“At one point I became very sick. I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom. She refused to drive me to the doctor and she said I was exaggerating.”
Ruth, 48

Chronic illnesses (e.g. HIV, cancer, alcoholism, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, etc) can cause tension, stress and a range of other problems within a relationship but they do not cause domestic and family violence. 

Abusive partners (or ex-partners) choose the weapons of abuse and control they use, and their or their partner’s health can be used as one of these weapons. In some abusive relationships the domestic and family violence began at or around the time that the illness was diagnosed. 

In some cases of domestic and family violence, the abusive partner is living with an illness while in other cases it is the partner without an illness that is abusive. Within an abusive relationship where either or both of the partners has a chronic illness many of the forms of abuse and control discussed earlier may exist. However there are a number of forms of domestic and family violence that are specific to relationships where either or both partners have a chronic illness.

If the abusive partner does not have a chronic illness (e.g. is HIV negative) they may:

  • threaten to, or actually, disclose their partner’s health status to friends, family or colleagues;
  • withhold medication, treatments or access to other medical services;
  • threaten to cut off support or to leave; or
  • verbally abuse their partner by saying they are ‘diseased, sick, unclean’ or other inappropriate comments about their illness, or otherwise undermine their partner’s confidence.

If the abusive partner has a chronic illness (e.g. is HIV positive) they may:

  • use guilt or other psychological abuse to manipulate their partner;
  • refuse to take medication or seek medical services;
  • use their illness to manipulate services, e.g. saying ‘I’m weak and sick, how could I control him/her?’; 
  • threaten to, or actually, infect their partner where the illness can be transmitted; or
  • deliberately and misleadingly place their partner at significant risk of infection by not taking reasonable precautions to prevent transmission (e.g. not using lube and condoms when having oral, vaginal or anal sex and placing their partner at risk of HIV infection).  

Public Health Act and HIV - If the abusive partner is HIV positive and they have unprotected sex (including vaginal, oral or anal sex) with the their partner, the Public Health Act requires that they must inform their sexual partners, prior to sex, of their HIV status, unless they have taken reasonable precautions (lube, condoms and/or anti-retroviral treatment with an undetectable viral load) against transmission of HIV. 

Crimes Act and HIV - If the abusive partner knew they were HIV positive at the time they had unprotected sex with their partner, and they intentionally or recklessly transmit HIV to their partner, they can be charged with a criminal offence such as grievous bodily harm (GBH) or recklessly causing HIV transmission. Someone may still be charged with GBH even if HIV is not transmitted.   

As sexual assault is a common form of domestic violence, sexually transmissible illnesses (e.g. HIV, Syphilis, Hepatitis) pose a special risk to the uninfected partner.

If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV, call the 24-hour PEP Hotline as soon as possible. You can find out if you’re eligible for PEP and where you can get it. For PEP to work it needs to be started as soon as possible after exposure – and definitely within 72 hours.

Tel: 1800 PEP NOW or 1800 737 669 (inside NSW).

As well as the domestic violence services listed on this website there are a number of support services that someone with a chronic illness may be able to contact. These include:

  • a trusted doctor, nurse or other healthcare worker or a hospital social worker or counsellor;
  • Centrelink Social Work (13 17 94) 8am to 5pm Monday to Friday;
  • ACON  (02) 9206 2000 or 1800 063 060; 
  • HIV/AIDS Legal Centre (HALC) for legal advice (02) 9206 2060, 10am to 6pm Monday to Friday; or 
  • illness-specific support groups e.g. the Cancer Council (9334 1900/ 13 11 20) or MS Society NSW (1800 809 671) for information on treatments and support services. These groups may not have experience providing support to LGBTIQ individuals escaping domestic and family violence but they should be able to provide support around the specific requirements of the illness. Search online for contact details for specific groups.