Like other forms of abuse, physical abuse occurs when a perpetrator causes deliberate bodily harm to a victim, through hitting, slapping, and punching or even exposure to extreme cold or sleep deprivation. In the worst cases, physical abuse culminates in actual homicide, with the WHO reporting that intimate partners commit almost 40% of homicides against women.

Just as with all forms of abuse, physical abusers crave power and control over their victims, and cultural and social sanctions often help to reinforce this. It would seem that women are most often on the receiving end of physical violence. But men who suffer from domestic abuse are often doubly victimised because of the stigma of their situation.

Physical abuse against children

Unfortunately, it is often those who need protection the most that fall prey to physical or sexual abuse, children especially. Parents who lack a mature understanding of how children grow and develop may resort to physical violence. Old habits die hard, and those who have been physically “disciplined” as children often grow up to be adults who do the same.

Financial stress, marital conflict, a lack of parenting skills and misinterpreting a child’s behaviour as more malicious than it actually is can all make physical and emotional abuse more likely. The great pity is that a child who experiences physical violence at home may be more prone to resorting to physical violence with his peers and siblings.

Physical abuse against adults

There is something very primal and basic about one human being exercising physical domination over another. While a physical abuser may wish to appear threatening and powerful, they are often wrestling with feelings of shame, inadequacy and anger inside.

In a domestic context, physical violence very often forms part of a complex web of power imbalance – emotional, sexual and even financial abuse may be weaved together in a dynamic of fear of control. Victims feel powerless to leave. The abuser may recognise the problem, but lack the ability to change it.

Cycles of abuse

Physical violence is an (admittedly poor) attempt to control others. But because victims of physical abuse often learn to solve their problems in the same fashion, the cycle continues over generations, from parents to children. Physical abuse is a problem within a family and a culture, and not just with a single person. Children who view physical abuse in their families experience trauma almost as if they experienced the abuse themselves.

Likewise, physical abuse in a marriage often takes the place of more mature social and problem solving skills. Tension mounts and mounts until it erupts in a violent act. The abuser tries to make amends and a period of calm follows. But eventually, tension will mount again. If we are in a culture that promotes violence as a means to an end, it can be just that little bit easier to take out our frustrations on those around us.

Help for physical abuse

Physical abuse is primarily about control. Whether in a parent/child or husband/wife relationship, both parties need to find healthy ways to deal with frustration, communicate properly and take responsibility. A family can work together on peaceful conflict resolution and ways to be a competent and respectful adult who does not need to harm those around him/her.

Sadly, rehabilitation is not always possible, and in some domestic violence situations, the reality is that the victim needs to get out, plain and simple. A social worker, counsellor or even legal advisor can help victims regain their peace and dignity. It is an unfortunate truism that someone who strikes another will likely do it again. In this case, the psychology of physical abuse is irrelevant – what matters is protecting the victims.

If you are dealing with past or present physical abuse, it can be helpful to seek the guidance of a professional counsellor to overcome the effects of physical abuse. Please see the list of our physical abuse counsellors that specialise in working with this issue.