Domestic Abuse and Intimate Partner Violence in Affluent Couples

Rear view image of person in long dress staring out windowed doorsDomestic abuse/violence, also known as intimate partner abuse/violence, is not a new phenomenon. We’ve studied families whose relationships include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and/or physical aggressiveness, and those where factors such as addiction, alcoholism, and other struggles are also present.

While some people may be under the impression that urban living and low socioeconomic status are the sources of domestic violence, or that IPV only occurs among certain populations, the truth is that domestic violence occurs across the entire spectrum of wealth and social status.

When we see wealthy families in the media, on television shows such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or Keeping up with the Kardashians, we may come away envying their wealth and possessions. Many of those families, and others not portrayed on television, may, however, often feel at odds with how they can have an internal experience that matches their outside environment. They may feel pressure to maintain a public face of contentment with their position and wealth, no matter the turmoil they experience privately. Wealth does not solve all of a person’s problems, and no matter a person’s means (or lack thereof), they may still experience mental health concerns, emotional struggles, family troubles, and any number of other life challenges.

Consider the following statistics about domestic violence:

  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some type of violence from an intimate partner.
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have experienced severe violence from an intimate partner.
  • More than 20,000 phone calls about domestic abuse are made to crisis hotlines in the United States each day.
  • The presence of a gun in an instance of IPV increases the likelihood of homicide by 500%.
  • 19% of all incidents involve a weapon.
  • 1 in 3 victims of IPV are male.

Challenges to Seeking Help in Affluent Populations

Highly educated, high-income individuals may experience additional barriers when attempting to seek help for domestic violence within their partnership or family. Affluent individuals may be more likely to have power and influence, maintain their privacy, and live in isolated or remote locations, though of course this is not always the case. While these may be considered protective factors in some instances, they can also make it more difficult for victims (partners or children) to seek help. When a partner who is abusive has the means to keep a partner, children, or other family members isolated, as well as power and influence, the victim may feel powerless to seek help and fear they will not be believed if they report abuse. They may fear further emotional or physical abuse, or, when children are involved, the possibility of losing their children. If the partner who is abusive fears ruin should the abuse come to light, there may be the potential for greater harm.

Among women who have been highly educated and women who earn high incomes, there is also often a great deal of self-judgment and self-blame for becoming victims. Many women may feel they somehow should have known better than to put themselves into an abusive situation and may be reluctant to seek help out of embarrassment or shame.  This is another barrier to obtaining help and support. Some individuals may find it easier to deny the abuse in order to better cope with it. The thought of leaving, of seeing an attorney and ending the marriage, may be frightening, and some may find it too overwhelming or difficult to contemplate.

For many people, the words “domestic violence” bring to mind a situation in which a man abuses a woman. But abuse also occurs in LGBTQ+ families and relationships, and individuals of any gender may be abusive or experience abuse. In situations where a man experiences abuse, he may feel ashamed or fear losing his credibility and status, due to heteronormative ideals and gender role stereotypes. Some men may feel greatly ashamed of being victimized and avoid disclosing abuse and seeking help as a result.

While it bears repeating that abuse occurs in families of all income levels, it is also true that abusive individuals who wield a great deal of influence and power may readily go to great lengths to make it difficult for a person to leave. A situation also becomes infinitely more complex when children are involved.

Domestic violence in affluent families often extends beyond an emotional component and revolves around financial control and power, which can be utilized to hurt and control a partner and children. Domestic violence in affluent families often extends beyond an emotional component and revolves around financial control and power, which can be utilized to hurt and control a partner and children. If those experiencing the abuse were to bring it to light, the abusive partner could potentially lose their political, corporate, social, or financial status, as well as their family. Because a partner who is abusive is not likely to desire any of these outcomes, they may do whatever possible to keep their family under their control.

The fear of losing everything may go both ways, though. A partner who takes steps to escape abuse and an abusive partner also stands to lose in all those areas. For some, the risk may be too great, and they may remain in an abusive relationship, hoping their partner will eventually improve, change, or stop the cycle of abuse altogether.

Getting Help After Intimate Partner Abuse

When a partnership or family relationship is characterized by violence, battery, or other assault, the first concern should always be the safety of those who have experienced abuse. CPS, police, and other authorities may need to be involved to help survivors safely leave the home. Mental health professionals who have been informed about intimate partner abuse should take steps to assist the survivor in formulating an exit strategy and plans to get to safety with their children. This process must be confidential and anonymous, as statistics show 75% of IPV victims killed by an abusive partner are killed after they leave the abusive environment.

It may be hard to ask for help if you have experienced, or are currently experiencing, abuse from your partner. The first step is to tell someone. Whether you call a crisis hotline and share details of your situation anonymously, or confide in a parent, spiritual leader, mentor, or trusted coworker or friend, this step helps break down the barrier of silence many survivors of abuse feel trapped behind. By calling a crisis hotline, you can also learn about resources available to you. If you are injured or have a medical emergency, it may be best to call 911 or local law enforcement.

If you feel a friend or family member may be experiencing abuse, or you see something, I encourage you to say something. It may be best to let them know, privately, that you are there to listen if they need support or help. A simple show of support may help the person experiencing abuse feel safe enough to share. Nobody should have to live with this trauma and fear, but it may take you letting your loved one know you support them unconditionally to break the silence.

Is It Possible to Treat Intimate Partner Abuse?

I believe, in some cases, when a person who is abusive or controlling recognizes this fact and wants to change, it is possible for that individual to learn to address what has led them to be abusive and overcome it. Even if it is not possible for the relationship in which the abuse has occurred to continue, a person who was abusive may learn to avoid acts of abuse or violence in the future.

There are many factors that lead a person to commit acts of abuse, though none of these ever excuse the fact of the abuse occurring. Some people who abuse their partners may, as a result of childhood experiences, other history, or some other reason, may feel frustration and fear over the idea of losing their partner and so attempt to exert control. Individuals who come from abusive families may have learned abuse growing up. When they realize the source, they may be able to address it and learn to address their feelings and frustrations in loving, caring ways.

The fact that abuse is so often hidden and goes undiscussed among affluent individuals can make it harder to address and treat the causes of abuse. Those who are wealthy or have high social status may find it harder to access resources, or fear being met with disbelief if they attempt to seek help.

But I believe it is possible for some relationships that have been characterized by abuse to experience some level of healing and growth through therapy—though this does not always lead to a continuation of the relationship. Emotionally focused therapy, a therapeutic intervention designed to address distress in adult relationships, offers techniques for couples to learn how to address relationship conflict. Violence, however, is a contraindication for this approach—the tools utilized are considered to be ineffective when violence is present because the aggression and violence must be addressed first.

When I work with couples, I try to help them identify the loving feelings they have for one another and teach them to see their partner as a person they have chosen and want to be close to, a person whose happiness is important to them. I believe it is possible for people who have engaged in acts of abuse in the past to learn to work with their partner in healthy ways by learning how to communicate their attachment needs and how to heal and repair any damage or trauma in their past that may have led to the development of abusive or violent tendencies.

However, even when a partner who has been abusive is able to stop being abusive, under no circumstances should a partner who has been abused be encouraged to return to that relationship if they choose not to do so. Safety is the primary consideration, and those who have experienced abuse may never feel safe with a partner who has acted in abusive or violent ways. This decision must always be respected by all involved. 

If both partners feel safe and wish to work to repair a relationship in which abuse has occurred, relationship counselors can work with both partners, individually and together, to develop tools for safety, communication, and conflict resolution. Some individuals may find feelings of violence and aggression dissolve, significantly or even entirely, once they address past traumatic experiences. Others may experience the same effect when they work through concerns over losing a partner. However, this is not true for all situations, and moving forward in therapy may be at the discretion of the couple and the therapist working with them. Many therapists do not advise relationship counseling in some instances of IPV or domestic abuse but instead strongly encourage the partner who experienced the abuse to seek help and formulate a safety plan.

Therapy may progress slowly, as the therapist works to help the couple understand the basis of the abuse or the fear of losing one’s partner, and that abusive acts can be extreme manifestations of this fear and emotion. Some people who have not developed helpful or productive ways of addressing these emotions may resort to aggressive or violent tactics, simply out of being unable to deal with their feelings. I believe that most people do not truly want to hurt those they love, and that when a person is willing to change, they are able to do so, through extensive work on a personal level and in therapy.

Discussion about domestic violence has increased in recent years. In fact, October is dedicated to the awareness of domestic violence and intimate partner abuse. As a couples counselor, I work to address issues that may not be as readily discussed, such as abuse among affluent individuals. If you live in an abusive situation, I encourage you to reach out for help, even if you fear you may not be believed. A compassionate and qualified counselor will offer empathy and support and help you locate resources and assistance, no matter your status or situation.

References: 

  1. Domestic violence in affluent marriages. (2016, March 9). Retrieved from https://www.domesticshelters.org/domestic-violence-articles-information/domestic-violence-in-affluent-marriages#.Wfje-2hSzIU
  2. King, J. (n.d.). 5 challenges of wealthy abused women. Retrieved from http://www.preventabusiverelationships.com/articles/tiffanys_abuse_264.php
  3. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (2015). Domestic violence national statistics. Retrieved from https://ncadv.org/assets/2497/domestic_violence.pdf
  4. What is domestic violence? (2016). Domestic Violence Roundtable. Retrieved from http://www.domesticviolenceroundtable.org

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW, therapist in Scottsdale, Arizona

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kimberly

    Kimberly

    November 2nd, 2017 at 8:43 AM

    It is terrible when domestic abuse happens within the confines of any relationship, but at least those who are the Haves have the ability and the financial resources to seek out help when they need it. The Have Nots do not have quite as many options in that respect.

  • Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    November 3rd, 2017 at 10:18 AM

    While it may seem that way Kimberly, there are barriers to seeking help for the affluent as well. It’s never easy to break away from an abusive situation. Our hope is that anyone who is in danger will seek help and safety wherever possible. Thank you for your comment.

  • Anita

    Anita

    January 5th, 2018 at 4:48 AM

    It so true if someone does not have a lot of money or trying to hold on to what they have they can go through abuse. I been going through abuse for over twenty years trying to live and provide for my children. The world is so cruel and mean and most of the time there is not anyone to help you so you are stuck and you find ways to cope of you break down at time but then you have to on a whole happy front just to make it day to day. I hope things for a lot of women including myself change one day in enconomic challenge neighborhoods. I look on this internet and see how bad single mothers are bashed and all this does discourage women from leaving. It truly sad how things are most of the time these decent people born into proverty and problem and the cycle continues. In my opinion it a forgotten group of people. There are many women who suffer a great deal in order just to have a job and a place to stay and these women not just single with children these are married women too. Child care in this country is so challege women just end up going through life scared and damage waiting til they day their children are grown so they can leave searching in the intrim for any form of happiness. It is sad and all that is said most of the time the women had a baby now deal with it. In the end the women is left leave and risk putting the children through something or just stay and work pray and drink, try to cope.

  • Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    January 8th, 2018 at 11:51 AM

    Thank you for your comment Anita. When you’re in the midst of domestic abuse it may feel like there’s no one who cares or can help. Economics and poverty are certainly a barrier to many women getting help.
    I’m so sorry for what you’ve gone through. Twenty years is too long for anyone to suffer. You may feel like this is all there is, but it’s not.
    I urge you to find help, there are organizations that will help based on ability to pay. It takes courage and sometimes sacrifice, but you can break out of the cycle of abuse and show your children a better way to live.
    You deserve to have a life that’s free of abuse. Your kids deserve that too.
    National Domestic Violence Hotline is http://www.thehotline.org 1−800−799−7233
    Please check for shelters in your immediate area for assistance

  • Wearymum

    Wearymum

    November 3rd, 2017 at 4:27 PM

    There are many barriers to leaving. I had a materially comfortable life and felt like the organisations offering help were for those in less fortunate circumstances. I was therefore quite alone. As it was I was completely financially dependent and isolated without any money of “my own”. I still feel shame about my situation. When I did leave my husband was absolutely adamant that I was not to involve lawyers. Seeing a solicitor (being “disobedient”) was absolutely terrifying. My greatest struggle was that I was so muddled, i couldn’t trust my own thoughts, couldn’t make my own decisions.

    I have since learnt a lot about myself. I really do believe people can change so it’s very sad that this does not seem to be something we can do together.

  • Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    November 7th, 2017 at 6:08 PM

    Thank you for your comment Wearymum. I commend you for making the brave decision to leave. You’re a hero in my book!

  • Christine

    Christine

    November 4th, 2017 at 6:16 AM

    In more affluent communities I think that this is an issue that goes hidden and underground even more so than in communities which are not so well of. I think that the reason is that even though there are more opportunities for them to seek help, you don’t think that people will believe you or it is like this shouldn’t happen in this sort of home. You don’t think about being wealthy and still being a victim of abuse but it is just as common in these homes as it is in ones where you live paycheck to paycheck. It is a terrible situation for any man or woman to find themselves in, and no one should be made to feel ashamed or embarrassed to seek out help.

  • Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    November 7th, 2017 at 6:10 PM

    We hope that by shining a light on this issue that we can empower more victims that are hidden in the dark to reach out and get help. Thank you for your comment Christine.

  • jane T

    jane T

    November 7th, 2017 at 2:20 PM

    You have to understand that there is a fear of being found out in these communities that is very real and palpable. It would shatter that image that the outside world had of you as a couple.

  • Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    November 7th, 2017 at 6:11 PM

    It’s true Jane. There’s a lot to lose by destroying that image. We want to encourage victims to reach out and get help.

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