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Durham University

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Everyday Terrorism: How Fear Works in Domestic Abuse

A research project of the Department of Geography.


A BBC Scotland television programme to be aired on Wednesday 18th December 2014 is based on this research.

This research project examined the ways that domestic violence works through establishing fear and control, as a form of 'everyday terrorism'. It creates long-lasting fear and trauma, which reinforce the abuser's control over the abused person. It affects vastly greater numbers of people than global terrorism, and it has impacts on many aspects of society as well as on the individual. The frequency and prolonged nature of domestic abuse, the psychological aspects of this control, and the setting in which domestic abuse takes place all help to explain these higher levels of fear and trauma.

The research was carried out with Scottish Womens Aid in 2012. It consisted of a wide-ranging review of existing literature on terrorism, and in-depth interviews with survivors of domestic violence, including women and men from different social class and ethnic backgrounds.

Enquiries to Professor Rachel Pain or


The research shows that:

  1. Fear in situations of domestic abuse is distinctive:
    • Being abused in a domestic setting, by an intimate partner, shapes the nature of the immediate fear during violent incidents. It also leads to chronic fear which builds up over the long term and leads to significant trauma and negative effects on health and wellbeing
    • The social and physical entrapment and isolation which often accompanies abuse reinforce these fears, and make help-seeking more difficult
    • Fear is often a key reason for not leaving, and this fear is rational and justified

  2. The psychological and emotional control that result from fear are a key way in which domestic abuse 'works':
    • Keeping another person in a state of chronic fear does not require physical violence to be used all of the time, or at all
    • Using and playing on fear is common by abusers, and is made possible because of their intimate knowledge of the person they are abusing
    • Abusers tell powerful stories about the abuse to the person they are abusing, often saying it is the fault of the person being abused. Many interviewees experience a state of ‘doublethink’ as a result
    • Gender roles within intimate relationships - who it is who usually does the domestic and emotional work - make abuse easier to perpetrate and harder to escape
    • Social inequalities related to sexual orientation, income, class, ethnicity, migrant status and disability, can also increase fear of domestic abuse and its effects

  3. Concern for children is central to the fears of many people who experience domestic abuse:
    • Children are sometimes victimised by the abusive parent, and frequently witness abuse
    • Children are sometimes deliberately used in one parent’s abuse of another
    • Children are often a key reason for the parent being abused not leaving, as well as eventually being a key reason for leaving. This apparently contradictory situation is explained by the complex and risky nature of the decision to leave

  4. People experiencing domestic abuse are not passive victims, but take many actions to improve their security:
    • Considerable strength and courage are required to live with domestic abuse, and these emotions are experienced alongside fear
    • Those interviewed tried to resist and manage abuse and fear in different ways

  5. After separation, fear often continues. Recovery and restoration are long processes:
    • Abuse often continues after separation, and leads to continuing or heightened fear
    • Trauma, an effect of chronic fear, may fully surface only after separation from the abuser
    • All interviewees also describe positive outcomes of separation for themselves and their children


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