Chapter 4: What is Relationship Violence?

Balbir Gurm

Key Messages

  • Relationship violence (RV) has no standard definition.
  • It is broadly defined as any abuse within a relationship and is massively underreported.
  • RV is also known as domestic violence, intimate partner violence, interpersonal violence, spousal abuse, elder abuse, bullying, social control, coercion, dating violence, workplace violence, female genital mutilation, etc.
  • The key distinction between RV and other forms of violence is that it occurs between people who know each other and there is usually an interplay of multiple impacts such as taken for granted inequalities, policies and practices that accept sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and ageism
  • Subcategories of RV including physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, spiritual abuse, etc.
  • RV may be experienced in-utero and across the life span. It may be experienced inside the home, workplace, school, community and online.
  • RV impacts all ages and genders.
  • If RV is experienced by one of the parents at home, children and youth may also be victims of child abuse and/or neglect.
  • RV impacts Indigenous women and girls, significantly.
  • Check out the Community Champion’s Toolkit for more tips and resources (NEVR, n.d.).

What is Relationship Violence (RV)?


The understanding of violence and its consequences are critical topics in public health. Violence is a multifaceted phenomenon; it can occur among any age, gender, ethnicity, social and economic status. Also, violence has different types of offenders, such as familiar and unfamiliar individuals, governments and systems. This book discusses violence that happens between people who know each other, and the relationship involves some form of power and control that results from an interplay between the individual and the socio-environment and taken for granted systemic practices. We chose the term relationship violence (RV) to describe this phenomenon.

Relationship violence is a major human rights violation and a public health concern with serious long-term physical and mental health consequences. Also, RV has significant social and public health costs. It increases the risk of health problems in multiple human body systems, including the nervous, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, reproductive, musculoskeletal, immune and endocrine systems resulting in multiple physical conditions (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2019; Hines & Douglas, 2015; Ulloa & Hammet, 2016; ). It is also related to many psychological conditions such as PTSD and drug use (Cameranesi et al., 2019; Prangnell et al., 2020). 

Relationship Violence Definition

Relationship violence is any form of physical, emotional, spiritual and financial abuse, negative social control or coercion that is suffered by anyone who has a bond or relationship with the offender.  In the literature, we find words such as intimate partner violence (IPV), interpersonal violence (IVP), neglect, dating violence, family violence, battery, child neglect, child abuse, bullying, seniors or elder abuse, stalking, cyberbullying, strangulation, technology-facilitated coercive control, honour killing, gang violence, and workplace violence. In couples, violence can be perpetrated by women and men in opposite-sex relationships (Carney et al., 2007), within same-sex relationships (Rollè et al., 2018) and in relationships in which the victim is transgender (The Scottish Trans Alliance, 2010). Relationship violence is a result of multiple impacts such as taken for granted inequalities, policies and practices that accept sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and ageism. It can span the entire age spectrum and it may start in-utero and end with the death of the victim.

Relationship violence occurs between two people who know each other. In families, violence can happen between adult and child, child and child or adult and adult. Violence can occur in the home setting behind closed doors. Also, RV can happen between a caregiver and a person requiring care inside the house, and institutional settings. It can be with a dating couple, between peers or students in schools, and employers and employees in the workplace or in gangs. It can happen in a physical or cyber environment.

There are many forms of relationship violence (Alliance of Hope International, 2019; Canada Department of Justice, 2017; Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, n.d.; Family Justice Center, 2019; Friends and Family, 2019; Government of Canada, 2017; Nordic Co-operation, n.d.; Public Safety Canada, 2018; Queensland University of Technology, 2019; WorkSafe BC, 2020). Some of them have been listed below.

Relationship violence in schools and playgrounds between children is commonly referred to as bullying.  It includes physical or psychological harming behaviours such as name-calling, threats and hitting. It can be direct (face-to-face) or indirect (exclusion or gossip or through social media). The term bullying undermines the fact that our society would call some of these behaviours criminal acts if occurring between adults.

Gang violence quite often refers to all criminal activity inflicted by gangs. In our definition, we only include the violence between members and/or associates known to them. Gang violence entails a group of people who are loosely associated with illegal activities such as human/drug/firearms trafficking that engage in violence against those who are known to them (Dandurand et al., 2019). RV connected to gangs happens with males and females in different ways. RV in gangs can be emotional, physical, spiritual or financial, but it makes the news when it is homicide.

There are other forms of RV that we have identified, such as intimate partner violence, which is presented as physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse, genital mutilation, honour killing, and gang violence. Intimate partner violence can occur to any gender, and it has been receiving the most attention in the academic field. Acts of genital mutilation are often performed against girls, but there are cases of male genital mutilation. Genital mutilation is connected to social norms and religious beliefs, and it seems to be widely accepted among certain cultures. Although its health consequences are well-established, genital mutilation is controversial, for its practice is accepted and sometimes even performed by health professionals (WHO, 2020).

Honour killings more often affect women and girls. This violence tends to be an act perpetrated by a close family member who believes to be acting in honour of the family name and prestige. The behaviour is connected to highly patriarchal societies that monitor and judge women and girls on the basis of “immoral sexual practices,” including conversing with a man who is not a close family member, to having sex outside marriage or even being raped (Korteweg, 2014). Honour killings are about saving face, so no shame is brought to the family. To read about honour killings in Canada, click here. According to the Government of Canada, honour killings are against the law. However, some groups think there are acceptable reasons for honour killing including:

      • Adultery
      • Pre-marital sex or having a child out of wedlock (although honour may be restored through a “shotgun wedding”)
      • Disobeying parents, or
      • Patriotism/Personal Insult/Defaulting on Monetary Debts (typically between men) (Government of Canada, 2017)

None of these are acceptable reasons, for they are against the Human Rights Legislation and Human Rights Code.

This chapter has provided the multiple types of abuse, known by many names.  It is what we call, relationship violence or RV.


Alliance of Hope International. (2019). Understanding the realities of strangulation.

Cameranesi, M., Lix, L. M., & Piotrowski, C. C. (2019). Linking a history of childhood abuse to adult health among Canadians: A structural equation modelling analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health16(11), 1942. doi:10.3390/ijerph16111942

Canada Department of Justice. (2017). About family violence.

Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime. (n.d.). Criminal harassment.

Carney, M., Buttell, B., & Dutton, D. (2007). Women who perpetrate intimate partner violence: A review of the literature with recommendations for treatment. Aggression and Violent Behavior 12, 108 –115.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2019). Violence Prevention.

Dandurand, Y., McCormick, B., & Bains, S. (2019). Developing strategies on: Violence prevention and community safety in Abbotsford BC. South Asian Research Fellowship Report. University of the Fraser Valley, South Asian Studies Institute.

Family Justice Center. (2019). Manual guide: Understanding the realities of strangulation.

Government of Canada. (2016). How to recognize bullying.

Hines, D. A., & Douglas, E. M. (2015). Health problems of partner violence victims: Comparing help-seeking men to a population-based sample. American Journal of Preventive Medicine48(2), 136-144.

Korteweg, A. C. (2014). ‘Honour Killing’ in the immigration context: Multiculturalism and the racialization of violence against women. Politikon41(2), 183-208.

Neighbours, Friends and Family. (2019). Defining coercive control in comparisons to situational couple violence.

Network to Eliminate Violence in Relationships. (n.d.). Community champion tool kit: Responding safely to situations of relationship violence.

Nordic Co-operation. (n.d.). When mum and dad decide-negative control.

Prangnell, A., Imtiaz, S., Karamouzian, M., & Hayashi, K. (2020). Childhood abuse as a risk factor for injection drug use: A systematic review of observational studies. Drug Alcohol Rev, 39, 71-82.

Public Safety Canada. (2018). What is cyberbullying?

Queensland University of Technology. (2019). Domestic violence and communication technology.

Rollè, L., Giardina, G., Caldarera, A. M., Gerino, E., & Brustia, P. (2018). When intimate partner violence meets same-sex couples: A review of same-sex intimate partner violence. Frontiers in Psychology9, 1506.

The Scottish Trans Alliance. (2010).

Ulloa, E. C., & Hammett, J. F. (2016). The effect of gender and perpetrator–victim role on mental health outcomes and risk behaviors associated with intimate partner violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31(7), 1184–1207.

World Health Organization. (2020). Female genital mutilation.

Work Safe BC. (2020).  OHS policies part. 4 – general conditions.[English]#037BF190C9BC467F854AD489E7E31666