Domestic violence is an atrocity that hides in the shadows of quotidian life. It can be challenging to understand the severity of domestic violence and its breadth of consequences until experienced directly. Outsiders often fail to identify or recognize it due to the numerous physical, sexual, and emotional elements. Despite its inconspicuous nature, domestic violence is a universal issue that does not single out race, religion, sexual orientation, or economic status. In the United States alone, an average of 20 people per minute experience physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner. Over a year, this equates to more than 10 million victims.
As a society, we dislike talking about it or even acknowledging its presence. After all, no one wants to admit that those we love and trust are capable of causing us intense emotional pain and physical harm. From a young age, we focus our efforts on teaching youth to be wary of strangers, yet 19% of all homicides involve family, friends, or lovers, and 15% of all violent crime includes intimate partner violence (IPV).
As the COVID-19 pandemic forces us to spend more time with spouses, lovers, and family members, instances of domestic violence may become more frequent or escalate in nature. Getting aid to those who need it can be particularly tricky as victims are further strangled by factors that inhibit them from seeking help, such as isolation or economic measures. Each day, domestic violence hotlines receive more than 200,000 phone calls nationwide. Such information suggests a desperate need for advanced support systems.
So how do we do more than simply bring light to the ugly corners of our interpersonal relationships? Spreading awareness and providing support are inarguably helpful agendas, but diminishing the beast is another matter entirely. While the first step is undoubtedly to look at the issue in the face, the next is to implement adequate preventative measures. To discourage violence, we must arm people with other tools, such as verbal communication, self-regulation and emotional management, and problem-solving. Disagreements between two individuals are inevitable, but we can teach people how to work through tense moments by utilizing non-violent strategies
Violence at the hands of strangers is easy to label as wrong or offensive. However, when we experience violence from those close to us, we tend to struggle with acknowledging it as a violation, or we try to make excuses for their actions. To address domestic violence, we must first recognize it for what it is. Domestic violence includes any abusive acts between the following:
Spouses and ex-spouses.
Intimate or non-intimate cohabitants.
Formerly intimate cohabitants.
Dating or formerly dating couples.
Family members, including between parent and child, siblings, and other familial relations.
Domestic violence can occur between intimate and non-intimate partners and does not require sexual rapport. It can happen in heterosexual and same-sex relationships alike. Victims include members of all genders, ages, or status. No one is immune or incapable of experiencing domestic violence.
Manifestations of domestic violence are as diverse as the people it affects. A combination of learned behavior, cultural and ethical values, and historical backgrounds influence the actions of both abusers and their victims. Cases of domestic violence include any or multiple of the following:
Any kind of violent, physical behavior inflicted on a victim, such as hitting, shoving, cutting, burning, choking, or biting.
Any form of sexual activity coerced without consent. While this includes marital rape and forced sex, sexual assault also encompasses less obvious forms, such as being sexually demeaning or telling sexual jokes at the victim’s expense.
This type of abuse usually involves attacking a victim’s sense of self-worth by continuously putting them down, calling them names, or interfering with their outside relationships.
Using threats, blackmail, or other scare tactics to induce specific reactions or behaviors from the victim. This includes economic abuse when an abuser tries to make the victim financially reliant by controlling resources or preventing them from working.
Taken in isolation, types of stalking behavior may be legal, but when done continuously, it can be considered a stalking crime. Such activities include following the victim, spying on them, sending gifts, leaving them messages, showing up at their home or workplace, etc.
Examples of domestic violence are not limited to the above. Behavior that results in any amount of negative emotional or physical response, such as terror, humiliation, or isolation, counts as domestic abuse. Furthermore, instances of domestic violence can vary in both frequency and severity, occurring just once or becoming chronic.
The CDC offers a short public service announcement detailing some vital information on intimate partner violence:
Like many behaviors with underlying psychological motivations, domestic violence is caused by numerous variables that add up to an ugly conclusion. Influencing factors of domestic violence include:
Witnessing violence: Exposure to domestic violence during childhood may lead someone to believe that it is an appropriate way to approach intimate relationships or maintain control within a family.
Media influence: There are studies suggesting that the media contributes to the normalization and perpetuation of domestic violence
A need for domination: Some abusers feel a lack of control in their lives and seek to attain it through their relationships.
Generational victimization: Trauma can be passed on from generation to generation when left unaddressed and untreated. The trauma that one experiences transmits to others as an abuser perpetuates the actions that they were once a victim of themselves.
Though these points may lead to domestic violence, no reason justifies such an outcome. Recognizing and exploring these factors may help us understand the mindset and motivations of abusers without exonerating their behavior. Being cognizant of cruel or savage behavior helps policymakers, caretakers, mental health professionals, and the whole of society address and prevent these issues.
Dr. Michael Levittan is a Psychotherapist specializing in treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anger Management, Domestic Violence, Spousal Abuse, Child Abuse in the Los Angeles area.
I’m a licensed psychotherapist, the director of a California state batterers treatment program for domestic violence, and I have my Ph.D. in psychology. I specialize in domestic violence, number one specialty, post traumatic stress, child abuse, sexual violence, anger management, and sex trafficking, etc. I speak at many conferences, I write-publish on these subjects. Suicidality is another specialty of mine. I originally started working with victims of domestic violence, women who were victimized by it, and after I was still an intern before I was licensed, and after a few years I started working with perpetrators, and so I work with both separately, not at the same time. It’s very different work, but I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I’m also, not through just treatment, but I belong to various organizations and I consider myself an advocate for women. Advocate for anyone being abused.
Great question. First, when I was an intern my first couple of cases were women being abused. At that time, this goes back to the early 90s, there were no experts in in domestic violence. So I sought out for mentors and I found women who were involved in the women's shelter movement way back in the 60s and 70s and I went to their lectures. They became mentors of mine and I developed an expertise because I realized in domestic violence, as opposed to standard psychotherapy, the issues are immediate. I could be a woman or a child in immediate danger. Second, the deeper answer, is as a little boy I had a father and step-mother who constantly argued. There was a little physical violence, but constant yelling and name-calling, and as a little boy couldn’t stand it and I would run in between them. One or the other would say get back to your room and get out of here, so I guess the punchline of that is that I’d like to think I am more successful today than I was a five year old little boy trying to break up my parents.
I would define domestic violence as the pattern where one partner is attempting to control the other to achieve power and control over the relationship, and there are various vehicles for that. It could be physical violence, it could be intimidation, it could be psychological violence, sexual violence, economic, etc. So, domestic violence, I believe, has evolved to a pattern, meaning not just one incident, but a pattern of harassment, intimidation to achieve power and control.
I kind of think of it in a reverse way. Not so much how does domestic violence affect society, because it’s always been going on. I think of how does society influence domestic violence. That to me seems the relevant way to look at it in terms of that our society, with all the advances which is referenced before cultural movements, it’s a patriarchal one. A patriarchal society where men are primarily in power and make more, still earn a lot more money than women for the same job. It’s sort of a structure that is unbalanced.
Education and information, starting in elementary schools. You don’t even have to use loaded words, such as ‘violence’ , that alarm people. You can just talk about gender equality.
You could have negative communication, you could be angry at each other, for instance, some would label negative, but still maintain respect and equality. Not have to dominate someone if you are angry with them. We could talk about being angry at someone and still maintaining respect and equality. It should be, what they call now, a public health issue.
Alcohol is a main substance involved with domestic violence. Nowadays, since so many people also use cannabis - I would have to generalize, and the data is nowhere near complete because it’s a newer recreational, and even medical marijuana is a newer phenomenon than alcohol, but overall, I’m generalizing here, cannabis is more like a “Let’s make peace and talk about it” kind of substance, and what I hear from people, they are much less likely to commit domestic violence if they are gonna sit down. I’m not saying it’s not possible you could get high on pot and hit someone, of course that’s possible, but I’m hearing a lot of it going the other way for the peace making thing. As opposed to alcohol - as I said, over 90% blame alcohol for their violence. I have to teach them that it’s something in them that got released because many people drink a lot and they’ll never commit violence.
When people rely on a substance, they are very protective of it. Usually they learn about it from others who say “You had too much to drink last night Joe” or “Mary” or they learn about it on the job when they are late or they’re not punctual, and people are very protective about it so it takes a long time for them to really make that connection between the substance and the problems they’re having, be it violence or tardiness at work. So eventually- to extend that, the whole Alcoholics Anonymous thing is you reach a bottom. Usually you get into trouble and nothing happens, you get through the consequences, it happens again and you make excuses and happens again, an eventually you get fired or you eventually you get into a car accident or eventually you get a DUI or you eventually you get into domestic violence and something happens bad enough that makes you finally take notice.
May be very hard to diffuse it because maybe being silent and stopping the argument can be provocative too for people that want a response. The advice given by most of the people, the advocates and the feminists in this, not so much diffusing, it’s all about trying to stay as safe as possible. They’re arguing in the bathroom, get out of the bathroom and move the argument to the living room. Bathrooms have a lot of hard surfaces. If you’re arguing in the kitchen, get out of the kitchen. A Lot of knives and hard surfaces. Move to an open area. Also, if you sense this has been going on for a while, you have to have a safety kit ready that you have hidden somewhere that has maybe an extra car key and your identification and a check book or an extra credit card or whatever. If you have children you have to plan for that, so you can leave at a moment’s notice. Part of the safety kit preparation has to do having a neighbor, a sister, a friend somewhere you can go to immediately if you need to. And of course then you have to find someone- it’s good to find people that the perpetrator doesn’t know their address. So it’s not so much diffusing, it’s protecting and trying to minimize the damage really.
There’s hotlines of course. There’s women shelters in every community, and hopefully you reach out to your sister, your mother, your neighbor or someone and start talking about it. Someone can point you in a direction. A lot of women don’t reach out because they’re not aware of all the support out there. There’s lots of support out there for women. Resources, legal resources, shelters have a place to stay. They can take you in at a moment’s notice, women and children. That’s what you have to do. You have to sort of prepare in advance, and one way that happens is you’ve been talking to people and hopefully- this goes back to when you said “What can we do in society?,” the more education, the more awareness, the more this is known as a public health issue, the more the hotlines and the shelters and everything else will be known to people. And so when they’re in it, they realize, 1. There is support out there, and 2. They know where to go or who to call.
With treatment sometimes it doesn’t improve, but that hope, one of the main things that keeps victims in these relationships, that hope is misplaced. People don’t change. Without treatment, things get worse. If you are a narcissist and you and you’re not treated, you’re going to be more narcissistic over time. If you’re a violent person, you’re going to be more violent over time. Without treatment, or interference by law enforcement and you get arrested and go to a program and then you have treatment, without any intervention at all things get worse. So I would tell victims that your hope, it is a beautiful quality to have, hope, lovely quality for yourself, your husband, your children, but don’t misplace it because if there is serious problems: substance abuse or violence, it’s gonna get worse.
Though it would be presumptuous to claim that substance abuse causes domestic violence, it would be similarly unfair (and inaccurate) to say there is no connection at all. The two behaviors often appear in coexistence and are certainly linked by multiple factors. Drugs are involved in nearly 80% of domestic violence crimes, and numerous studies conclude that the two have a mutually impactful relationship. IPV increases the likelihood of substance use. On the flip side, substance use also increases the risk of IPV.
The connections between IPV and substance use disorders (SUD) extend beyond the perpetrators—substance use is also common among victims. Furthermore, the risk of domestic violence increases when both participants have SUDs. In instances of IPV, the involvement of alcohol and drugs leads to more severe injuries and increased lethality rates.
Evidence suggests that treating either condition would likely benefit the other. It follows that treating both concurrently may provide additional efficacy.
Substance use can reduce an individual’s ability to self-regulate, which may prompt them to engage in violent or manipulative behavior to achieve a position of dominance or fulfill their desire for control.
Individuals under the influence of drugs can be increasingly sensitive, and moderate triggers may set them off. They are more likely to over-react or choose violence to deal with situations that irritate them.
Committing a single act of violence opens the floodgates for more brutality to follow. Once it happens once or twice, the threshold for what it takes to turn to violence is lowered, and it becomes more likely to happen again. Substance use can lower inhibitions and push someone over the edge to commit that first act of violence that they may not have had the initiative for otherwise.
Addiction rewires the brains of users to prioritize and depend on the drug they use, leading them to seek it out despite any consequences. The obsessive need for a substance can result in irrational, violent, or controlling behavior.
Even outside of IPV, substance use shares an association with violence. According to an article published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, of those seeking treatment for drug addiction, more than 75% report having engaged in violent acts.
Though substance abuse is also common among IPV victims, it is unclear which condition is more likely to cause the other. Substance abuse is both a risk factor and a consequence of IPV.
A study at a domestic violence shelter found that nearly 68% of IPV survivors had a moderate to high risk of substance abuse problems. On the other hand, a longitudinal study sampled 3,003 women nationally and found that using a drug at a single point in time increased her odds of experiencing a violent assault in the next two years by a factor of 1.84, even after controlling for background variables.
Research regarding the role of cannabis in domestic violence situations is contradictory and inconclusive. Some results demonstrate an association between cannabis use and IPV, while others vindicate such determinations. Despite seemingly conclusive evidence from studies in isolation, the diversity of results when considered altogether signifies that further research is necessary for a comprehensive evaluation. In the meantime, we can try to analyze all the implications of existing investigations.
A study from 2011 looked at the data from 9,421 adolescents who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Categorizing participants as “victims only,” “perpetrators only,” or “victims and perpetrators,” the study discovered the following:
While making a strong case, the study did not control all contributing factors and only looked at adolescents and young adults. Conversely, a study published in 2014, examined couples over the first nine years of their marriage and found that marijuana use was inversely related to IPV. The study found that spouses who both frequently partook in marijuana use had the lowest risk for IPV perpetration. However, it is worth noting that the apparent focus was on marijuana use and less on couples who engaged in IPV.
A more recent study from 2018 sought to conduct research that controlled for outside factors, such as alcohol usage. Researchers found that even after accounting for other IPV risk factors, marijuana use was still associated with increased psychological, physical, and sexual IPV perpetration among men arrested for domestic violence. Again, there were limitations. The study only looked at men who were arrested, hence lacking input from unreported and less severe cases of IPV. The study also stipulated that additional and rigorous research was needed to explore the conditions that lead to marijuana’s relationship with IPV.
Evaluated as a whole, the evidence suggests some kind of association between cannabis and IPV, whether positive or negative. Context is likely a meaningful factor in determining the outcome of marijuana use in relation to IPV. For instance, cannabis use in a qualitatively healthy and happy relationship probably helps mellow out disagreements and instances of tension while acting as a bonding mechanism—possibly leading to a reduction in IPV. However, in problematic and unhealthy relationships, marijuana use is more likely to lead to destructive behaviors. Additionally, those who use marijuana prior to a relationship as a means of coping with other grievous circumstances, are likely to be involved in future instances of IPV as either a perpetrator, a victim, or both.
Adversarial circumstances that introduce additional elements of stress often harm intimate relationships. For instance, the economic crises of the 1930s, 1980s, and 2008 showcased a decline in the quality of parenting as well as an increase in marital conflict and abuse.
The COVID-19 pandemic introduced unique and significant factors, such as quarantine, isolation, and additional health guidelines put in place to prevent the spread of disease. Forced into close proximity with abusers, victims of IPV are put into ever-increasingly distressing and dangerous environments where perpetrators have the opportunity to assert more control or inflict extra pain.
Fortunately, organizations and resources have implemented solutions to adapt to COVID-19 situations and continue to support and serve survivors of IPV as best they can.
The most challenging and essential thing for victims of IPV to understand is that they are never completely alone. Though it may seem like an uphill battle, there are tools at your disposal to help you free yourself from your situation. IPV often inflicts pain so imposing it seems permanent, and you may feel irreparably damaged. Despite the overbearing trauma, healing is possible, and there are plenty of resources to help you do so. I cannot stress it enough: you do not have to bear the burden alone.
Sometimes the best form of encouragement can be found in the stories of those who have gone through something similar. Check out the following links and find inspiration in the strength of survivors:
Are you supposed to be terrified to leave? YES. Are you supposed to think about him afterwards? YES. Are you supposed to be able to move on and have a happy and healthy relationship? YES. There is no one way to deal with the after trauma of domestic violence but know you can do it. There are so many people here to help, so many organizations that want you to succeed!
Resolving to leave an abusive environment is an empowering yet potentially dangerous predicament. Unsurprisingly, abusers are rarely supportive of the decision. As such, it is essential to analyze your position and develop a plan so you are prepared to make a safe exit.
A safety plan is a detailed and individualized strategy that lays out everything on the table and addresses related issues, such as:
It can be helpful to have a safety plan laid out before you leave. In the moment, you may be stressed, scared, and unable to think clearly and logically. If you already have everything planned out ahead of time, you will be more capable of getting out quickly and safely.
Helping someone in a situation of domestic violence does not necessarily mean jumping in like a hero to save them. IPV is a sensitive subject that can be hard to address appropriately. An abrasive or excessively forward approach may have a contrary effect and cause them to close up regarding their situation or push you away, making it harder to help them.
If you know someone who is in an abusive relationship, do not abandon them. They need your support even if they do not leave right away. If you tell them they deserve to be abused if they stay, you are just helping the abuser maintain control. Victims need to have their self-esteem built up, not torn down more. Look for resources on how to help a friend or loved one who is in an abusive relationship.
Here are a few ways you can show your support without being too overbearing:
Lend an ear: Sometimes, the best way you can help someone is to simply listen to what they have to say.
Assist with a safety plan: Help them develop a plan of action for various circumstances. Whether they plan on staying or leaving, it can be useful to brainstorm steps to take in times of danger.
Provide resources: Give them hotline or shelter numbers and direct them to domestic violence resources that may aid them.
Don’t be judgemental: There are many reasons why a victim may stay in an abusive relationship. Respect their decisions and be as empathetic as possible.
Be encouraging and receptive: When they confide in you, let them know that you believe them and that what they are experiencing is not their fault.
Invite them to activities: It is crucial for an IPV victim to feel supported and connected to friends and family. It also gives them a chance to get away from their abusive partner.
It may be immensely frustrating to witness someone you care about in a hurtful situation. When it comes down to it, the victim is the only person who can decide to implement change. Though you may feel like there is nothing you can do, simply being there for them and letting them know that they can count on you when they need to, goes a long way. Sometimes knowing they have options is all a victim needs to persevere.
My best friend really helped me. She never judged me or made me feel like it was my fault. She helped me think about what to do, looked after my kids to give me a break, and was there when I needed her. It can’t have been easy on her. But her support made a big difference.
A website with an abundance of information and resources for victims of IPV, including a list of organizations and more for victims and survivors.
Utilize the directory of organizations to find a variety of resources for IPV victims. You can search by organization type and by state.
Information about the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline and how it can assist you.
State by state information for local advocates, legal assistance, and sheriff departments.
COVID-19 specific resources provided by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
An interactive guide to safety planning that can help you develop a strategy for leaving an abusive partner by filling out an online form.
I remember being so desperate…so confused, and so needing of support. If I had had access to an organization such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline back when I was being abused, I believe it is highly likely that I would’ve gotten out earlier. The knowledgeable, empathetic support and vital resources they provide, 365 days a year are critical to helping a victim of abuse break free of the violence.
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