Spousal and Partner Abuse - It can be stopped

What is spousal and partner abuse?

Spousal Abuse

Physical violence can involve a threat with a fist or object; being pushed or shoved in a way that could result in injury; being slapped, hit or beaten; being hit or attacked with an object. There may be no obvious physical injuries, or there may be bruises, cuts, broken bones, internal injuries, disfigurement, disablement and even death.

Sexual assault may be part of a physical attack. Sexual acts within a marriage or intimate partnership must take place with consent. There is no “right” to sexual relations.

Emotional abuse can include threats and intimidation, demeaning and degrading verbal and body language, control and isolation, subordination and humiliation. Victims may suffer serious loss of self-esteem and experience feelings of shame, anxiety, hopelessness, depression and terror.

Abuse is a crime

Spousal and partner abuse is a crime. The victim may think that she or he somehow provoked the abuse but the abuser is responsible for his or her own behaviour. To harm or threaten to harm another person is against the law under the Criminal Code of Canada .

An effective legal response to spousal violence requires coordination by all parts of the criminal justice system. The Criminal Code and the Canada Evidence Act provide protection for victims as well as sanctions for offenders. Prosecution policies and guidelines ensure that charges proceed in court. However, the police are usually the first step in the legal process and the major point of contact in spousal assault cases.

In incidents of partner abuse, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police follows a pro-arrest policy. Police called to an incident are responsible for restoring order, protecting victims, investigating and gathering evidence — which may involve arresting or taking into custody persons involved. If the investigation finds reasonable and probable grounds that a crime has been committed, appropriate criminal charges can also be laid.

The RCMP policy defines spousal assault as a “criminal act of violence or series of acts which causes injury to a spousal or common-law partner.” Even if criminal charges are not laid, individuals can apply for a peace bond or restraining order to prohibit their partners from threatening or harassing them further. In cases of spousal and partner abuse, the RCMP can lay charges under Criminal Code provisions pertaining to assault and sexual assault.

For example:

  • An assault is the intentional use of force on another person against his or her will (e.g. touching, slapping, kicking, punching). It is also an assault to threaten to use force. If a person attempts an assault but was prevented from doing so, he or she can still be charged with attempted assault or attempted sexual assault, depending on the circumstances.
  • An individual may be charged with sexual assault if he or she forces someone to kiss, fondle or have sexual intercourse. This charge may also apply if a person is kissed or touched in a sexual way without his or her consent (no sign of physical injury or abuse need be present).
  • During a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, if a person uses a weapon (real or imitation) or threatens to harm someone else (e.g. a child), the charge of sexual assault with a weapon may be laid. This also
    applies if a third party is involved (i.e. if the offender is with another person or persons who commit sexual assault).
  • An individual may be charged with aggravated sexual assault if the victim is wounded, crippled, disfigured or brutally beaten and/or his or her life endangered.
  • The Criminal Code also provides for the charge of criminal harassment, including the offence of “stalking.” (For more information request the RCMP pamphlet “ Stalking — It’s Not Love .”)

The RCMP pro-arrest policy reinforces the laws that make spousal violence a crime, not a private family matter. That means that it is not up to the victim to ask that charges be laid; it is the responsibility of the police to do so. Laying charges is a crucial step in holding the abuser responsible for his or her actions. It can reduce and even stop the violence. According to Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile 2006, Nearly sixty percent (57%) of all victims indicated that the violence decreased after police intervention Footnote 1 . This suggests that making spousal assault a criminal act and a public concern does make a difference.

The roots of abuse

Spousal abuse is not a crime of passion and it is not a private matter. It is an abuse of power. And it is as much a crime as threatening or hurting a stranger. Partner abuse is basically about controlling the other partner. This abuse is rooted in a power imbalance — between individuals, within families and in society. Basically, when one person is considered less worthy than another one — as an individual or because they are a woman, homosexual, Aboriginal or disabled person — there is the potential for abuse.

Partner abuse is complicated. An abusive relationship is often a confusing mix of love, fear, dependency, intimidation, guilt and hope. There is a shared life involving family, finances and a home. Victims of abuse usually return to the relationship five to eight times before leaving it. What makes spousal abuse occur in one relationship and not another? We know that partners in an abusive relationship have often experienced family violence themselves as children. There are also known factors that increase the risk of wife abuse, especially the risk of serious abuse: Footnote 2

  • Spousal abuse is tragically common. It is also very complex. How can you bring her flowers one day and hit her the next? Why does she stay? How can she leave? What happens when that safe place called home becomes a prison or war zone? What about the children? How does society step into these private, personal spaces and help make a difference? Let’s find the answers — because spousal and partner abuse can be stopped.

    Men who have witnessed violence by their fathers toward their mothers inflict more severe and repeated violence on their own wives than men whose fathers were not violent.

  • Alcohol is a prominent but not a causal factor in wife abuse. In just over half of all violent incidents, the violent partner was drinking.
  • Women are at greater risk of severe violence or even of being murdered just after they leave their husbands or partners.
  • The risk of being killed by a spouse or partner is eight times higher for women in common-law relationships than in registered marriages.

Currently, research is being carried out to develop reliable ways to assess the level of risk of abuse in troubled relationships – with the goal of preventing abuse or further violence from occurring.

Spousal abuse flourishes in an environment where the misuse of power against the vulnerable or less powerful is tolerated. That environment may be behind closed doors or in the larger community. That is why we all have a role to play in stopping spousal abuse. We can all work to make safety, security and freedom from violence and the threat of violence a reality.

Who experiences spousal abuse?

Spousal and partner abuse is pervasive: no one is immune. It affects people of all ages, rich and poor, rural and urban, from every cultural and educational background. The majority of abusers are men and the majority of victims are women. Serious abuse is most often committed by men against women and children. Research indicates that young couples are at increased risk of spousal violence (Brzozowski, 2004). According to results from the 1999 and 2004 GSS victimization survey, respondents who had partners in the 15 to 24 year age group and in the 25 to 34 year age group reported the highest rates of spousal violence ( Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile 2006 ).

However, men are also victims of spousal and partner abuse. The rate is significantly lower than among women and the severity of abuse, especially homicide, often less. We are just beginning to learn more about the abuse of adult men.

There are other groups in which partner abuse needs more recognition and remedies. Partner abuse occurs in homosexual relationships— between gay men and lesbian partners. Since these groups may already be stigmatized in society, it can be difficult for either partner to reach out for appropriate help and support. Disabled and dependent persons are also particularly vulnerable in abusive situations. Aboriginal women and men experience higher rates of spousal violence than the general population.

New Canadians should know that landed immigrants will not be deported if they leave a partner because of abuse, even if that partner is their sponsor. (Immigrants without legal status should get legal advice.)

What every person involved in an abusive relationship should know is that the RCMP will investigate spousal and partner abuse of any type, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or circumstance.

Children are often victims of spousal or partner abuse. Estimates are that in 30–40% of reported cases where the spouse is abused, so are the children. However, there is a growing understanding that simply witnessing spousal or partner violence in their home can affect children the same way as abuse directed at them. (Ask for the RCMP’s booklet Where Does It Hurt? The Effects of Domestic Violence on Children .)

Facts on spousal and partner abuse

Spousal assault is more often reported today than in the past. However, statistics still do not capture the full scope of the problem.

  • Almost 3 in 10 women who have ever been married or lived in a common-law relationship have been physically or sexually assaulted by their partner; 21% of these women were assaulted while pregnant Footnote 3 .
  • Over the six-year period from 1998 to 2004, the ratio of female to male victims of spousal violence dropped from nearly 7:1 to 5:1 ( Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile 2006 ).
  • Almost 2 out of 10 women and men say they suffer emotional abuse from a partner. Footnote 1
  • Most victims of spousal assault do not report the incident to police: about 36% of women do and only 17% of male victims. Footnote 1
  • 12% of women who have experienced
    spousal assault have never told anyone about
    the abuse. Footnote 1
  • When spousal or partner abuse is reported to the police, it is assumed that several assaults have already occurred in the relationship.
  • Almost half of women and men report that spousal violence stopped after police intervention.
  • Overall, the rate of spousal abuse against women in Canada has declined in recent years. Footnote 1

Getting help

The facts show that wife assault has declined in recent years. That is proof that spousal abuse can be stopped; it can be prevented. Changing attitudes, services for victims, treatment programs for violent men, stronger laws and pro-arrest policies are all making a difference. The first step for anyone in or close to an abusive relationship is to get help.

Help for the Abused

If you are abused by a spouse or partner, you should know that it is wrong — and that help is available. In an emergency, call the police. Seek medical attention (injuries may be internal as well as external). In a crisis, call a women’s shelter, crisis line or counselling agency. Talk to your family doctor or community health center. Tell someone you trust, such as a friend or relative. Believe in yourself. You are not to blame.

Help for the Abuser

If you abuse your partner, get help now. In most cases, abusing is behaviour learned as a child. It is also often accompanied by low self-esteem, frustration and guilt. You can change. You can take responsibility for your actions and seek counselling. The best way to start is through a family doctor or social service agency. Abusive behaviour often goes hand in hand with alcohol or drug abuse and you may need to address these problems as well.

Help for the Witness

If you believe someone you know is being abused, do not turn a blind eye. Call the police in an emergency; do not attempt to intervene at risk to yourself. Listen to the affected person, whether abused or abuser. They may be asking for help. Offer support and refrain from judgment. Ask how you can be of help. Do not take over. Help the person explore their options. Tell him/her it is dangerous to do nothing about the abuse.

Community involvement and responsibility

Spousal violence is a serious criminal matter with a huge impact on society. As the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence states: “Health costs for injuries and chronic health problems caused by abuse amount to about a billion dollars every year. We also pay a social cost in the form of children too traumatized to learn or develop normally, adult victims unable to function to their full potential, and diminished quality of family and community life.” We all need to work to prevent violence and to build a society where abuse of power is not tolerated. By seeing spousal abuse for what it is — a crime — we take responsibility as a community for stopping the violence.

Help is available

Contacts and Resources

  • crisis line
  • abuse counseling
  • women’s groups
  • immigrant and ethnocultural groups
  • aboriginal groups
  • women’s shelters
  • women’s resource centres
  • community health centres
  • family doctor
  • police
  • RCMP victim services
  • legal aid

National Clearinghouse on Family Violence
Tel: 1-800-267-1291 or 613-957-2938
TTY: 1-800-561-5643 or 613-952-6396
Fax: (613) 941-8930
Email: sfv-avf@phac-aspc.gc.ca


© 2007 Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada
Cat. no.: PS64-20/2007
ISBN: 978-0-662-69760-2

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