to watch Netflix. And to be honest, I could see myself giving in to their demands to avoid that kind of pain.


When we expand our collective idea of what is and is not domestic abuse, we save lives.

Really, we do.

With an expanded definition, when your friend asks you to grab the tab because their partner took away their debit card,  instead of thinking - “that’s odd,” “talk about a control freak,” or “I guess if that works for them,” - you can recognize that your friend may need your help in more ways than just covering pizza. 

Right now though, these types of warning signs fall through the cracks, slip past our awareness, and stay covered up by social politeness. And the people in those abusive relationships never get the help they need, the help they deserve as a fellow human being. 

For me personally, I cannot stand the thought of a person being abused and me unwittingly turning my back on them just because they didn’t match what I “thought” they should be.


I’ve been doing this work for over six years. I’ve talked to thousands of people, and something I’ve learned is that 99% of all people really do want to help each other. It’s just that most don’t even know that someone else needs help. 

Because without questioning or without really fact checking, so many people just take on and internalize the stories, ideas, and ways of thinking that get handed down to them from their home life, local culture, and society. 

And this narrow definition that domestic abuse is only physical violence is one of those stories that gets passed down the line. But it’s a story that does so much damage because it strikes under the surface and in between the social cracks. 

But there is a way to stop this story dead in its tracks. There’s a way to stop it’s path of destruction right now. 

You and me and all of us have to defy. 

We have to defy the norms, defy the hand-me-down thinking.

When we individually and collectively defy this narrow idea of domestic abuse and expand our definition of what is and is not DV, we can help people right now. 

When we defy like this, we can now see those around us who need our help. We can see the friend, co-worker, family member, (and even church member or gym buddy) who may need our help right now, today. 

But when you restrict domestic abuse to this tiny box, you overlook the need standing right in front of you. 

Like I said, I know I can’t stand the thought of turning away from someone like that, of turning my back on someone in front of me who needs help. So, (it’s not easy but) I choose to defy the norms of my own thinking because I care more about helping people than about being “right.” 

And with my years of experience, with knowing what I know about people, I bet you feel the same way.

So, please, change the story in your h