Domestic violence—also known as intimate partner violence, spousal abuse, or domestic abuse—is the abusive behavior of one partner toward another in an effort to gain and maintain control. The behavior can vary in frequency and severity and may include physical or sexual violence, as well as emotional, psychological, or financial abuse. Intimate partner violence affects all manner of romantic relationships and can negatively impact family, friends, and others.
Physical violence is just one form of intimate partner violence. In many cases, an aggressive partner employs a variety of behaviors in an effort to manipulate and control his or her partner. Forms of domestic violence include:
- Physical abuse: hitting, shoving, kicking, choking, biting, hair-pulling, or forced ingestion of drugs or alcohol.
- Sexual violence: forced or coerced sex acts, or sexually demeaning treatment.
- Emotional abuse: put-downs, name-calling, blaming, criticism, or other efforts to diminish a person’s self-worth.
- Psychological abuse: threats of physical violence toward a partner, family member, pets, or friends; keeping a partner from socializing or going to work or school; or threatening suicide or self-harm as a method of manipulation.
- Financial abuse: controlling a partner’s finances, or restricting access to financial resources.
Although domestic violence research has focused largely on male perpetrators and female victims, anyone can be affected, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, or socioeconomic background. The effects of domestic violence extend well beyond the victims and perpetrators, affecting their children and other family members, friends and loved ones, and the community at large.
- 1 in 4 adult women and 1 in 7 adult men in the United States have been subjected to severe physical violence from an intimate partner at some point in their lives.
- 86% of male victims of intimate partner violence were assaulted by a male partner.
- 33% of female homicide victims and 5.5% of male homicide victims were killed by a current or former spouse or partner.
- 30% to 60% of children in households where there is domestic violence experience abuse or neglect.
- Children who witness violence in the home are more likely to become abusers or victims of abuse.
- Costs associated with domestic violence incidents are estimated to exceed $8.3 billion each year.
There are a variety of factors that may contribute to the likelihood that a person becomes a perpetrator of intimate partner violence. Interestingly, many of these factors, like low self-esteem or emotional dependence, are also correlated with victims of domestic violence. There are no direct causal links to domestic violence, but many factors that are correlated with the behavior.
One of the strongest risk factors for becoming an abuser is having been a victim of physical or psychological abuse. Other risk factors include:
- Low self-esteem
- Anger management issues
- The need to control others
- A belief in strict gender roles
- Poor parenting in childhood
- Low income or unemployment
- High substance abuse
- Emotional insecurity or dependence
Physical violence leaves visible wounds that are often temporary, but all forms of intimate partner violence leave lasting psychological effects, including:
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- Posttraumatic stress
- Loss of trust
- Problems with sleep
- Fear of intimacy
- Suicidal ideation
- Emotional distance
The chronic stress of being an abuse victim, along with repeated physical harm, can result in any of the following physical health concerns:
- Chronic pain, including migraines
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Sexual problems, including sexually transmitted infections
- Reproductive complications, including preterm births and perinatal deaths
- Unintended pregnancies
- Bladder and kidney infections
- Central nervous system problems
Domestic violence victims may also find they experience strain in their relationships with health professionals, employers, and social networks.
In the 1970s, domestic violence researcher Lenore Walker identified a three-part cycle of violence among violent relationships. This pattern is rarely recognized by either partner in the violent relationship.
- Tension: Anger, arguments, and threats in the relationship escalate.
- Violent incident: Physical, emotional, or sexual violence occurs. The violence often becomes more severe over time.
- Honeymoon: The abuser apologizes and may make promises to never abuse again. On the other hand, the abuser might blame the victim for the violence or deny that the abuse took place, and the victim may accept the blame or denial. The couple achieves emotional intimacy and a period of calm ensues. While this pattern is generally accepted as accurate, it does not represent all violent relationships, and each cycle can last varying lengths of time.
The most dangerous time period for a victim of domestic violence occurs when he or she attempts to leave the relationship. This may be one reason people often stay in violent relationships.
If you are in an abusive relationship, create a safety plan for yourself and your children:
- When tension increases and an argument seems imminent, consider which room in your home may be safest. Make sure there is an exit and that there are no weapons in the room.
- Make a contact list of safe people you can contact if needed.
- Develop a code word to use with family, friends, or coworkers when you need them to call for help.
- Memorize important identification numbers and phone numbers.
- Carry change at all times.
- Consider safe places you could go, if needed.
- Practice ways to get out of your home safely. Consider hiding a bag of belongings somewhere in your house or with a friend, just in case.
- Consider opening a bank account or credit card in your name, if you don’t have one.
- If you leave, go to a safe place or a shelter with your children to access legal, financial, and emotional support.
- Arrange for temporary protective custody for your children, if it is not safe or possible to take them with you.
If you need help immediately, call 911, or one of the following crisis hotlines:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
- National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474
- National Sexual Assault Hotline 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
When accessing web resources, keep in mind that an abuser may be able to track your Internet usage. Learn how to clear your computer’s browsing history or consider using a computer in a safe place, such as a public library or at a friend’s house.
Relationship counseling is not always advisable or effective for relationships in which violence is present, and many therapists may be unwilling to see couples if violence has occurred. The safety of the therapy session encourages open communication, but such communication can be dangerous in a violent relationship and subject the recipient to more violence. Also, couples counseling is based on shared respect for one another and shared responsibility for the relationship outcome and process. Until a violent partner gets help to stop his or her abusive behavior, and until the recipient is able to discover why he or she tolerates such abuse, couples work is likely to harm more than it helps.
Individual counseling, however, can help a victim of domestic abuse see the pattern of violence in the relationship and develop a safety plan. Victims and survivors of domestic violence struggle with self-esteem, anxiety, fear, and posttraumatic stress that can impact every area of their lives, and any form of therapy can address these kinds of mental health issues. Therapy also helps people build upon their strengths and minimize negative beliefs about themselves. Group therapy, for example, may benefit domestic violence survivors through group members’ shared experiences that can help normalize survivors’ feelings and provide them with a network of support. Practices like art therapy and music therapy can provide survivors with a creative outlet for their feelings, and many people learn to trust again through animal-assisted therapies.
Children who witness domestic abuse will benefit from addressing the trauma in a developmentally appropriate manner as soon as possible so that they do not develop mental health issues in childhood or carry scars of their trauma into adulthood. Child witnesses to domestic violence may have difficulty sleeping, perform poorly academically, behave in defiance toward parents and other adults, or develop somatic symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches. They may develop unhealthy behaviors to cope with the trauma, and in adulthood, these same children may end up in troubled relationships, as abuser or victim of abuse. There are many forms of therapy that are particularly well suited to work with children. Play therapy or sand tray therapy, for example, can be helpful for kids who might have difficulty verbalizing their feelings, and parent–child interaction therapy was specifically designed to help children with behavioral issues.
- Couple in Therapy for "Blow Ups": Danielle and Randy, both 26 years old, present for couples counseling. Halfway through the first session, the therapist asks for more information about the “fights” and “blow-ups” they report. Danielle reports Randy recently pushed her down, and that he sometimes pulls things – the phone, the TV remote – out of her hand. Randy admits to this, and counters by accusing Danielle of pushing him once, which Danielle says was self-defense. The therapist informs the couple that he will see them separately, effective immediately. They agree to this, and the therapist begins by meeting alone with Randy. The therapist spends the session forming an alliance with Randy, rather than confronting his violent behaviors. In a brief meeting with Danielle, the therapist provides the name of a colleague who can see her, and obtains a release of information from Danielle so the therapist can share his impression of the couple with the new therapist. Randy’s therapy centers on anger management, as well as on his beliefs about women and lack of empathy. Progress is quite slow. Danielle, meanwhile, explores her codependency, and soon resolves to leave the relationship.
- Husband Feels like "Jekyll and Hyde": Trudy, 32, seeks therapy because she feels “crazy” ever since she married her long time boyfriend Jack. Trudy reports that Jack calls her names, forces her to have sex at times and in ways she does not want, and stays out very late without telling her what he is doing, getting angry if she even asks. Before the marriage, he was extremely charming and always kind to her, if at times a little possessive and jealous (she found this flattering). Now he seems to have pulled a “Jekyll and Hyde” act. Trudy tried to separate from him but he followed her to her friend’s house and “nearly broke down the door” knocking on it at 3 a.m., demanding she “come home.” She did. Trudy is convinced Jack cannot live without her; he even threatens to kill himself if she does leave. But she cannot stand the verbal abuse. She denies Jack is violent, though the therapist points out that forced sex is a violent act, as is “demanding” anything from her with such aggressiveness as Jack displays. Trudy is able to see the true nature of her relationship only after Jack hits her hard in the face, sending her to a doctor. The therapist helps her plan to leave in safe way, and finds a battered women's shelter she can live in temporarily. He also expresses concern for her safety at her job, as Jack knows where she works, and eventually Trudy realizes that involving law enforcement is necessary to protect her safety. She obtains a restraining order and Jack seems to give up. Further therapy helps her work through feelings of grief and guilt about the relationship, and to identify how she can choose a more appropriate partner in the future.
- Almeida, Rhea V; Durkin, Tracy. (1999, July). The cultural context model: Therapy for couples with domestic violence. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 25.3, 313-24.
- Borrego, Joaquin Jr.; Gutow, Mindy R.; Reicher, Shira; Barker, Chikira H. (2008, March 19). Parent-Child Interaction Therapy with Domestic Violence Populations. Journal of Family Violence, 23, 495-505.
- Domestic Violence Facts. (2007). Retrieved from http://www.ncadv.org/files/DomesticViolenceFactSheet%28National%29.pdf
- Domestic Violence: Statistics & Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.safehorizon.org/page/domestic-violence-statistics--facts-52.html
- Intimate Partner Violence: Consequences. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/consequences.html