The terms “violence” and “abuse” are often used interchangeably, but there’s a difference between the two. Violence may refer to one-off acts, while abuse usually refers to a prolonged pattern of behavior where one person tries to control another.
Violent acts can be a part of an abusive pattern, and the terms “domestic violence” and “domestic abuse” are often used to describe the same thing. However, an act of violence can occur outside of an abusive pattern.
For example, a stranger may suddenly approach you and hit you but then never contact you again. While this is an act of violence, it’s not necessarily part of an abusive pattern, so you might not describe it as abuse.
Depending on where you are in the world, the law might distinguish between violence and abuse. This can affect which interventions, protections, and services are available to individuals experiencing these harmful behaviors.
With that said, if you experience violence or abuse, it’s OK to describe it using either term. How you articulate your experience is up to you. Whether you’ve been abused or experienced violence, it’s not your fault, and you deserve to feel safe.
These concepts overlap significantly. Both have to do with harming other people.
It’s a square and rectangle situation: All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Similarly, all acts of abuse may be considered violent, but not every instance of violence is part of a pattern of abuse.
This confusion can be further complicated by legal interpretations, which vary across jurisdictions.
In the United States, some states use the terms interchangeably, while others have separate definitions for violence and abuse, especially in family law and intimate partner cases.
The terms “intimate partner violence” and “intimate partner abuse” are often used interchangeably, as are the terms “domestic violence” and “domestic abuse.”
Violence is typically defined as the use of physical force intended to cause harm, damage, or kill. However, violence may also be sexual in nature. People may also use the word “violence” to refer more generally to acts that harm others.
“Violence” may be used to refer to one-off or sporadic acts, while “abuse” usually refers to long-term patterns of behavior.
There are instances where violence isn’t necessarily a part of abuse. For example, a random shooting is considered gun violence, but it isn’t necessarily part of a pattern of abuse (although it may be).
Likewise, the victim of abuse may do something violent toward their abuser — such as hurting them in self-defense — but that doesn’t mean they’re “as abusive” as the other person.
Abuse typically involves behavior intended to control, manipulate, or gain power over another person. As such, abusive behavior is usually a part of a pattern.
Whether abusers are conscious of it or not, their behavior is often about maintaining power and control over another person. This leads to ongoing harm and distress.
If somebody has been violent toward you but you’re not sure whether it could be characterized as abuse, you may pause and ask yourself whether the distinction matters in your case.
When people hurt you, you don’t need to wait and see whether it’s part of an ongoing pattern. You deserve to be safe.
Trust your instincts if you think someone has been violent or abusive toward you. After recognizing violence or abuse, you can decide what to do. This will, of course, depend on your unique circumstances.
Here are some pointers:
- It’s not your job to “fix” your abuser: Reasoning with an abuser is unlikely to work. Even if they’re genuinely remorseful, it’s up to them to fix their behavior — and you don’t have to put yourself in harm’s way while they work on it. You are not responsible for their behavior.
- Try to set boundaries wherever possible: This can look like saying, “If you call me names, I’ll no longer engage in this conversation,” or “If you degrade me in front of your friends, I’ll go home.” This is not about setting ultimatums but setting expectations for how you’ll act when they mistreat you.
- Limit exposure to your abuser: Depending on your relationship with them, this can be complicated. If you have to work with them, see if you can schedule different shifts or move to a different team. If you live with them, the abuse will likely not stop until you leave. Consider creating a safety plan and finding support so that you can leave safely.
Dealing with abusive people can be challenging, to say the least. But you don’t have to do it alone.
If possible, confide in trusted loved ones about what you’re experiencing. Support groups, abuse hotlines, and working with counselors may also be helpful.
Learning more about abuse can help you understand the nature of abuse and heal from the experience.
The following articles may be helpful:
- Domestic Violence Resource Guide
- What Is Domestic Violence? Learn the Signs and How to Get Help Now
- What Is Verbal Abuse? How to Recognize Abusive Behavior and What to Do Next
- What Are the Short- and Long-Term Effects of Emotional Abuse?
- Mental Heath Resources
You can find assistance using the following resources:
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 (SAFE)) is a free, confidential advice line. Their website also has a wealth of useful resources.
- National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-4673 (HOPE)) offers free and confidential support.
- The Family Justice Center Alliance offers useful resources on family and domestic abuse
- Safe Horizon can help you find a local domestic violence shelter.
- DomesticShelters.org also has a hotline. They can help you find shelters and other resources near you.
- The Love Is Respect (National Dating Abuse Hotline) can be a source of support, and you can chat online, call, or text with advocates.
While leaving an abusive person can be challenging, it is possible. You deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. If you need support, reach out for help at any of the above resources.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.