What Does Domestic Violence Look Like?

By Elizabeth Abdur-Raheem*, MS, MBA

The Numbers

The statistics about domestic violence (DV) in the United States are genuinely frightening: 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner.1 Here in Nevada, the statistics are even more dire. The 2019 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey ranked Nevada second in the country for lifetime instances of intimate partner violence (IPV) affecting 43.8% of women and 32.8% of men.2 Nevada law enforcement investigated 29,386 DV cases in 2022.3 For example, on a single Thursday day last September, advocates staffing DV hotlines around the state took an average of five calls an hour from victim-survivors requesting help.4  

A True Story 

But what do all these numbers actually mean on a human level? Individual stories of DV are extremely personal and seldom conform to the old stereotype of the “battered wife” who wears sunglasses to keep neighbors from gossiping about her black eye. It may be useful to look at one real life example of DV. 

I met Alena (not her real name) when she called a hotline several years ago. Five years before, Alena was about to start graduate school for nursing on a student visa when she met a man offering to save her money by becoming roommates. The relationship became romantic and he promised to help Alena get a green card while taking control of her grant money and encouraging her to take a break from school. Since then, this confident, intelligent woman with dreams of a medical career became quiet and fearful. Having never re-enrolled in school Alena was now  illegally in the country. She spent her days cooking and cleaning; unable to leave without permission; suffering incidents of rage; threats of deportation; being left stranded with no money and no phone; and friends were forbidden. After the first year he rarely hit her – there was no need, his control was already cemented. Even though warned by her boyfriend’s father of his abusive nature, she was terrified to reach out for help due to her immigrant status and felt she wasn’t worthy of help. Somehow she found the local DV hotline number, and one day took the risk to call. 

While this is only one example of the complexity of DV, it does illustrate many of the dynamics of abuse. The first thing this example makes glaringly evident is also often the most misunderstood. Physical abuse is not the overriding characteristic of DV. Abusers seek to take power and control over their victims and can do so even without or seldom using physical violence. It is not uncommon for weeks, months or even years to pass in an abusive relationship during which there has been no physical violence. For this reason, the federal government recently expanded its definition of DV in the 2022 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).  Language stating that DV is a “crime of violence” has been removed and replaced with “the use or attempted use of physical abuse or sexual abuse, or a pattern of any coercive behavior committed, enabled, or solicited to gain or maintain power and control over a victim, including verbal, psychological, economic, or technological abuse that may or may not constitute criminal behavior”.5  This is especially important in that it ensures victim-survivors of DV like Alena no longer have to prove arbitrary level of physical injury and suffering to be eligible for federally funded services. 

DV is not solely physical abuse, it includes other tactics abusers use to gain and maintain power and control. While physical abuse has a clear prognosis and treatment, other abuses may be far more difficult to counteract. Alena was living in a web of emotional, psychological, technological, and financial abuse, and likely sexual abuse. Emotional abuse is the cutting down of self-worth or self-esteem and an especially effective way of maintaining control. Psychological abuse includes threats of harm to themselves, pets, family, or even that abuser will commit suicide (deportation threat for Alena). Technology abuse includes monitoring of phone/internet. Financial abuse is prevalent in nearly all DV and typically results in life-long consequences as abusers take control of victim’s finances, denying educational and work opportunities. Oftentimes, abusers destroy/ruin victim’s credit scores, and accumulate large amounts of debt. Just as Alena didn’t, many DV victim-survivors do not consider themselves to have experienced sexual abuse, even though being in a relationship is not a form of consent for all sexual activity.

The children

DV becomes even more complicated when there are children involved. Abusers emotionally manipulate children and use the parental relationship to further emotionally manipulate their primary victims.  Victim-survivors are often conflicted about how to best protect their children citing fear for their children’s safety and mental health as both a primary reason to stay or leave an abusive relationship. Witnessing DV has been identified as one of the 10 primary Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that can negatively impact a child’s health and wellbeing later in life.6 Victim-survivors who have children with their abusers may find it impossible to ever truly leave the relationship as they are often legally obligated to co-parent. Court systems and judges commonly facilitate continuation of the abuse.  

Alena’s story is fortunate and uncommon: she called the hotline when her abuser was at work and a rideshare was sent to her on the shelter’s account under a fictitious name. She took her vital documents but left her phone so the abuser could not contact her. Without friends or family nearby there was no one for him to pressure for information.  

It is rare for a victim-survivor to be able to make this clean break. Abusers who are losing power and control are much more likely to lean into physical violence. Leaving is statistically the most dangerous time in a DV relationship. Victim-survivors face a 75% increase in violence in the two-years immediately after the leave and 75% of DV victims killed are killed when they leave.7 It is essential that victims preparing to leave an abusive relationship have support and a safety plan.  

Who else?

For all the ways one example can help illuminate the story of DV there are just as many variables left out. DV occurs across all genders and sexual orientations. The dynamics of DV in the LGTBQIA+ community include the added power to out someone without their consent. DV within historically oppressed and underserved BIPOC communities intersects with the complex relationship between these communities, the police and social service providers. Finally, our national conversation about the rights of gun ownership cannot leave out the deadly consequences when guns are in the hands of abusers. In order to truly combat DV, we, as a society, must be willing to look unflinchingly at the dynamics that create it, the damage caused on an individual and community level, and the resources we are willing to invest in prevention and healing. Perhaps then we will see the frightening statistics start to turn around.

*Elizabeth Abdur-Raheem is the Executive Director of the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence (NCEDSV). Elizabeth has devoted her career to building healthy communities in which everyone is safe and included.  Prior to coming to Nevada in January 2023, she spent over twenty years directing front-line service programs supporting individuals and families experiencing homelessness and domestic violence in New York City and Columbus, Ohio.  Elizabeth holds an MBA and a MS in Nonprofit Management. 


1. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Domestic Violence National Fact Sheet. 2023. From https://assets.speakcdn.com/assets/2497/domestic_violence-2020080709350855.pdf?1596828650457

2.  National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. The national intimate partner and sexual violence survey: 2010-2012 State Report. 2019. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/NISVS-StateReportBook.pdf.

3. Nevada Crime Statistics. Domestic and Elderly Crimes 2022.  2023. From https://nevadacrimestats.nv.gov/tops/report/domestic-and-elderly-crimes/nevada/2022

4. National Network to End Domestic Violence. 17th Annual Domestic Violence Counts Report. Washington, DC. 2023. From nnedv.org/content/domestic-violence-counts-17th-annual.

5. Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2022.  34 USC 12291:  Definitions and grant provisions.  Retrieved from:  http://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=(title:34%20section:12291%20edition:prelim)

6. National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness.  Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). From eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/trauma-aces.pdf.  

7. The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness.  Barriers to Leaving an Abusive Relationship. 2023. From  stoprelationshipabuse.org/educated/barriers-to-leaving-an-abusive-relationship

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