Domestic Violence: Experiences of Partner Emotional Abuse

Statistics about partner emotional abuse including prevalence, demographics and associations with partner violence/childhood abuse.

Released
24/08/2022

Key findings

  • One in four women and one in six men have experienced partner emotional abuse since the age of 15
  • Within emotionally abusive relationships, threatening and degrading behaviours were more commonly experienced than controlling social or financial behaviours
  • Financial stress, living with intellectual or psychological disability and single parenthood were associated with higher rates of partner emotional abuse
  • Those who experienced abuse or witnessed parental violence as a child were twice as likely than those who did not to experience partner emotional abuse as an adult
  • Over half of women and a quarter of men who experienced partner emotional abuse also experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner

About this release

Family, domestic, and sexual violence can be a difficult topic to discuss and reading this document may bring up strong feelings for some people.

Help is available.

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This article presents new analysis of partner emotional abuse data collected in the 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS). Findings are presented for both women and men aged 18 years and over and focus on:

  • The number of people who have experienced partner emotional abuse
  • The socio-demographic and economic characteristics of persons who have recently experienced partner emotional abuse
  • The nature, types, and impacts of partner emotional abuse
  • The relationship between childhood experiences of abuse and experiences of partner emotional abuse in adulthood
  • The relationship between experiences of partner emotional abuse and other forms of domestic violence
  • Life satisfaction and health status of persons who have recently experienced partner emotional abuse
Defining partner emotional abuse in the PSS

In the PSS, emotional abuse occurs when a person is subjected to certain behaviours or actions that are aimed at preventing or controlling their behaviour, causing them emotional harm or fear. These behaviours are characterised in nature by their intent to manipulate, control, isolate or intimidate the person they are aimed at. They are generally repeated behaviours and include psychological, social, financial (also known as economic abuse), and verbal abuse.

Examples of behaviours used to define emotional abuse in the 2016 PSS include:

  • Controlling or trying to control a person from contacting family, friends or community
  • Constantly insulting a person to make them feel ashamed, belittled or humiliated (e.g. put downs)
  • Controlled or tried to control them from knowing, accessing or deciding about household money
  • Threatening to take a person’s child/children away from them

For a list of all emotional abuse behaviours collected in the survey, and an exploration of how partner emotional abuse is experienced within relationships, see chapter Nature and impacts of partner emotional abuse.

The term partner is used to describe a person the respondent currently lives with (current partner) or has lived with at some point (previous partner) in a married or de facto relationship. The definitions of current and previous partner for the PSS are based on living arrangements at the time of survey.

Data quality and interpretation

The statistics presented in this paper highlight strong associations between partner emotional abuse and certain socio-demographic characteristics and other forms of violence. While the data shows a statistical correlation between these variables, it cannot be determined whether the experiences are causally linked.

Figures marked with an asterisk (*) have a relative standard error of between 25% and 50% and should be used with caution. All comparisons discussed have been tested for statistical significance, unless otherwise stated. For more information about relative standard error and significance refer to the Personal Safety, Australia Technical Note.

For more information about the survey methodology, refer to Personal Safety, Australia methodology.

Prevalence rates

An estimated one in four women (23% or 2.2 million) have experienced partner emotional abuse since the age of 15, including:

  • 6.1% (575,400) by a current partner
  • 18% (1.7 million) by a previous partner

An estimated one in six men (16% or 1.4 million) have experienced partner emotional abuse since the age of 15, including:

  • 5.2% (473,600) by a current partner
  • 12% (1 million) by a previous partner

Women were about as likely as men to experience emotional abuse by a current partner (6.1% compared with 5.2%) but were more likely to have experienced emotional abuse by a previous partner (18% compared with 12%).

Experience of partner emotional abuse since the age of 15, by sex

Diagram showing the number and proportion of women and men aged 18 years and over who have experienced emotional abuse by a current or previous partner since the age of 15. Where a person has experienced emotional abuse by both a current partner and a previous partner, they are counted separately for each partner type but are counted only once in the aggregated partner total.

Experience of partner emotional abuse since the age of 15, by sex

The diagram shows five boxes which summarise the number and proportion of women and men aged 18 years and over who have experienced emotional abuse by a partner since the age of 15.

There are 9.4 million women and 9 million men aged 18 years or over. 23% of women and 16% of men have experienced partner emotional abuse, whereas 77% of women and 84% of men have not experienced partner emotional abuse. When separated further by partner type, 6.1% of women and 5.2% of men have experienced emotional abuse by a current partner, and 18% of women and 12% of men have experienced emotional abuse by a previous partner.

Where a person has experienced emotional abuse by both a current partner and a previous partner, they are counted separately for each partner type but are counted only once in the aggregated partner total.

Socio-demographic characteristics

This section discusses the socio-demographic characteristics of persons who experienced partner emotional abuse in the 12 months prior to survey.

Age

Compared with the average rate of partner emotional abuse for women (4.8%), those aged:

  • 30 to 44 years (6.7%) and 45 to 54 years (6.5%) were more likely to experience abuse
  • 65 years and over (2.2%) were less likely to experience abuse

Compared with the average rate of partner emotional abuse for men (4.2%), those aged:

  • 30 to 44 years (6.7%) were more likely to experience abuse
  • 65 years and over (*2.1%) were less likely to experience abuse
  1. Prevalence rate refers to the total number of persons in the relevant population who experienced partner emotional abuse in the last 12 months, expressed as a percentage of the total relevant population.
  2. Male estimate has a relative standard error of 25% to 50% and should be used with caution.

Disability or long-term health condition

Women with disability or a long-term health condition were more likely to experience partner emotional abuse (6.3%) than women without disability or a long-term health condition (4.1%).

Men with disability or a long-term health condition experienced partner emotional abuse at a similar rate (4.7%) to men without disability or a long-term health condition (3.8%).

For both women and men with disability, those with intellectual or psychological disability were the most likely to experience partner emotional abuse (12% for women and 6.8% for men).

  1. Prevalence rate refers to the total number of persons in the relevant population who experienced partner emotional abuse in the last 12 months, expressed as a percentage of the total relevant population.
  2. For the purpose of this analysis, disability type was classified under the following categories: aggregate physical disability, intellectual or psychological disability and type not specified. Respondents may have reported more than one type of disability.
  3. Includes physical disability, sight, hearing, speech disability, and head injury, stroke, or brain damage.
  4. Male estimate has a relative standard error of 25% to 50% and should be used with caution.

Family composition

Women living in a one parent family with children under 15 years were more than twice as likely to experience partner emotional abuse (14%) compared with women in all other household types (ranging from 2.0% to 6.0%).

Men living in a one parent family with children under 15 and men living in a couple family with children under 15 were more likely to experience emotional abuse (9.2% and 6.4% respectively) compared with the national male rate (4.2%).

  1. Prevalence rate refers to the total number of persons in the relevant population who experienced partner emotional abuse in the last 12 months, expressed as a percentage of the total relevant population.
  2. Includes couple family with children over 15, one parent family with children over 15 and other family.
  3. Male estimate has a relative standard error of 25% to 50% and should be used with caution.

Socio-economic characteristics

This section discusses the socio-economic characteristics and experiences of financial stress of persons who experienced partner emotional abuse in the 12 months prior to survey.

For both women and men, the rate of partner emotional abuse was similar across labour force, education, and Socio-Economic Index for Areas (SEIFA) variables.

Partner emotional abuse prevalence rate(a), by labour force status, education and SEIFA, by sex
 Women (%)Men (%)
Labour force status(b)
 Employed5.44.8
 Unemployed6.6np
 Not in the labour force5.34.6(d)
 Total persons aged 18 to 64 who experienced partner emotional abuse5.54.6
Education(b)
 Has non-school qualification5.85.0
 No non-school qualification4.63.7
 Total persons aged 18 to 64 who experienced partner emotional abuse5.54.6
SEIFA(c)
 Lowest quintile4.84.0(d)
 Second quintile4.94.1
 Third quintile4.93.0
 Fourth quintile4.94.9
 Highest quintile4.74.8
 Total persons who experienced partner emotional abuse4.84.2

np – not published in article due to relative standard error over 50%

  1. Prevalence rate refers to the total number of persons in the relevant population who experienced partner emotional abuse in the last 12 months, expressed as a percentage of the total relevant population.
  2. Due to the strong relationship between age and the prevalence of partner emotional abuse (see socio-demographic characteristics section) and notable differences in age across labour force and higher education categories, these two characteristics have been restricted to persons aged between 18 and 64 years.
  3. The SEIFA Index of Relative Socio-Economic Disadvantage ranks areas in Australia according to relative socio-economic disadvantage, with lower scores indicating relatively greater disadvantage.
  4. Selected male estimates have a relative standard error of 25% to 50% and should be used with caution.

Financial stress

Household cash flow problems

Both women and men living in households which experienced cash flow problems in the previous 12 months were more than twice as likely as those who did not experience cash flow problems to experience partner emotional abuse.

  1. Prevalence rate refers to the total number of persons in the relevant population who experienced partner emotional abuse in the last 12 months, expressed as a percentage of the total relevant population.
  2. Cash flow problems include one or more of the following: could not pay electricity, gas or telephone bills on time; could not pay mortgage or rent payments on time; could not pay for car registration or insurance on time; could not make minimum payment on credit card; pawned or sold something because they needed cash; went without meals; were unable to heat or cool their home; sought financial assistance from friends or family; sought assistance from welfare or community organisations.

Household ability to raise $2000 within a week

Women living in households that were unable to raise $2000 within a week for something important were more likely to experience partner emotional abuse (7.6%) than women living in households that could raise the money (4.4%).

Rates of emotional abuse were similar for men living in households that could (4.2%) or could not (5.2%) raise $2000 within a week.

Nature and impacts of partner emotional abuse

This section explores how emotional abuse was experienced within relationships, focusing on:

  • the nature of the abuse, including the types of emotionally abusive behaviours used by perpetrators and the frequency of abuse
  • the impacts of abuse, specifically, fear and anxiety experienced in response to the abuse

All characteristics in this section cover experiences of women and men since the age of 15. Details are obtained and analysed separately for emotional abuse by a current partner and/or the most recently emotionally abusive previous partner.

Types of emotional abuse behaviours experienced

For this analysis, the emotional abuse behaviours have been classified into three broad types: controlling social behaviours, controlling financial behaviours and threatening or degrading behaviours. See the table below for classification of each behaviour.

Partner emotional abuse behaviour classification

Controlling social behaviours

Controlling financial behaviours

Threatening or degrading behaviours

  • Controlled or tried to control them from contacting family, friends or community
  • Controlled or tried to control them from using the telephone, internet or family car
  • Controlled or tried to control where they went or who they saw
  • Kept track of where they were and who they were with (e.g. monitoring social media, etc.)
  • Controlled or tried to control them from knowing, accessing or deciding about household money
  • Controlled or tried to control them from working or earning money
  • Controlled or tried to control their income or assets
  • Controlled or tried to control them from studying
  • Deprived them of basic needs such as food, shelter, sleep or assistive aids
  • Damaged, destroyed or stole any of their property
  • Constantly insulted them to make them feel ashamed, belittled or humiliated (e.g. put-downs)
  • Shouted, yelled or verbally abused them to intimidate them
  • Lied to their child/ren with the intent of turning them against them
  • Lied to other family members or friends with the intent of turning them against them
  • Threatened to take their child/ren away from them
  • Threatened to harm their child/ren
  • Threatened to harm their other family members or friends
  • Threatened to harm any of their pets
  • Harmed any of their pets
  • Threatened or tried to commit suicide

 

 

Of the 575,400 women who experienced emotional abuse by a current partner:

  • 76% experienced threatening or degrading behaviours
  • 41% experienced controlling financial behaviours

Of the 473,000 men who experienced emotional abuse by a current partner:

  • 56% experienced threatening or degrading behaviours
  • 42% experienced controlling social behaviours

Women were more likely than men to experience threatening or degrading behaviours (76% compared with 56%).

  1. Since the age of 15.
  2. Respondents may have experienced behaviours across more than one category.

Of the 1.7 million women who experienced emotional abuse by a previous partner:

  • 88% experienced threatening or degrading behaviours
  • 63% experienced controlling social behaviours

Of the 1 million men who experienced emotional abuse by a previous partner:

  • 83% experienced threatening or degrading behaviours
  • 54% experienced controlling social behaviours

Women were more likely than men to experience controlling social (63% compared with 54%) and controlling financial behaviours (61% compared with 48%).

  1. Since the age of 15.
  2. Respondents may have experienced behaviours across more than one category.

Number of emotional abuse behaviours experienced

Women experienced a higher average number of emotionally abusive behaviours than men, by both a current partner and previous partner.

Of women who experienced emotional abuse by a current partner:

  • 45% experienced one behaviour
  • 25% experienced two behaviours
  • the average number of behaviours experienced was 2.5

Of men who experienced emotional abuse by a current partner:

  • 57% experienced one behaviour
  • 26% experienced two behaviours
  • the average number of behaviours experienced was 2.1

Women were more likely than men to experience three or four behaviours (18% compared with *11%) and were less likely to experience one behaviour (45% compared with 57%).

  1. Since the age of 15.
  2. Male estimate has a relative standard error of 25% to 50% and should be used with caution.

Of women who experienced emotional abuse by a previous partner:

  • 20% experienced ten or more behaviours
  • 18% experienced one behaviour
  • the average number of behaviours experienced was 5.6

Of men who experienced emotional abuse by a previous partner:

  • 25% experienced one behaviour
  • 17% experienced two behaviours
  • the average number of behaviours experienced was 4.2

Women were more likely than men to experience ten or more behaviours (20% compared with 8.7%) and were less likely to experience one behaviour (18% compared with 25%).

  1. Since the age of 15.

How often partner emotional abuse experienced

Of women who experienced emotional abuse by a current partner, abuse was commonly experienced:

  • a little of the time (50%)
  • some of the time (24%)

Of men who experienced emotional abuse by a current partner, abuse was commonly experienced:

  • a little of the time (45%)
  • once only (34%)

Men were more likely than women to experience emotional abuse once only (34% compared with 15%).

  1. Since the age of 15.
  2. Male estimate has a relative standard error greater than 50% and is considered too unreliable for general use, it has therefore not been included in this analysis.

Of women who experienced emotional abuse by a previous partner, abuse was commonly experienced:

  • some of the time (39%)
  • most of the time or all of the time (38%)

Of men who experienced emotional abuse by a previous partner, abuse was commonly experienced:

  • some of the time (44%)
  • a little of the time (26%)

Women were more likely than men to experience emotional abuse most of the time or all of the time (38% compared with 21%).

  1. Since the age of 15.

Whether ever experienced anxiety or fear due to partner emotional abuse

Women were more likely than men to experience anxiety or fear due to emotional abuse, either by a current partner or a previous partner.

  • Of those who experienced emotional abuse by a current partner, 59% of women and 42% of men experienced anxiety or fear due to the abuse.
  • Of those who experienced emotional abuse by a previous partner, 72% of women and 43% of men experienced anxiety or fear due to the abuse.

Relationship with childhood abuse

This section explores the association between experiences of childhood abuse and experiences of partner emotional abuse in adulthood, including:

  • physical/sexual abuse before the age of 15
  • witnessing violence towards a parent by a partner before the age of 15

Experiencing physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of 15

Women and men who experienced physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of 15 were around twice as likely as those who did not experience childhood abuse to experience partner emotional abuse as an adult.

  1. Prevalence rate refers to the total number of persons in the relevant population who experienced partner emotional abuse since the age of 15, expressed as a percentage of the total relevant population.

When separated by type of childhood abuse (physical only, sexual only, both physical and sexual), women who experienced both physical and sexual abuse in childhood were the most likely to experience partner emotional abuse as an adult (57%).

Partner emotional abuse prevalence rate(a), by whether experienced physical and/or sexual abuse as a child, by sex
 Women (%)Men (%)
Experienced physical and/or sexual abuse4630
 Experienced physical abuse only4430
 Experienced sexual abuse only4227
 Experienced both physical and sexual abuse5734
Did not experience physical and/or sexual abuse1814
  1. Prevalence rate refers to the total number of persons in the relevant population who experienced partner emotional abuse since the age of 15, expressed as a percentage of the total relevant population.

Witnessing violence towards mother and/or father by a partner before the age of 15

Women and men who witnessed violence towards a parent by a partner before the age of 15 were around twice as likely than those who did not witness violence to experience partner emotional abuse as an adult.

  1. Prevalence rate refers to the total number of persons in the relevant population who experienced partner emotional abuse since the age of 15, expressed as a percentage of the total relevant population.

Relationship with other forms of domestic violence

This section explores the association between partner emotional abuse and partner violence since the age of 15. Emotional abuse and violence may have been experienced by different partners.

Violence is defined as any incident involving the occurrence, attempt or threat of either physical or sexual assault.

Compared with women and men who have not experienced partner emotional abuse, those who have experienced partner emotional abuse were over 8 times more likely to have also experienced partner violence, either by the same emotionally abusive partner or a different partner.

For women:

  • 58% who experienced partner emotional abuse also experienced partner violence
  • 6.9% who did not experience partner emotional abuse (but have or had a partner) experienced partner violence

For men:

  • 26% who experienced partner emotional abuse also experienced partner violence
  • 3.0% who did not experience partner emotional abuse (but have or had a partner) experienced partner violence
  1. Prevalence rate refers to the total number of persons in the relevant population who experienced partner violence since the age of 15, expressed as a percentage of the total relevant population.
  2. Population has been restricted to persons who have or ever had a partner.

When separated by type of partner violence (physical or sexual), the association was strongest for women who experienced emotional abuse and sexual violence by a partner.

Compared with women who had not experienced emotional abuse, women who experienced partner emotional abuse were about 16 times more likely to have also experienced partner sexual violence (19% compared with 1.2% who did not experience partner emotional abuse), either by the same emotionally abusive partner or a different partner.

Physical and/or sexual partner violence prevalence rate(a)(b), by whether experienced partner emotional abuse since the age of 15, by sex
 Experienced partner emotional abuse (%)Did not experience partner emotional abuse (%)
Women
Experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner(c)586.9
 Experienced physical violence by a partner546.3
 Experienced sexual violence by a partner191.2
Men
Experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner(c)263.0
 Experienced physical violence by a partner252.9
 Experienced sexual violence by a partner2.1(d)np

np – not published in article due to relative standard error over 50%

  1. Prevalence rate refers to the total number of persons in the relevant population who experienced physical and/or sexual partner violence since the age of 15, expressed as a percentage of the total relevant population.
  2. Population has been restricted to persons who have or ever had a partner.
  3. Components are not able to be added together to produce a total. Where a person has experienced both physical and sexual violence by a partner, they are counted separately for each type of violence they experienced but are counted only once in the partner violence total.
  4. Male estimate has a relative standard error of 25% to 50% and should be used with caution.

Life satisfaction and health status

This section compares the life satisfaction and health status of persons who experienced partner emotional abuse in the 12 months prior to survey with those who did not experience abuse.

Overall life satisfaction

Overall life satisfaction is a summary measure of self-reported well-being against a scale ranging from zero (not at all satisfied) to ten (completely satisfied). Life satisfaction ratings between 0 and 4 are categorised as low, ratings of 5 and 6 are categorised as moderate, and ratings between 7 and 10 are categorised as high.

Women and men who experienced partner emotional abuse were about twice as likely as those who did not experience partner emotional abuse to rate their overall life satisfaction as low or moderate.

  1. Male experienced partner emotional abuse estimate has a relative standard error of 25% to 50% and should be used with caution.

Self-assessed heath status

Women who experienced partner emotional abuse were:

  • more likely to assess their health as poor or fair (20%) than women who had not experienced partner emotional abuse (14%)
  • less likely to rate health as very good or excellent (54%) than women who had not experienced partner emotional abuse (60%)

There were no notable differences in self-assessed health status for men.

Glossary

Show all

Current partner

A partner the person currently (at the time of the survey) lives with in a married or de facto relationship.

Disability or long-term health condition

A disability or long-term health condition exists if a limitation, restriction, impairment, disease or disorder has lasted, or is expected to last for six months or more, which restricts everyday activities.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse occurs when a person is subjected to certain behaviours or actions that are aimed at preventing or controlling their behaviour, causing them emotional harm or fear. These behaviours are characterised in nature by their intent to manipulate, control, isolate or intimidate the person they are aimed at. They are generally repeated behaviours and include psychological, social, financial, and verbal abuse.

For the PSS, a person was considered to have experienced emotional abuse where they reported they had been subjected to or experienced one or more of the following behaviours (that were repeated with the intent to prevent or control their behaviour and were intended to cause them emotional harm or fear):

  • Controlled or tried to control them from contacting family, friends or community
  • Controlled or tried to control them from using the telephone, internet or family car
  • Controlled or tried to control where they went or who they saw
  • Kept track of where they were and who they were with (e.g. monitoring social media, etc.)
  • Controlled or tried to control them from knowing, accessing or deciding about household money
  • Controlled or tried to control them from working or earning money
  • Controlled or tried to control their income or assets
  • Controlled or tried to control them from studying
  • Deprived them of basic needs such as food, shelter, sleep or assistive aids
  • Damaged, destroyed or stole any of their property
  • Constantly insulted them to make them feel ashamed, belittled or humiliated (e.g. put-downs)
  • Shouted, yelled or verbally abused them to intimidate them
  • Lied to their child/ren with the intent of turning them against them
  • Lied to other family members or friends with the intent of turning them against them
  • Threatened to take their child/ren away from them
  • Threatened to harm their child/ren
  • Threatened to harm their other family members or friends
  • Threatened to harm any of their pets
  • Harmed any of their pets
  • Threatened or tried to commit suicide

The definition of emotional abuse excludes:

  • Cases of nagging (e.g. about spending too much money on fishing gear, or going out with friends) unless this nagging causes them emotional harm or fear.
  • Cases where a spouse has restricted the respondent’s access to money, the car, or the internet as a result of the respondent’s substance abuse, gambling, or compulsive shopping issues unless the respondent perceives that these restrictions cause them emotional harm or fear.

Partner

The term partner in the PSS is used to describe a person the respondent lives with, or lived with at some point in a married or de facto relationship. This may also be described as a co-habiting partner.

Prevalence

Refers to the number and proportion (rate) of persons in a given population that have experienced any type of violence within a specified time frame – usually in the last 12 months (12 months prior to the survey) and since the age of 15.

Previous partner

A person that the respondent lived with at some point in a married or de facto relationship from whom the respondent is now separated, divorced or widowed from.

Violence

In the PSS, violence is defined as any incident involving the occurrence, attempt or threat of either sexual or physical assault. Violence can be broken down into two main categories, sexual violence and physical violence.

Witness violence before the age of 15

The PSS asks respondents if they ever saw or heard violence being directed at one parent by another before the age of 15. Violence in this context refers to physical assault only.

Mother includes step mothers and female guardians or care-givers. Partner includes the respondent’s father/stepfather, and the mother’s boyfriend or same-sex partner.

Father includes step fathers and male guardians or care-givers. Partner includes the respondent’s mother/stepmother, and the father’s girlfriend or same-sex partner.

Data downloads

Domestic Violence: Experiences of Partner Emotional Abuse (Tables 1 to 11)

History of changes

25/08/2022

For consistency in terminology, the words ‘coercive control’ has removed from the ‘description’ and ‘about this release section’ of the publication.

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