When you’re in an intimate relationship, it’s supposed to be a safe space. However, when one partner abuses the other, that doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, domestic violence is prevalent throughout society. Given the recent stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19, the number of cases has surged. Why does domestic violence occur? What can be done to stop it?

Domestic violence, or intimate partner violence (IPV), usually happens privately and is prolonged by secrecy, shame, and silence. These are general terms used to describe physical violence, sexual violence, psychological harm, or stalking by a current or former partner. It can occur among heterosexual or homosexual couples and doesn’t require sexual intimacy. In most cases, the emotional and verbal violence is far more damaging than the physical violence. IPV varies in frequency and severity, meaning that it can range from one episode of violence that has a lasting impact to chronic episodes over multiple years.

Unfortunately, IPV is common and affects millions of people in the United States each year. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that it’s common worldwide, but is drastically underreported because women are often wrongly held responsible for the abuse. While it can affect anyone of any age, gender, race, sexual orientation, or financial status, it disproportionately affects women of lower economic means. IPV against men and within the LGBTQ community hasn’t been discussed as much because of stigma. There’s deep shame associated with being a victim, and that is amplified when you’re a man.

The statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) are eye-opening. IPV accounts for 15% of all violent crimes, and women between 18-24 are most commonly abused. Roughly, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men will have been exposed to sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, with almost 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men experiencing severe physical violence and about 1 in 5 women and 1 in 12 men undergoing sexual violence.

The data also points out that more than 43 million women and 38 million men suffer psychological aggression from an intimate partner, and 10% of women and 2% of men have been stalked. This means that an act of IPV happens every 15 seconds, with nearly 20 people per minute on average being physically abused by an intimate partner in the US, which equates to more than 10 million women and men a year. Every day an average of 4 women die from IPV.

Per the numbers, a typical day sees more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide. The amount of IPVs that use a weapon is 19%. If this weapon is a gun, the risk of homicide increases by 500%. According to the figures, 72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner. Records from US crime reports indicate that 16% of homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner.

The CDC also shows that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have been raped, with 45.4% of females and 29% of males being raped by an intimate partner. One shocking detail was that 1 in 15 children are exposed to IPV yearly, and 90% are eyewitnesses to the violence. According to the WHO, if there was no intimate partner violence around the world for one week, 487,500,000 women would not be subjected to abuse, 209,625,000 women wouldn’t state being the recipient of both physical and sexual violence, and the children of 380,250,000 women wouldn’t see their mothers abused.

It’s hard to spot abusers.

When in public, they can appear smart, trustworthy, and charming, but in private, they’re a nightmare. IPV is about power and total control. Understanding this idea is essential to grasping the concept of intimate partner violence. One way to look at is through the Cycle of Violence. There are six phases. The first is the Build-Up Phase, which is when tension starts to increase. In the Stand-Over Phase, verbal attacks rise. During the Explosion Phase, a violent outburst happens. After, the Remorse Phase sets in, which sends the message to the victim it was their fault because they pushed the abuser to do it. Next, the Pursuit Phase is when the abuser tells the victim that it’ll never happen again. The final phase is the Honeymoon Phase which is when the abuser and victim pretend they don’t have any problems. However, the abusive behavior rarely stops.

Other forms of abuse, like sexual abuse, psychological abuse, emotional abuse, spiritual abuse, economic abuse and social abuse, follow similar patterns.

A well-known trauma expert at Harvard University Medical School, Judith Lewis Herman, discovered that “the methods which enable one human being to control another are remarkably consistent” and the techniques abusers use to control their partners “bear an uncanny resemblance” to what kidnappers use to control hostages and repressive regimes use against political prisoners.

Of the four main types of behavior used in IVP, physical violence is the one most people think of and is when a person hurts or tries to hurt a partner by hitting, kicking, or other types of physical force. Sexual violence occurs when a person forces or attempts to force a partner to take part in a sex act, sexual touching, or a non-physical sexual event, like sexting, when the partner doesn’t or can’t consent. Psychological aggression is using verbal and non-verbal communication to harm another person mentally/emotionally and/or exert control over that person. Stalking is repeated, unwanted attention and contact by a person that results in fear or concern for one’s safety or the safety of someone close to the victim. The behaviors can occur individually or together.

Besides physical violence, common methods used by abusers include isolation from friends, family, and employment; using children/pets as emotional leverage; continual surveillance; strict, exhaustive rules for behavior; and limits on access to necessities (ex. food, clothing and sanitary facilities). In addition, the internet has created new ways for abusers to control their victims through manipulation, cyberstalking, and emotional blackmail. Wealthy perpetrators deny access to bank accounts and exploit their partners’ fear of challenging men who wield influence in the community.

Typically, IPV starts early and continues throughout a person’s lifespan. When it starts in adolescence, it is called teen dating violence (TDV), affecting millions of US teens yearly. About 11 million women and 5 million men who have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime said that they first came into contact with it before the age of 18.

There are risk factors that are linked to a greater likelihood of IPV developing. It’s important to note that they’re contributing factors, not direct causes, and not everyone who has them becomes involved in violence. Typically, someone who displays IPV has a combination of individual, relational, community, and societal factors.

Individual risk factors include low self-esteem, low income, low academic achievement, low verbal IQ, being a young age, aggressive/delinquent behavior as a youth, heavy alcohol/drug use, depression, suicide attempts, anger/hostility, lack of non-violent problem-solving skills, antisocial/borderline personality traits, poor behavioral control/impulsiveness, prior history of being physically abusive, lacking friends, being isolated from others, unemployment, emotional insecurity, belief in strict gender roles, need for power and control in relationships, hostility towards women, attitudes accepting of IPV, being a victim of physical or psychological abuse, witnessing IPV between parents as a child, receiving poor parenting as a child, having been physically discipline as a child and unplanned pregnancy.

Relationship factors that contribute to IVP are marital conflicts, jealousy, possessiveness, separations, divorce, dominance/control of the relationship by one partner, economic stress, unhealthy family relationships, being around antisocial and aggressive peers, having parents with less than a high school education and lack of social support.

Several community factors precipitate IVP, such as poverty (ex. high unemployment rates); lack of institutions, relationships, and norms that influence a community’s social interactions; poor neighborhood support and cohesion; people unwilling to intervene in situations where they witness violence and high use of alcohol within the community.

There are societal factors that play a role as well, like traditional gender norms, gender inequality, cultural norms that encourage aggression toward others, societal income inequality, and weak policies/laws for health, educational, economic, and social issues.

One of the biggest influences on whether or not someone is likely to participate in IVP is if they witnessed violence in their family of origin. Abusers often feel that they’re the victim. Many experts have concluded that this is a common characteristic among them. One study found that in many cases, the methods of control are used as mate retention behaviors, or actions taken by one partner to keep their intimate partner from leaving the relationship or from being unfaithful, even if it means physically forcing the person to stay.

There are many negative physical, mental, and sexual/reproductive health effects linked with intimate partner violence. Some of these include adolescent pregnancy, unintended pregnancy, miscarriage, stillbirth, intrauterine hemorrhage, nutritional deficiency, abdominal pain, gastrointestinal problems, neurological disorders, chronic pain, disability, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, panic attacks, hypertension, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases. In addition, victims are at higher risk for developing addictions to alcohol, tobacco, and/or drugs. Victims are more vulnerable to contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) due to forced intercourse or prolonged exposure to stress.

About 41% of female and 14% of male victims have some form of physical injury related to IPV, and only 34% of all people injured by IPV receive medical care for their injuries. It can take victims a while before they realize the reality of their circumstances. Often, they require professional help to overcome the short and long-term emotional and psychological effects because they have trouble trusting others and endure painful flashbacks to traumatic incidents even after leaving the abusive environment. Unfortunately, victims of abuse usually have low self-esteem, so they find themselves trapped in repeating cycles of violence. According to the CDC figures, domestic victimization is correlated with a higher rate of depression and suicidal behavior.

Although the personal physical/emotional consequences of IPV are distressing, there’s a cost to society as well. Statistics show that the societal economic cost associated with medical services for IPV-related injuries, lost productivity from paid work, criminal justice, and other costs, is incredibly high. The cost over a victim’s lifetime was $103,767 for women and $23,414 for men. According to the CDC, victims lose a total of 8 million days of paid work each year, and the total cost of IPV exceeds $8.3 billion per year.

Sadly, there’s a multigenerational effects of intimate partner violence. Numerous studies have shown that witnessing domestic violence has long-term effects on children’s mental health and is associated with carrying on the behavior as an adult. In a 2011 Department of Justice report, 1 in 9 children were exposed to family violence in the past year, with most witnessed violence occurring between the children’s parents or a parent and partner. An analysis of data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) found that about 450 children, on average, are killed by a parent every year in the US.

One of the reasons so many children are exposed to IPV is because American culture stipulates that children must have a father, and having an intact family is the foundation of society. In addition, having a relationship is the ultimate goal, and staying to work out problems is better than leaving the kids to be raised in a single-parent household. The problem is if the alternative to these ideas is that children witness one adult abusing another adult, which means the societal views create an environment perfect for perpetuating the cycle of abuse to future generations.

While leaving an abusive relationship is vital to the victim’s survival, and better for any children involved, this is when the victim is at the highest risk of being killed. For those on the outside, it’s hard to judge what is really going on in each situation, but many people often don’t understand why the victim doesn’t just leave. In actuality, many victims are actively and stealthily trying to leave, but this involves working within the existing system and following a step-by-step approach while maintaining extreme vigilance. Since the abuser controls most aspects of their lives, it can make it challenging for the victim to access the resources they need to aid in leaving.

In addition, it doesn’t help when victims receive subliminal messages to stay, such as when the court system puts them on the defensive and asks them to face a person who might have tried to kill them and will likely kill them for real next time or when the abuser gets just a slap on the wrist for a violent incident. It’s also visible when law enforcement treats it as a domestic dispute, instead of the crime that it is. If the perpetrator does get placed in jail, this will stop the violence, but only temporarily since there are limited resources to help them understand what is wrong with their behavior and learn healthier ways to interact.

Most states don’t allocate resources, such as tax dollars, for treatment of abusers. By attending an intervention class, abusers gain a deeper understanding of how their childhood, dating history, and life experiences shape who they are. Typically, program facilitators look for any expression of empathy or accountability as a way of measuring the success of treatment because most individuals enter the program with elaborate denial systems designed to justify or excuse their actions.

Besides promoting and developing more intervention programs, there are things we can do as a community and society to support the development of healthy, respectful, and nonviolent relationships. This will help to prevent the harmful and long-lasting effects of IPV on individuals, families, and communities. One of the best ways to do this is to teach safe, healthy relationship skills through social-emotional learning programs for youths and healthy relationship programs for couples. It’s also essential to engage influential adults and peers, particularly men and boys, as partners in prevention. Citizens within a community should be empowered to intervene when they see an IPV situation occurring.

Another key element is to disrupt the developmental pathways that can lead to intimate partner violence by doing early childhood home visitation, preschool enrichment with family engagement, offering parenting skills/family relationship programs, and offering programs for at-risk children, youth, and families. Creating protective environments, such as improved school climate/safety, better organizational policies/workplace climate, and modifying the physical/social environments of neighborhoods, is essential. It’s crucial to strengthen the economic support for families. Putting in place provisions for survivors, like victim-centered services, housing programs, first responder/civil legal protections, patient-centered approaches, and treatment programs, will be incredibly beneficial.

The thought that abused women provoke the violence their significant others inflict isn’t new. It has been a belief that has appeared throughout history despite many societies not recognizing intimate partner violence as wrong. When you look at some interpretations of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian religions, they give a husband the ability to discipline his wife in the same manner as he might discipline and control any of his other properties, including servants, slaves, and animals. Some of these texts go so far as to give instructions on the manner of discipline, like avoiding direct blows to the face or making sure not to cause lasting injury.

Today, there are still more than a dozen countries, including Egypt, Haiti, Latvia, Uzbekistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where violence against a spouse or family member is perfectly legal, or there aren’t specific laws against it. In 2017, Russia decriminalized any IPV that doesn’t result in bodily injury. In the early history of the US, the Puritans had laws against abuse, but they were rarely enforced. Some states, such as Alabama, Maryland, Oregon, Delaware, and Massachusetts, began writing legislation against spousal abuse in the late 19th century but seldom imposed them.

It was the women’s movement in the 1970s and ’80s that brought abused women to the attention of the nation. During this time, the idea of the domestic violence shelter took root. The first one, later called Transition House, was established in 1975 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, the federal law forbidding domestic violence wasn’t passed until 1984. It was called the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act. It took until the early 1990s for stalking to be identified as a crime. Unfortunately, it’s still not seen for the threat that it truly is, not by law enforcement, abusers, or even the victims. This is concerning since three-quarters of intimate-partner femicide victims in America are stalked beforehand by partners or ex-partners. In 1996, the national hotline for victims of domestic violence was established.

Three initiatives revolutionized how the US tackled IVP in the early 2000s. The first was the 2002 opening of the country’s first family-justice center in San Diego. This put victim services, like police, attorneys, victim compensation, counseling, education, and dozens of others, together in one place. The second item was the 2003 creation of high-risk teams within the agencies to identify the dangerousness of any given IVP situation and then build protections around victims. The third idea was the Lethality Assessment Program, which was started in Maryland in 2005. The focus was to address how law enforcement dealt on-scene with an IVP situation.

Two primary events led to these changes. The first was the O. J. Simpson trial. The murder of Nicole Brown Simpson brought to the forefront the idea that IPV could happen anywhere, to anyone. In addition, for the first time, nearly every newspaper article about the case included information on where victims could seek help. This resulted in the number of calls to domestic violence hotlines, shelters, and police climbing sharply. As a positive consequence of the case receiving such media attention, domestic violence became part of the national conversation.

The other main event that influenced how America deals with domestic violence was the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This put IPV directly before lawmakers, which helped move the matter from a private family issue that only women needed to deal with to a problem that should involve the criminal justice system. The bill was introduced in 1990 by then-Senator Joe Biden but didn’t pass until the fall of 1994. This allowed cities and towns nationwide to receive federal funding to combat IVP in their communities. These funds were used to train first responders and create advocacy positions, shelters, transitional housing, batterer-intervention classes, and legal training.

By providing the funding, the VAWA ensured that victims no longer had to pay for their own rape kits. Also, if an abused partner was evicted because of events related to the abuse, she was now eligible to receive compensation and assistance. In addition, victims with disabilities could find support, and if any victim needed legal aid, they had access to it. Most of the systems and services in place today to deal with IVP are a direct result of VAWA.

Part of the VAWA stipulates that it needs to be reauthorized every five years. Unfortunately, the 2013 reauthorization was delayed since many Republican Congressional members didn’t want the bill to specifically mention same-sex partners, Native Americans living on reservations, or undocumented immigrants trying to apply for temporary visas, but needing services provided under the VAWA. After heated debates in both branches of Congress, the reauthorization finally passed. There was a similar delay in 2018.

On top of fighting about who should be allowed to seek assistance, politicians fund the VAWA sparingly. In 2019, the Office of Violence Against Women had an entire budget of just under $489 million. The Department of Justice, which oversees the Office of VAW, had an annual budget of $28 billion. Given the prevalence of IVP throughout the country, this amount is nowhere near enough.

Unfortunately, media coverage of intimate partner violence has not yet led to a widespread understanding of just how pervasive a problem it is. Thankfully, that is beginning to shift as reporters are increasingly covering IVP as an urgent social crisis. The recent #MeToo movement highlighted the commonness of sexual assault and received a flood of media coverage. There is hope that this spotlight will also help showcase the incidence of IVP.

Many reporters point out that it’s very difficult to report on because of the connotation that still exists where women are to blame for abusive relationships. These judgments range from “she must’ve done something to deserve it” or believing “it would never happen to me.” To address these and other assumptions, reporters are faced with the challenge of accurately presenting the complexities of the decisions a woman may face. This is difficult due to how long many of these victims have suffered and the impact the resulting trauma has on memory. This means someone who has experienced violence might seem unreliable when describing what happened to them. To gain true insight, victims usually need to recount their stories again and again. This helps to identify details that are recurring.

Other techniques reporters employ are having the victim write out a timeline or drawing a bird’s-eye view of the scene. Sometimes, this can reveal details that the victims have buried. These are painful stories to share and hear, which means the reporter must fight against every instinct to comfort the victim and allow them to experience those moments again because that’s when the truth is most likely to come out.

One perspective that isn’t often thought about, and much more difficult to capture, is the abusers. Typically, victims are much more willing to talk. However, both sides of the story need to be told for a better understanding of underlying causes and what needs to be done to make improvements. This is where the power of the press can help change public opinion and laws. The former is critical since these are the people who serve on juries and decide whether perpetrators are held accountable for their actions. In addition, by shifting public opinion, positive changes can be made in communities to help provide added support to stop the cycle of violence.

Our current global situation from COVID-19 is causing the days to stretch long for most of us, but they’re unrelenting for those facing violence, causing a great deal of concern among IPV experts. The limits on movement executed by countries worldwide to stop the spread of the virus have forced people to spend much more time at home, leading to a surge in IPV cases. This isn’t uncommon when families spend more time together than normal, such as during Christmas and summer vacations. As the lockdowns continue to spread, domestic violence hotlines are lighting up.

Many experts say that governments should have seen this crisis coming.

Regrettably, most governments failed to prepare for it and are now scrambling to offer services to those at risk. Similar to the response to the virus, the delays mean that irreversible harm most likely has already occurred. There is mounting evidence that demonstrates that domestic abuse is flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.

In China, a Beijing-based organization, Equality, focused on fighting violence against women, has seen an influx in calls to its helpline since early February. This corresponds to when the government locked down cities in Hubei Province. In Spain, officials say that the emergency number for domestic violence had an 18% increase in calls during the first two weeks of lockdown than it received in the same period a month earlier. The French police stated a nationwide spike in domestic violence by close to 30%.

Experts point out that as the confinement drags on, the danger will likely intensify. Several studies have found that abusers are more likely to murder their partners and others in the wake of personal crises, such as job loss or major financial setback. Since the COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging the economy, there is likely to be an increase in these episodes. In addition, women comprise a larger percentage of the informal economy, providing care to the elderly and children and tipped restaurant workers. Most of these jobs don’t have paid leave, and many individuals employed in these positions have been let go. This will add to the financial stress, which is likely to trigger abusive episodes. Also, victims who may have secretly been stashing money for an escape will be impacted by the loss of income.

Home isolation, vital to the fight virus, is giving more power to abusers and has shattered the support networks of victims, making it harder for them to get help or escape. During prolonged periods at home, the abuser has increased access to victims. The longer an abuser is home, the more persistent the need for victims to maintain hypervigilance and the more drawn out their anxiety with the anticipation of violence being almost as bad as the violence itself. In a pandemic, many people feel as though they’re losing control and searching for healthy ways to cope, but IPV is all about power and control, so when an abuser feels powerless, it puts their victim at increased risk.

Some are using the outbreak to exert further control by discouraging victims from leaving the house altogether by saying it’s not safe to go out due to the potential exposure risk. In addition, critical information sharing about the spread of the virus may be restricted by the abuser, which they use to their advantage by telling the victim that they will be kicked out and exposed to COVID-19.

Another side effect is with kids not in school, they’re more likely to witness abuse. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on law enforcement offices because their staff is being infected, which means there are fewer officers to respond to all calls, including IPV. If a woman makes it to a shelter, they now have to be concerned about the shared space that is common. Many shelters are trying to ensure safety and health in a crowded environment, but many wonder how is the virus not going to be spread in situations like this? If someone is, or gets, infected, how will they be kept quarantined and isolated when space is severely limited? All these are concerns facing the victims.

Due to these concerns, some victims are leaving shelters and returning to their abusers because they fear being infected. This has resulted in many of the services domestic violence organizations provide, like mental health counseling and job programs, to shift online to mitigate risk, but still reach those who need it. However, experts fear that even if services are offered remotely, strict isolation measures that require the abuser to be at home may mean that many victims won’t access them since victims usually seek help when their abusers aren’t around. Domestic violence shelters and programs are trying to find creative and safe ways to ensure they’re there for victims. They don’t want anyone to have to choose between their safety and their health. Many say that if you were planning to reach out, please don’t let COVID-19 prevent you from doing that.

There has been sort of a wake-up call to legislators. On March 23rd, 25 senators (Republican and Democrat) sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The letter asked the department to guarantee that anti–domestic violence and anti–sexual violence programs have the “resources and information” they will need during the pandemic. While a good start, it doesn’t create any provisions that would actually ensure that these resources are distributed. Sadly, this is how it usually goes with politicians because they want to be seen as caring about domestic violence and set it up as a bipartisan issue. Still, no side is willing to really fight for change.

Since many shelters were underfunded before the pandemic and there is an upsurge in need, many are struggling and are facing the difficult decision of whether or not they can stay open. To help, maybe we should be doing something similar to what France’s minister for equality between men and women, Marlène Schiappa, implemented. Her program has made 20,000 hotel rooms available for women fleeing violence. This action acknowledges that the pandemic has left thousands of women and children vulnerable. In the meantime, it’s up to ordinary people to raise money, provide space, and donate resources for the thousands of victims who will need them. One way to find out what you can do is to contact local domestic violence shelters and ask what they need, such as purchasing food online and having it shipped to the shelter.

Intimate partner violence is a significant problem within our country and throughout the world. Our failure, as a society, to treat it as the public health issue that it is reveals a stunning lack of comprehension about how insidious and widespread it is. IPV is like no other crime because it doesn’t happen as the result of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead, it happens at home, which is supposed to be sacred territory, from someone who claims to love you. Just because it occurs in privacy doesn’t mean it’s not a crime. As a society, we must take definitive steps to change our views, culture, and policies. If you’re currently living in an abusive environment, know that it’s not your fault, and there is help available.

Intimate Partner Violence Resources:
National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) allows you to speak confidentially with trained advocates online or by phone.

Safe Horizon 1-800-621-HOPE (4673) offers crisis counseling, safety planning, and assistance finding shelters. It also has a chat feature where you can reach out for help from a computer or phone confidentially.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline any time of day or night or chat online. 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Text Line provides free, around-the-clock, confidential support via text message to people in crisis. Use the number 741741.

If you’re part of the LGBTQ community and are feeling hopeless or suicidal, you can also contact The Trevor Project’s Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386.