Domestic violence rarely comes to the general public’s attention. Women’s groups express outrage, but the issue quickly disappears again until a new study is released or a public figure is accused of beating his partner. There are, however, individuals who endure abuse for whom the issue does not disappear, does not come in spurts, and it cannot be predicted. There is no strict pattern to this type of violence, it may come at any time for any reason. Women in these relationships live in fear because, whatever the issue, she will always be punished for his anger.

For too long, the issue of domestic violence has been ignored by those who possess the power to make a difference. It is only recently that we have begun to understand how serious this issue is and how often abuse occurs behind the closed doors of Canadian homes. Due to the nature of domestic abuse, it often goes unreported and therefore precise statistics are unavailable in determining the number of women who suffer from this type of violence. Whatever the numbers; too many Canadians  fall victim to domestic violence.

Terms and Language Used

Domestic violence is not a gender specific term. That said, the majority of people who are abused by their partners are women. Women are three times more likely than men to be physically injured by domestic violence, and five times more likely to need medical attention. The majority of abusers are men. This does not mean that men cannot be victims of abuse and women cannot be the abusers. These situations, though less common, exist as well. However, due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of victims are female, the focus of this article will be on women who are victims of domestic violence.

Domestic violence refers to violent or aggressive behaviour within a relationship that occurs between partners. Domestic violence is mosre often found in husband-wife relationships, but can also refer to dating relationships, common-law relationships, same sex relationships, or relationships in which two people live together. All of these scenarios are considered ‘domestic violence’. Domestic abuse falls under three categories: 1) Physical violence, 2) Sexual assault, and 3) Emotional abuse.


Legislation concerning violence against women has improved dramatically over the past 100 years. Although many argue that today’s laws still do not provide the protection that women need, important steps have been taken towards the safety and protection of abused women. A man abusing his wife was once a common occurrence, indeed, even endorsed by the Church as a means to correct the wife’s faults. In the eighteenth-century, British Common Law allowed a husband the right to discipline his wife with “a stick no bigger than his thumb” if she disobeyed his wishes. Although shelter was available for these women in convents, women had no right to defend themselves or complain. It was not until 1983 that legislation in Canada was changed so that sexually assaulting one’s wife was considered to be a crime. Before these changes, a wife was legally considered to be the sexual property of her husband.

The way in which domestic abuse situations have been handled by the police services has improved immensely since the 1980’s. Previous to the 1980’s, police services would demand the victim lay charges on the accused abuser. However it was extremely uncommon for the victim of abuse to lay charges. There are many reasons for a woman not to lay charges on her abuser, the most common being the fear of retaliation. Today it is up to the police or the Crown attorney to lay charges. Further, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have employed a pro-arrest policy; if there is reasonable and probable grounds that domestic violence has occurred, the RCMP have to make a mandatory arrest.

In the early 1980s, “no-drop” policies were introduced in Canada which were designed to counter the idea that domestic violence was a private matter. The “no drop” policy was adopted in the hopes that more women would follow through with the charges, which would result in more convictions. Previous to this policy, many charges were dropped prior to the trial. In short, the “no-drop” policy encourages the victim to go through with the laying of charges by making it impossible for charges to be dropped, even if the victim does not show up to testify in court.

Physical assault and sexual assault are the most common charges in cases of domestic violence. The levels of assault and the punishments vary; common assault can result in a maximum 5 year sentence, assault with a weapon can result in a maximum 10 year sentence, and aggravated assault can result in a maximum 14 year sentence. Sexual assault charges also vary; sexual assault can result in a maximum 10 year sentence, sexual assault with a weapon, threats to a third party, or causing bodily harm can result in a maximum 14 years sentence, and aggravated sexual assault can result in a maximum life sentence.

Stalking is a common behaviour in many domestic violence situations and frequently occurs following a separation. The Criminal Code prohibits stalking behaviour under criminal harassment. Prohibited behaviours under this section include: repeated following of the person or anyone close to them, repeated contact with the person or anyone close to them, watching a dwelling or area that the person is known to frequent, and any threatening conduct directed at the individual and/or their family members. The maximum sentence for criminal harassment is 10 years.

Peace Bonds

A person who has been abused has the right to obtain a “peace bond” against their partner to prevent their abuser from communicating with or being around them. It is important to note that peace bonds are preventative measures, not punitive ones, and require the spouse or partner to “keep the peace and be of good behaviour” along with any other conditions that the court imposes. These other conditions may include prohibitions against being within a certain distance of the woman, or against the possession of weapons. If the abuser does not follow these conditions, he may be arrested for breaching the order. A peace bond is only valid for up to 1 year, however it may be renewed by police in an application to the court. To obtain a peace bond, an individual must go to the local court house to see a justice of the peace. Once the circumstances have been explained the victim can be issued with a peace bond. A lawyer is not needed to obtain a peace bond. (See No Contact Orders for more information.)

Restraining Orders

Another option for victims of abuse is a “restraining order.”  A restraining order is meant to keep the abuser from harassing the victim. These orders are civil, not criminal, and therefore police effectiveness in enforcing them is often an issue. It is recommended to have a lawyer when applying for a restraining order due to the difficulty of the process and the paperwork involved. A lawyer may also be able to present your case more effectively. (See No Contact Orders for more information.)

The Cycle of Violence

The violence that abused women experience is unpredictable. It is not normally consistent and can come in a variety of forms, from verbal intimidation to sexual assault. No two women are abused in the same manner but experts have been able to recognize a pattern which abuse tends to follow. The cycle of violence is made up of three phases:

  1. The tension building phase – In this phase the abuser grows increasingly angry. There is a lack of communication and the victim is subjected to minor abuse including slaps, verbal abuse, or shoving. Many women suffer this minor abuse in an attempt to prevent the abuse from escalating; she feels as if she is ‘walking on eggshells’ and tries her best to keep her partner calm.
  2. The acute battering phase – In this phase the violence that has been building up peaks and explodes; this is when the abuse occurs. Abuse may occur in any form: physical such as punching and hitting, sexual assault, and even strong emotional and verbal abuse. It is at this stage that the police usually become involved.
  3. The honeymoon phase – In this phase the abuser recognizes the damage that has been done. The abuser feels guilty at the harm done and apologizes and may even assist in getting the victim medical attention. The abuser promises that it will never happen again and the victim often fools herself into believing that it won’t, even though he may have promised this before.

Why Do Women Stay?

This is the most common question asked in terms of domestic violence, but the answer is very complex. A more appropriate question would be ‘why does domestic violence occur’? These men seem to be capable of controlling their anger in their work environments and in public. He doesn’t abuse the waitress when his meal is slow to come, so why does he abuse his partner – someone he claims to love and care for? There are a number of reasons that victims stay, most of which are based on inequality, both in the home and in society.

The most obvious reason is fear. It is not uncommon for the abuser to threaten their victim with death or more harm if they try to leave. 38% of women who suffer from domestic violence fear for their lives. Studies have also shown that leaving an abusive partner can be one of the most dangerous things a woman can do.

A second reason for staying is that the woman has nowhere to go. Even today, it is not uncommon for women to stay at home and look after the children and household chores. Many women in today’s society work, but men are still the main ‘breadwinners’. Some women are completely dependent on their partner’s income and don’t have the funds or resources to be able to leave. This becomes even more of an issue if children are involved.  Women’s shelters across Canada are scarce and often full; it is estimated that in 2008 more than 101,000 women were admitted into a Canadian shelter. However, even if a woman finds a spot at one of these shelters, it is only a temporary fix.

Some women stay because they truly love their partner and will do whatever they can to make the relationship work. She may believe that he will stop and change or she may actually believe that the abuse is really is her fault. However, if violence happens once, it will likely happen again. The violence is the responsibility of the abuser, not the victim, and it is never the victim’s fault.

One popular theory is that of learned helplessness; which recognizes the unpredictability of the abuser’s actions. Because of this unpredictability, women often stay in an abusive relationship because it is familiar to them – leaving would be too far outside of their ‘comfort zone’. These feelings of familiarity are what influence the woman’s decision to stay with her abusive partner.

Why Does Domestic Violence Occur?

There is no simple and clear reason why some people abuse their partners. There are several factors involved, including having witnessed or experienced violence as a child. The abuser’s feelings and low opinion of themselves may also be an influence – abusing their partner may make them feel stronger and more confident. Fear of losing their partner may be another cause, they may be unable to cope with the idea of them gaining independence and resort to scaring them into staying. Alcohol is also a common factor in domestic violence.

The home also acts as a safe haven in which the abuser believes he can get away with whatever he wants. He is unable to punch his boss or waitress – the ramifications would be too large. So instead he takes his anger out on his wife, behind closed doors, where the chances of being punished are slim. The decision to act with violence is one that can be controlled. The abuser is responsible for his actions and cannot blame a loss of control. He does it because he can.

Domestic Abuse as a Form of Child Abuse

Domestic violence is disturbing for anyone to witness and can have profound negative effects on children, both in childhood as well as throughout their lives. Some consider domestic violence to be a form a child abuse because of the impact that it will have on their lives. Over 85% of children in abusive situations actually see the abuse. Domestic violence has the disturbing tendency to become a family cycle. Men who as children witnessed their father beating their mother are three times more likely to be abusive towards their own wives. Sons of the most violent domestic abusers are 1,000 times more likely to be abusive to their partners. Women who witnessed their mothers being abused are more likely to end up in an abusive relationship than women who did not witness their mothers being abused.

Children who witness domestic violence show the emotional scars while they are still young as well. Approximately 43% of men who beat their wives also abuse their children. For girls, parental abuse usually leads to very low self-esteem. Boys and girls may develop aggressive tendencies and behavioural problems and may experience feelings of anxiety, guilt, depression, fear, and overall unhappiness.

Response of the Police

The police response to domestic violence has changed drastically over time. In the past, police were unable to make an arrest unless they actually witnessed the violence, and police were often unwilling to become involved because they believed that it was a ‘private matter’. Today police are required, due to the implementation of pro-arrest policies, to make an arrest if they believe on reasonable and probable grounds that violence has occurred. When an incident of domestic violence has been reported to the police, it is assumed that several assaults have already occurred in the relationship. This has led to the adoption of a mandatory arrest policy in domestic violence situations. Almost half of the women who report spousal abuse to the police report that the violence has stopped after police intervention. However, only about 36% of female victims ever go to the police.

Canadian police forces also provide special training to their officers on how to deal with domestic violence situations. A large component of this training is education on domestic violence itself, this helps to better educate officers on the reality of domestic abuse and hopefully diminish any assumptions or the officer may have had previously.

The Response of the Justice System

The Canadian justice system has also seen important changes pertaining to domestic violence. Similar to the mandatory arrest policy of the police, Crown prosecutors are required to proceed with all domestic violence cases so long as a reasonable likelihood of conviction exists. However, this can be difficult for the Crown attorney if the victim is unwilling and uncooperative. If a victim refuses to testify, the crown attorney can lose the case and the victim may be held in contempt of court.

Time is also a problem. The average case takes months to go to trial, which results in numerous withdrawn cases. While most judges have some knowledge of the legal peculiarities surrounding domestic violence, others may seem unsympathetic to a victim’s issues. To cope with these problems, some of Canada’s provinces and territories have developed Domestic Violence Courts, which consist of specialized teams of police, crown attorneys, victim/witness program staff, probation services, partner assault staff, and other community agencies. These professionals specialize in domestic violence and can better address its peculiar challenges. Domestic violence courts have a specialized program for domestic violence cases which aims to deal with offenders as well as provide a safe haven and support for the victims. In Ontario, there is a domestic violence court in every jurisdiction.

Programs for Domestic Violence Offenders

It is important for offenders of domestic violence to get help, as it will benefit them and anyone with whom they will ever have a relationship. The best start is for counselling services to direct the abuser to a treatment program, which exist across Canada. Different programs are available for abusive men but most of them focus on similar themes including anger management, proper communication skills, and changing sexist attitudes and perspectives. Treatment programs also help men cope with independent women and, most importantly, make sure that men understand that the choice to be abusive is theirs and that their actions are controllable. Success rates for these treatments are unknown, however it can be said that the men who take the initiative to participate in these programs have a higher chance of stopping their violent behaviour than those men who do not participate in treatment.

Victims of Abuse Who Kill

Occasionally, out of fear for their own lives or for the lives of their children, some victims of abuse kill their partners. This is done as a last resort, when victims believe it is the only thing they can do to protect themselves. Now, if a victim kills while their life is in imminent danger – if they are being assaulted and stab their abuser – then the law would most likely accept this action as valid self defence. There is legal confusion, however, when victims of abuse don’t kill their partners in the ‘heat of the moment’, but at a later time while they are sleeping (R. v. Whynot) or walking away (R. v. Lavalee).

R. v. Whynot: Jane Whynot shot her husband Billy Stafford in the head as he slept in their truck. He died as a result of these injuries. She was acquitted at her original trial, but after the Crown appealed, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served 6 months in prison. At her original trial, she pleaded self defense. Her husband had been brutally violent to her throughout their marriage. The night of his death, he had made threats about killing her son. She believed the threats, and she killed him to protect her son. The appeal court found that self-defence should not have been considered as she was not being assaulted at the time of the shooting – there was no immediate danger.

In R. v. Lavallee: Lavallee shot her partner, Kevin Rust, who she had been living with for 3 years, in the back of the head as he was walking away from her. He had a history of beating her, and that night he had threatened to kill her after their guests were gone. He told her that if she did not kill him, he would kill her. She believed him and she killed him. The court allowed an expert witness to testify as to her state of mind. Using Walker’s “Battered Woman Syndrome” (which includes the cycle of violence and learned helplessness theories), the witness explained that because of her prolonged abuse, Lavellee honestly and reasonably believed that her partner was going to kill her later that night. It was a desperate act of survival. She was acquitted at her original trial, the court of appeal overturned the acquittal; the Supreme Court restored it. The Supreme Court’s recognition of the “battered woman’s defence” was a significant victory for abused women.

Male Victims of Domestic Violence

Husband or male abuse is often referred to as “the hidden side of domestic violence”. Little information exists on male battering for numerous reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that it is less common than female battering. This does not mean that it does not occur, but rather that it is less likely to occur and even less likely to be reported. Very few men report the abuse out of embarrassment or for fear of not being believed. Men are stereotypically the abusers and many people find it difficult to see them as the victim.

Battered men do not face all the same difficulties as battered women; they tend to be able to financially support themselves and don’t tend to be the primary caregivers of their children. Men, however, face other difficulties. It is more difficult for an abused man to get help due to the stereotype that men are the abusers. Society’s ideal image of a man is a strong and independent individual who is able to take care of himself. Battered men run so counter to this image that they can feel tremendous shame and believe that society looks down upon them. Many believe that a woman could not possibly hurt a man as much as he could hurt her. Battered men have the ability to defend themselves, but do not out of fear of hurting their partner or being charged with abuse themselves. Although men are not normally injured as severely as women, it is important to realize that abusive women can be equally violent; 7% of men in abusive relationships fear for their lives. There may not be as much information on battered males as on battered women, but there is no doubt that there are abused men who are in need of help and protection.

Criticisms and Proposals

Despite changes in the police force, criminal code, and judicial system, there are still criticisms about the lack of help and protection available to victims of domestic abuse. Education has played a fundamental role in public understanding of domestic violence, and has helped police officers, Cown attorneys, and judges to be able to empathize with victims. It is important that this type of education continue and reach a wider audience so that anyone can help a victim.

The system still has problems; court waits are too long, there is not enough room in shelters, and questions about what to do when victims of domestic violence refuse to testify remain unanswered. Does the mandatory processing directive actually help these women, or does it only work to take away their choice and control? Opinions vary greatly on these matters, and the balance is still being struck.


Domestic abuse is a serious problem in society. It is pervasive and occurs across all ethnic, racial, religious, age, and economic groups – anyone can be affected. Changes made in the past few years represent huge steps in the right direction; however there is still work to be done. People need to be educated, questions need to be answered, attitudes need to be changed, and victims need to be assisted. Although domestic violence remains a reality, the rates of abused women are decreasing. This proves that it can be stopped; domestic violence can be and must be prevented.


Last modified: October 5, 2016

Canadian Criminal Code, 2015.

Canadian Women’s Foundation. “The Facts About Violence Against Women.”

Department of Justice. “A Handbook for Police and Crown Prosecutors on Criminal Harassment.

Public Health Agency of Canada. “The Family Violence Initiative.”

Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “Spousal and Partner Abuse – It Can Be Stopped.”

Statistics Canada. “Residents of Canada’s Shelters for Abused Women, 2008”.