Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, is a significant concern in society today. It is estimated that 9 million couples, or one in six marriages, experience some form of intimate partner violence, with 21 percent of all violent crimes committed against women perpetrated by a romantic partner (Strong, DeVault, and Cohen 2010). Although violence against women in intimate relationships has existed for centuries, it has only become widely acknowledged as problematic since the latter half of the 20th century. Many credit this increased awareness to social and political movements such the second wave of feminism, also known as the modern women’s movement, that have argued for equality and basic rights regardless of gender. Also, in association with an increase in activity in the academic, medical, social, and political communities, legislation has been enacted for the purposes of domestic violence protection, prevention, and education.
Policies such as the 1994 Violence against Women Act help to empower women through the funding of prevention and intervention programs. Despite the fact that social change has been credited with spurring protective legislation and social awareness concerning intimate partner violence, many claim that there has been a limited social understanding of the experiences of women in violent relationships, and there remains a victim-blaming bias in how we have responded to domestic violence as a society.
As an aside, it is thoroughly acknowledged that women are not the only victims of domestic violence, because this is a social problem that victimizes men as well. However, research shows that the vast majority of reported domestic abuse victims in U.S. society are women. Additionally, the injuries suffered by women tend to be more severe than those suffered by men. Therefore, we will focus on domestic violence as it affects women primarily.
I. Abuse Behaviors
A. Physical Abuse
B. Emotional Abuse
C. Sexual Abuse
D. Financial Abuse
II. Common Couple Violence versus Intimate Terrorism
A. Common Couple Violence
B. Intimate Terrorism
III. Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?
IV. Barriers to Seeking Help
A. Social Isolation
B. Financial Dependence
C. Fear of Repercussion
D. Pressure to Keep the Family Together
E. Lack of Appropriate Community Response
V. Learned Helplessness?
VI. What Resources Are Available?
Behaviors associated with intimate partner violence are usually categorized into the following groups: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and financial abuse. Although all are harmful, when there are limited resources in a community, leaders must choose where to direct these resources to do the most good. The most visible category is physical abuse, which has received the most attention from research and advocacy groups. This does not, however, imply that it is the most harmful or important abuse behavior. The following definitions of abusive behaviors have been taken from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (2008) and will be described here in greater detail.
Physical abuse is defined as the intentional use of physical force with the potential for causing death, disability, injury, or harm. Physical violence includes, but is not limited to, scratching, pushing, shoving, throwing, grabbing, biting, choking, shaking, slapping, punching, burning, use of a weapon, and use of restraints or one’s body, size, or strength against another person. Consequences associated with physical abuse are severe and far reaching, resulting in death in extreme cases. This is what most persons stereotypically picture when they hear the phrase “battered wife.”
Psychological or emotional abuse involves trauma to the victim caused by acts, threats of acts, or coercive tactics. This can include, but is not limited to, humiliating the victim, controlling what the victim can and cannot do, withholding information, deliberately doing something to make the victim feel diminished or embarrassed, isolating the victim from friends and family, threatening or terrorizing, and denying access to basic resources. Scholars have reported that as many as 80 to 90 percent of women will experience psychological maltreatment at some point in an intimate relationship (Neufeld, McNamara, and Ertl 1999). The consequences of such abuse have been found to have devastating impacts on survivors as well. In fact, due to the devastating consequences of emotional abuse, many survivors report that they would rather be physically hit than emotionally abused by an intimate partner.
The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, a subgroup of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, defines and divides sexual abuse into three categories: (1) the use of physical force to compel a person to engage in a sexual act against his or her will, regardless of whether the act is completed; (2) an attempted or completed sex act involving a person who is unable to understand the nature or condition of the act, to decline participation, or to communicate unwillingness to engage in the sexual act (e.g., because of illness, disability, the influence of alcohol or other drugs, or because of intimidation or pressure); and (3) abusive sexual contact. Studies show that between 10 and 14 percent of wives have been forced into sexual activity by their partners (Strong, DeVault, and Cohen 2010). It is often difficult for women who are sexually abused by an intimate partner to seek help, because it is often the case that sexual activity within relationships, whether voluntary or coerced, is not recognized as abusive. Although sexual abuse within intimate relationships has achieved more recognition through increased research and media attention, it is still often very difficult for a victim to seek help or to receive the validation needed to overcome such traumatic experiences.
Financial abuse is usually characterized by an abuser withholding funds, stealing assets, stealing property, or compromising a partner’s financial liberties. It can be difficult for the victim to seek relationship alternatives in situations where financial abuse is present, because the victim is often totally dependent on the abuser to provide for basic needs. This is especially true when children are involved. With this lack of resources available to the victim, there is also an increased risk of homelessness for the women and children impacted by violent relationships—an issue that will be discussed in further detail later.
Common Couple Violence versus Intimate Terrorism
Among the issues that have made it difficult to get the needed attention for domestic violence is the wide range of behaviors that fall under the umbrella of abuse. For many years, there was a stereotypical image of a battered woman who was the victim of abusive beatings. However, recent thinking about domestic abuse has expanded to include a variety of unwanted violent acts. Intimate partner violence takes many forms and involves many behaviors that are detrimental to the victim. In addition, some theoretical and methodological considerations in relation to intimate partner violence must be examined. Based on the work of Michael Johnson (1995), several theoretical distinctions have been made regarding domestic abuse. These categories originally arose during a comparison of samples of domestic violence victims gathered from the general population and those from shelters. They also differ in areas related to power dynamics and behavioral characteristics as well as on overall outcomes for victims. Johnson terms these distinctions common couple violence and intimate terrorism.
Common Couple Violence
Common couple violence is considered the most common type of violence that occurs in relationships and is a less dangerous form of intimate partner violence. In situations where violence is present, conflict usually arises from a mutual disagreement between the partners and is equally perpetrated among partners, although women are more likely to be injured during violent episodes. It is important to recognize that both partners can be violent in this scenario. This form of violence rarely escalates over time and is more likely to be identified through surveys of the general population.
Intimate terrorism, also referred to as patriarchal terrorism, is severe and can be lethal. In situations where intimate terrorism is present, the abuser usually demonstrates power and control in order to dominate the partner. Conflict in these relationships is usually one-sided and intense. In these relationships, conflict usually escalates over time and increases in both frequency and intensity. Intimate terrorism is frequently characterized by a physical or emotional domination of the victim and often involves social isolation, financial dependence, and emotional degradation and is characterized by feelings of fear and hopelessness. Johnson reported that victims of intimate terrorism are more likely to be identified through research that focuses on specific samples, such as women in shelter settings.
While Johnson’s work has been credited with uncovering a broad range of domestic violence types, there is some concern with defining domestic violence in this way. For example, the term common couple violence suggests that all partners participate and it must therefore be normal to do so. If this type of violence is assumed to be a normal part of relationships, that changes how society is willing to respond. There is a concern that a partner’s requests for help may not be taken seriously if she were violent against her spouse. This could set up a situation in which only victims of intimate terrorism may be seen as worthy of assistance by shelters and other agencies. A victim of common couple violence, then, may be blamed for putting herself in a situation in which she and the partner resorted to violence.
Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?
A common question that arises in relation to domestic violence is why doesn’t she just leave? Surely women do not enjoy being treated this way, so why don’t abused women get out? Many feel that if a victim of domestic violence really wanted to leave the relationship, she would just move on. However, as will be discussed further, the circumstances that often surround domestic violence, especially in situations where intimate terrorism is present, tend to be complex, and choosing to leave can be much more difficult, if not more lethal, than most people may realize. The suggestion that she should just leave blames any future abuse on her decision to stay; thus, the victim blaming becomes acute.
Barriers to Seeking Help
Due to various social barriers, many abused women do not perceive their decision to remain in a violent relationship as a choice at all, because few, if any, reasonable alternatives may be available. Common barriers that exist for victimized women include social isolation, financial dependence, fear of repercussions, pressure to keep the family together, and a lack of appropriate community response. Advocates for the victims of domestic abuse debate which of these exerts the most pressure on women to stay in abusive situations.
As noted in the discussion of Johnson’s concept of intimate terrorism, social isolation is a common factor found in most cases of domestic abuse. It is quite common in situations of intimate terrorism, because isolating one from the external support system enables the abuser to maintain power and control through forcing dependency of the victim on the abuser. This can include instances in which the victim is moved, often repeatedly, from place to place to ensure a lack of social contacts such as friends and family and external support such as community resources. In our individualistic society, this isolation is especially problematic because of cultural norms regarding the right to privacy of the family. The practice of purposeful isolation usually involves limiting access to friends, family, and coworkers or forbidding outside employment altogether. Increasing isolation of the victim greatly decreases the perceived and actual availability of support in situations of abuse. Therefore, escape from abusive relationships becomes all the more difficult. In fact, isolation increases the likelihood that a woman will live with an abusive partner from 12 to 25 percent (Bosch and Schumm 2004).
Studies show that domestic violence is more likely to occur in situations where couples are less educated and live in poor economic conditions. Poverty, which is directly correlated with lower levels of education, is also a strong predictor of domestic violence. In fact, among all couples, a top cause of conflict is related to economic stress and strain. In addition, a woman living in poverty is more likely to be financially dependent on her abuser, especially if she is unable to work. Therefore, for many women, the reality is that if she chooses to leave her abuser, the alternative is an inability to provide for her children and herself and possibly experiencing homelessness.
Fear of Repercussion
Many women remain in violent relationships because they are afraid to leave; the abuser has threatened severe violence, or he has threatened to kill the woman or her children. This fear may be quite valid, because most of the severe acts of violence tend to be perpetrated against women who have left or attempted to leave a violent relationship. Furthermore, a woman is more likely to be murdered during the first six months following her exit from an abusive relationship than at any other time in her life, and at least 67 percent of women homicide victims had a history of physical abuse by an intimate partner (National Center for Victims of Crime 2009).
Many women who exit abusive relationships are stalked by their abuser. Stalking is an issue of significant concern because it often results in psychological problems, including anxiety, insomnia, fear, depression, loss of work time, and the need for legal protective orders. Furthermore, the risk of homicide for stalked women is substantial; 76 percent of women who are murdered were stalked by their killer during the year prior to their death (National Center for Victims of Crime 2009).
Pressure to Keep the Family Together
Societal norms and values concerning the family often create pressure for women to keep their families together. Therefore, if a woman—especially a married woman—is in an abusive relationship, she may find it difficult to separate her family. Many women believe that if their children are not being directly physically assaulted, they are being protected from the abuse. This is seldom the case, because most children are much more aware of domestic violence than their parents realize. Furthermore, many women have been raised to believe that the outcomes of raising children in a single-parent home would be a far worse alternative to the abuse. Also, many abused women receive messages from friends, family members, or members their religious community that steps must be taken to ensure the family is kept together, regardless of the presence of abuse. This not only places women and children at risk but also places responsibility for the family health on the abused women.
Lack of Appropriate Community Response
Another barrier that domestic violence victims face is a lack of appropriate community response. Often, the seriousness of abuse situations is underestimated, or blame is placed on the victim. Survivors of abuse often report that they experienced being mocked, blamed, or completely ignored by law enforcement. It is also common for abuse victims to not report the abuse because they feel hopeless about the situation—as if it would not make a difference or things would only worsen. Th us, abused women may be abandoned by the system and left in a more dangerous situation with a perpetrator who has been agitated by her attempts to seek help.
In addition, a common concern experienced by abused mothers is that they will lose their children if they attempts to sever ties with the abuser. This concern is valid, because there are many documented cases of women losing custody of the children to an abuser, especially when domestic violence is present. A common misconception in society is that mothers are favored for custody within the court system. However, abused women increasingly are losing custody of their children on the basis of an inappropriate judicial response to domestic violence. For example, Parental Alienation Syndrome is a scientifically invalid condition in which a woman is accused of making up accusations of violence and abuse with the expressed purpose of alienating her children from the abuser. Although the syndrome has been debunked and deemed as so-called junk science, it still remains one of the most widely used arguments in the U.S. legal system to award primary child custody to abuse perpetrators.
A commonly taught principal on college campuses today regarding domestic violence victims is that of learned helplessness. The theory, originally derived from Martin Seligman’s experiments with dogs, has been applied to abused women and was commonly accepted as an explanation regarding why a woman might not leave an abusive situation. In developing her concept of battered woman syndrome, psychologist Lenore Walker (2000) drew heavily on this idea. The argument is that a victim who has been repeatedly worn down both physically and emotionally by an abuser will reach a psychological state where she perceives that she is neither able nor worthy enough to escape her situation. Consequently, she loses her will to leave the relationship. Therefore, learned helplessness focuses a great deal on the psychological condition of victims, who commonly report having feelings of low self-esteem, depression, self-blame, passivity, and guilt, as well as experiences of repeated victimization, including those during childhood and adulthood.
In contrast, many argue that learned helplessness fails to take into account the fact that women often remain in relationships for rational reasons, such as those discussed previously, and not for psychopathological reasons. In addition, many criticize the approach that learned helplessness takes to domestic violence victimization in that it places the primary reasoning behind and responsibility for abusive relationships on women. This constitutes another form of blaming the victim. Those who are skeptical of the learned helplessness argument suggest that domestic violence should be viewed in terms of the context of the situation and the resources, or lack thereof, available to the victim, including the social response to domestic violence, as opposed to the characteristics of the victim.
What Resources Are Available?
In many communities, domestic violence organizations exist in some capacity. Common services provided by these groups are adult victim counseling, child counseling, legal assistance, voucher plans (for necessities such as food, clothing, and furniture), shelter services and protection if deemed necessary, transitional housing for women and children, safety planning, and coordination of or participation in community activism on behalf of domestic violence victims.
Many online educational resources exist pertaining to domestic violence as well. Some focus exclusively on the victim by providing information on abuse signs and symptoms, safety planning and tips, building healthy relationships, and prevention by providing information on local community resources. Such resources can be found through the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Womenshealth.gov, or MEDLINEplus.
Other services include those sponsored by the National Coalition against Domestic Violence. The cell phone program accepts donations of old cell phones to provide means of emergency communication for domestic abuse victims in need of immediate help. In addition, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) exists for anyone who may need help or advice pertaining to domestic abuse. Anyone who suspects that they, or someone they know, may be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship is advised to seek the guidance of one of the above listed organizations. Taking a step that is as simple as making a phone call can save a life.
Finally, national movements such as Take Back the Night exist to provide individuals and communities with the opportunity to be empowered through providing a voice to victims to be heard and to live lives that are free from violence and abuse.
A common critique pertaining to research on and response to domestic violence is that most approaches to this social problem are oriented from a victim-blaming perspective. Even in this discussion, which focuses on the awareness of such a bias, domestic violence must still be approached largely from this perspective. This emphasis on the role of the victim is very difficult to avoid, because a substantial portion of what we know about domestic violence comes from examination of the victim’s choices as opposed to those of the perpetrator. This perspective is not an inherent flaw, because understanding the issues facing domestic violence victims is critical to providing assistance and increasing awareness. However, caution must be taken when examining abuse from this perspective if we are to avoid placing primary responsibility for the occurrence and continuation of domestic violence on the victim. This is critical, because it is through an examination of this social problem from multiple perspectives that we will be better equipped to address ending domestic violence as a responsibility of society as a whole.
- Bosch, Kathy, and Walter R. Schumm, “Accessibility to Resources: Helping Rural Women in Abusive Partner Relationships Become Free from Abuse.” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 30 (2004): 357–370.
- Denmark, Florence, and Michelle Paludi, eds., Psychology of Women: A Handbook of Issues and Theories, 2d ed. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.
- Family Shelter Service, “Learned Helplessness vs Survivor Hypothesis.” http://www.familyshelterservice.org/pdf/survivor.pdf
- Johnson, Michael P., “Patriarchal Terrorism and Common Couple Violence: Two Forms of Violence against Women.” Journal of Marriage and Family 57 (1995): 283–294.
- Johnson, Michael P., and K. J. Ferraro, “Research on Domestic Violence in the 1990s: Making Distinctions.” Journal of Marriage and Family 62 (2000): 948–963.
- National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “Intimate Partner Violence: Definitions.” October 21, 2008. http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/intimatepartnerviolence/definitions.html
- National Center for Victims of Crime, “Stalking Fact Sheet” (2009). http://www.victimsofcrime.org/docs/src/stalking-fact-sheet_english.pdf
- Neufeld, B. “SAFE Questions: Overcoming the Barriers to Detecting Domestic Violence.” American Family Physician 53 (1996): 2575–2581.
- Neufeld, J., J. R. McNamara, and M. Ertl, “Incidence and Prevalence of Dating Partner Abuse and Its Relationship to Dating Practices.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 14 (1999): 125–137.
- Seligman, M.E.P., and S. F. Maier, “Failure to Escape Traumatic Shock.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 74 (1967): 1–9.
- Sokoloff , Natalie J., with Christina Pratt, Domestic Violence at the Margins: Readings on Race, Class, Gender, and Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
- Strong, Bryan, Christine DeVault, and Theodore F. Cohen, The Marriage and Family Experience, 11th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2010.
- Walker, Lenore E. A., The Battered Woman Syndrome, 2d ed. New York: Springer, 2000.