Conjugal violence differs from arguments within a couple primarily because it involves an imbalance of power between partners. Conjugal violence often involves repeated violent episodes, and one partner taking control of the other person and engaging in harmful behaviours toward them. For instance, the controlling partner may:
- disrespect their partner (insults, belittling, etc.)
- prevent their partner from going to certain places or doing certain things (seeing friends, going to the movies, etc.)
- force their partner to do things against their will (wearing a certain type of clothing, not going out with friends, having sex, etc.)
Conjugal violence has no boundaries:
- It exists in all types of personal, romantic and intimate relationships (heterosexual, homosexual, polyamorous, mixed, friends with benefits, dating, etc.).
- It may continue even after partners separate.
- It can occur at any age.
Contrary to what many people think, conjugal violence does not always entail physical assault or injury. Conjugal abuse can include different types of violence—psychological, verbal, economic, physical or sexual—and may appear in the form of more than one type of violence at a time.
Although the media call attention to it more and more, conjugal violence remains extremely difficult to detect. Even for victims, violence is hard to identify because it begins subtly, often with hypocritical behaviour, and slowly becomes more intense. Perpetrators usually use several different means to maintain their hold on victims.
Even though it is experienced by both sexes, conjugal violence mostly affects women, regardless of their culture, social status or income. Conjugal violence is arguably largely the result of historically unequal relationships between women and men and in which women are at a disadvantage.
Am I experiencing conjugal violence?
Some comments typical of unhealthy relationships can signal the gradual onset or presence of conjugal violence. Here are some examples of statements commonly heard from victims:
- “My boyfriend puts me down.”
- “My boyfriend blames me for everything.”
- “My husband criticizes me all the time.”
- “My boyfriend calls me crazy.”
- “My husband badmouths me.”
- “My boyfriend often thinks I’m dumb.”
- “My husband keeps me from doing a lot of things.”
- “My boyfriend talks down to me.”
* The use of male nouns is intended to reflect statistics
When children witness conjugal violence, they also notice changes in behaviour and may say things such as:
- “My parents argue all the time.”
- “My mother fights with her boyfriend.”
- “My parents yell at each other really loud.”
- “My father hurts my mother.”
Of course, these examples do not cover all potential situations of conjugal violence, but they can provide strong evidence of abuse.
If you have any doubts about your relationship, you can contact resources specialized in conjugal violence, such as SOS Violence Conjugale at 1-800-363-9010. You can also refer to the Evaluate the relationship page.
If your partner forces you to have sex, that is a form of sexual assault called marital rape.
If your partner forces you to have sex with other people, that is sexual exploitation, even if there is no money involved.
The cycle of violence
The cycle of violence refers to a repeated cyclical pattern between perpetrators and victims that can be broken down into four phases:
As the cycle of violence gradually takes hold, it will likely initially go unnoticed. Unhealthy behaviours and episodes of violence are more subtle, spread out over time and become part of daily life. The first instances of conjugal violence may seem like just a regular argument: there’s tension, an argument breaks out, someone apologizes, the relationship returns to normal.
However, if one partner feels strongly that the other seems to be “winning arguments” all the time, the situation could be conjugal abuse. Remember, conjugal abuse is based on an unequal relationship in which one partner dominates the other and essentially gets what they want.
As violence takes root in the relationship, episodes of violence become more frequent, moments of tension are more intense and instances of aggression arise. In some cases, the nature of the assaults may change—for instance, shifting from psychological abuse to verbal abuse or from verbal abuse to economic abuse.
The cycle of violence: Perpetrators
See diagram (PDF 85 Kb) (in French only)
Phase 1: Tension
The perpetrator is angry, glares at the other person and gives the other person the silent treatment.
Phase 2: Assault
The perpetrator assaults the other person verbally, psychologically, economically, physically or sexually.
Phase 3: Justification
The perpetrator makes excuses for their behaviour.
Phase 4: Reconciliation
The perpetrator asks for forgiveness and will often make promises.
The cycle of violence: Victims
See diagram (PDF 85 Kb) (in French only)
Phase 1: Tension
The victim is worried and tries to improve the mood by paying being careful in how they behave.
Phase 2: Assault
The victim feels humiliated and sad, feels that the situation is unfair and that the other person always gets what they want.
Phase 3: Justification
The victim tries to understand the perpetrator’s explanations and to help them change. However, they second-guess their own view of the situation and feel responsible for what has happened.
Phase 4: Reconciliation
The victim gives the perpetrator another chance, helps them, acknowledges their efforts and changes their own habits.
Effects of the cycle on victims
Each time the cycle comes full circle, the violence in the assault phase may intensify, and the reconciliation phase may gradually become shorter.
In the long term, the cycle of violence has a devastating effect on victims, since it is continuously repeated. With each new cycle, victims are further disempowered: they question their judgment, doubt their perception, lose self-esteem, fear their environment, try to prevent outbursts of anger and live in a constant state of terror. All of these elements allow perpetrators to maintain control over victims.
Consequences of violence
Conjugal violence has many consequences, which are not always directly related to physical injury. Victims may experience many of these negative impacts at the same time, since they affect different parts of their lives. Common consequences include:
- anxiety disorders
- sleep disorders
- memory loss
- eating disorders
- trouble concentrating
- chronic pain
- financial insecurity
- suicidal ideation
Children are also affected by conjugal violence. Even if they are not directly experiencing the various forms of violence, most of them at least witness the violence. Exposure to violence is harmful to children, who, no matter their age, may respond to what they witness in different ways:
- crying fits or temper tantrums
- violent behaviour (biting, hitting, pushing, breaking toys, etc.)
- growth delays (in early childhood)
- weight gain or loss
- symptoms of anxiety or depression
- dropping out of school (in adolescence)
- delinquent behaviour (in adolescence)
- reproducing violent behaviours or patterns (in adolescence and adulthood)
Stay or leave?
Whether to stay or to leave is probably the question most commonly and frequently asked by victims of conjugal violence. While the answer may seem obvious, it’s not always that simple.
Individuals in unhealthy relationships should know that victims of conjugal or sexual violence have the right to cancel leases without penalty. For more information, and for free assistance and advice, visit the Éducaloi website or speak to someone at a Crime Victims Assistance Centre (Centres d’aide aux victimes d’actes criminels, CAVAC) or a Centre d’aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuel (CALAC).
The SOS Violence Conjugale helpline (1-800-363-9010) can refer victims to shelters. Most shelters for women who are victims of conjugal violence will also accept the victims’ children.
Why do victims stay with abusive partners?
Despite the violence they face, victims often remain with their abusers for any number of reasons:
- Feelings of love for their partner, despite everything
- Worry about the repercussions of separation (experiencing financial insecurity, creating animosity in the family, separating children from the other parent, etc.)
- Fear of their partner’s threats
- Fear of uprooting children from their environment
- Belief that their partner is going to change
- Blame on themselves, without considering that the relationship may be the problem
- Social isolation (no friends or family, nowhere to go)
- Fear of being judged by their family and friends
- Fear of being invalidated by those around them (no one believing them)
Why do victims return to unhealthy relationships after having left?
Victims may find it difficult to leave an abusive relationship permanently. The reconciliation phase is a critical time for victims who are considering ending the relationship to ultimately decide to stay, hoping that things will change.
Some victims go back and forth many times, sometimes up to a dozen times, before finally leaving the relationship for good, which may fuel the misconception that victims don’t really want to leave. However, the back and forth may be necessary in order for some victims to move forward. Leaving the relationship, even for a few days, allows victims to realize that they can live differently.
Proper support from shelters, organizations, friends and family is very helpful to victims in the process of breaking free from an abusive situation. As a result, they will have people they trust to rely on and help them leave the unhealthy relationship for good.
Myths and realities
Several myths persist concerning conjugal violence. Here are some examples of myths and realities.
Reality: There’s no standard victim profile. Even people with strong personalities can become victims of conjugal violence.
In an unhealthy relationship, the perpetrator’s control often grows to the point of destroying the victim’s confidence and self-esteem, making the victim more vulnerable in the relationship.
Reality: Helping victims of conjugal violence is always helpful, even if they return to their abuser. Going through the cycle of violence over and over again often makes victims unsure about whether they should stay or leave. They leave to see if they can survive outside the relationship and return to see if the relationship can change. Sometimes this back and forth is precisely what allows victims to break free from the cycle. Even though it can be difficult for a friend or relative to watch someone return to an abusive relationship, their presence and support will often be helpful to victims in the long term.
Reality: Abusers generally behave differently in their private lives than they do in front of other people. In private, they may manipulate, threaten and place enormous pressure on their partner, whereas in public they can be charming, caring toward their partner, funny and charismatic. This kind of public persona doesn’t match the image most people have of perpetrators of conjugal abuse. Therefore, it is often very difficult to identify perpetrators of conjugal violence, even for those who are close to the victim.
Reality: Women stay with abusive partners for a variety of complex reasons. It may take a while for them to realize that what they are experiencing is conjugal violence, or they may not be able to believe it is happening to them. They may hope to change the person they love, believe their promises, feel guilty about breaking up the family, be afraid of threats, lack the social or economic resources to manage on their own, etc.
Reality: There is an important distinction between partners bickering and conjugal violence. Occasional bickering between partners can escalate to heated arguments. However, if one partner feels isolated, fears the other person’s reactions or feels that the other person always has to win, it could be conjugal abuse.
Reality: The crucial factor to consider is time: are these the first signs of conjugal violence or is there a long-established pattern?
If these are the very first acts of violence, victims who are able to identify them as such stand to benefit from expressly stating that they will not accept this type of behaviour. Standing up to an act of violence may be enough to stop the cycle of violence, although there are no guarantees.
However, if the cycle of violence is already established, standing up to the abuser may be more dangerous to the victim than remaining passive. Confronting abusers can push them to react even more strongly to assert their authority and keep victims under their control.
Remember: Conjugal violence is a cycle of violence that begins gradually and is repeated over and over again. The first signs of conjugal violence might seem like only a lover’s quarrel to the victim, who may not necessarily see the relevance of taking any action. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to defend oneself against something that hasn’t been identified.
Reality: Victims do not provoke their abusers. Rather, abusers use certain events as an excuse to justify their use of violence. That said, there is no justification for violence.
The following are some examples of excuses abusers may use:
- My partner is pushing my buttons.
- My partner is provoking me.
- My partner does everything they can to make me angry.
- My partner doesn’t understand me.
- My partner doesn’t meet my needs.
- My partner doesn’t do what I want.
Reality: Leaving an abusive partner is an important step to protect victims and their children. However, it should not be assumed that leaving automatically solves the unhealthy relationship dynamic. That is why it is strongly recommended that victims both prepare for leaving and anticipate the possibility of post-separation violence. The Protective measures page outlines key elements and steps to take to achieve this.
What to do if...
I am a victim
If you need immediate help, dial 9-1-1.
If you need support, someone to talk to or advice on what to do, call SOS Violence Conjugale (1-800-363-9010), a confidential, bilingual crisis helpline that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The counsellors who answer the phone will put you in touch with resources, including people who can listen, comfort you and answer all your questions. They can also help you find a temporary shelter for you and your children.
If you are thinking about ending an abusive relationship or leaving a violent situation and you are unsure how to go about it, please see the Protective measures page.
I am a witness
If you witness a situation that requires immediate help, dial 9-1-1.
If you have witnessed a situation that worries you and you don’t know what to do, contact SOS Violence Conjugale at 1-800-363-9010 at any time. Their support staff will be able to help you get a clearer picture.
If you are not sure whether what you’ve witnessed is actually conjugal violence, refer to the definitions of the different types of violence, visit the Evaluate the relationship page and watch for the various warning signs. You can also contact SOS Violence Conjugale.
Witnessing conjugal violence can put you in a difficult position. You may be uncomfortable with the idea of becoming involved in something you may not think concerns you. However, it is absolutely legitimate to want to help someone who is experiencing conjugal violence. For the sake of victims, acts of violence should not be kept private.
I’ve been abusive to my partner
Realizing that you’ve abused or assaulted your partner can be very unsettling. It can be difficult to face the truth and take responsibility for your words and actions.
If you need to talk to someone or if you have questions or doubts about something you have done to your partner, contact the organization À cœur d’homme at 1-877-660-7799. Support staff will be able to listen and answer any questions.
Help and resources
- If you need immediate help, dial 9-1-1.
- Helpline for victims of sexual assault and sexual exploitation
- Free, bilingual, anonymous and confidential service, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, across Québec
- Crime Victims Assistance Centre (CAVAC)
- Available in all regions of Québec, providing access to trained intervention professionals
- Live chat service (from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., 7 days a week) and telephone helpline (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
- SOS Violence Conjugale
- Offers telephone support, psychological support, immediate intervention and referrals to shelters (SOS Violence Conjugale can make the call for you)
- Centre d’aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuel (Sexual Assault Centres, CALACS)
- Offers direct help to women and female adolescents who have been sexually assaulted, as well as telephone support, support groups, accompaniment and support services for victims (police, hospital, etc.) and services for close family and friends of victims
- The Director of Youth Protection (DPJ)
- Possibility of reporting a situation to the DPJ by telephone or written report, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
- Contact information for organizations part of the ESPACE program (families and children)
- Program offering various workshops for children and operating a telephone helpline
- À cœur d’homme
- Offers referral, intervention and counselling services offering support to partners and fathers with violent behaviours
- Conjugal violence media kit (French only)
- A list of services for victims of conjugal violence and children exposed to conjugal violence
Last update: December 3, 2020