What is intimate partner violence? A guide to the signs, risk factors & how to get help

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If you think you may be experiencing intimate partner violence, get help now at the National Domestic Violence Hotline

Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit the site to chat or text

Over a lifetime, more than 25% of women in the U.S. will experience violence by a partner or spouse. It’s a shocking percentage, and one that’s only grown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Intimate partner violence is much more common than people think,” says Laura Bertrand, licensed professional counselor and mental health expert at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

“One in 4 women and 1 in 9 men will experience intimate partner abuse at some point in their lives. And COVID made that a lot worse, with reports from around the world showing an increase in domestic violence of anywhere from 18-33%.”

What is intimate partner violence?

The term intimate partner violence (IPV) describes actual or threatened psychological, physical or sexual harm by a partner or spouse (current or former). IPV happens to people of all gender identities, sexual orientations, race, class and background. You don’t have to be sexually intimate with someone to experience IPV.

Bertrand: From my perspective, intimate partner violence happens when one person in the relationship is attempting to enact complete control over the other. The abuse can be verbal, emotional, physical or sexual.

It can also happen in subtle ways, such as gaslighting and financial abuse.

  • Gaslighting is a term we hear a lot these days. It comes from a 1944 film — “Gaslight” — in which a husband tries to convince his wife that she’s losing her mind. Today, the term means manipulating a person as part of an abusive relationship.
  • Financial abuse is one of the most common ways an abuser keeps their partner dependent on them. It can be subtle — not giving the person who’s being abused access to money without approval — or extreme, such as the abuser wasting a couple’s life savings in a weekend just to exert power over their partner.

What are some common examples of intimate partner violence?

Bertrand: Physical abuse, such as hair pulling or choking, is very common. Verbal abuse can be harder to pinpoint, especially if you grew up being verbally abused in your family. That kind of abuse operates from a place of jealousy and control.

To keep you from going somewhere, your significant other might say, “Oh I trust you; I just don’t trust so-and-so.” That constant need to know where you are and what you’re doing to the point that it prevents you from living your life is a red flag.

Most of us have probably sidestepped an abusive relationship like that in the past, if we’ve had the tools to recognize those behaviors as controlling.

10 tools abusers use to commit intimate partner violence

 1. Isolation

Bertrand: Isolation is one of the first tactics abusers use, typically starting with jealousy. “Don’t go spend time with your family when you should spend it with me,” or “Why would you go to your high school reunion when you know your old boyfriend or girlfriend will be there?”

After a few years, even if the person who’s being abused wants to get help, they may not be able to. This could happen because the people they turn to may not believe them, or they may try to contact an old friend for help and have issues being able to reach them.

2. Lack of a career

Bertrand: In many abusive relationships, victims haven’t been allowed to work so they have no career. Because of isolation, even the things that a traditional stay-at-home parent would have — friends from church, PTA, volunteering — are gone. The first step of leaving an abusive relationship is paying rent somewhere else. How do you do that with no job and no support network?

3. Finances

Bertrand: Financial barriers are huge, even for people who appear to be well off. If the person who’s being abused wants to leave, they may not have access to their money, bank accounts or credit cards. And if they do, those assets can be frozen or traced by the abuser.

4. Children

Bertrand: Using children is a common tactic. An abuser will ask a child to say, “Daddy says he’s sorry he won’t do it again,” or “Mommy misses you and wants you to come home.”  That’s a powerful way to keep the person who’s being abused in a cycle of control. And in severe cases, these behaviors escalate to abusing, harming or even killing the children.

FACT: 15.5 million children in the U.S. witness domestic violence each year.

When the justice system gets involved, that can create other challenges. A judge may say, “A child needs her mother,” or “a child should see their father regularly.” While that’s a well-meaning decision, when one parent is abusive and there’s no safe, supervised place for these meetings to happen, that’s traumatizing and dangerous for everyone.

5. Pretending to be abused

Bertrand: Another subtle, extremely dangerous way abusers control the situation is by flipping it around. The abuser pretends to be the victim and plays on their male or female privilege. For example, a woman who’s abusing her husband claims to a judge that she’s the one being abused to head off any claims the man could make.

6. Pets

Bertrand: Violence against pets is a common intimidation tactic. It happens in varying degrees, with the most extreme being: “If I can choke the dog to death, look what I can do to you.”

Obviously, that’s horrifying and demoralizing, especially if you’re in a position where you feel like your pet is the only companion and source of affection you have. That’s why most domestic violence shelters try to partner with foster agencies and no-kill shelters to keep the animal safe — owners often won’t leave unless they know their animal will be safe.

7. Self-deprecation

Bertrand: Self-deprecation is something few of us recognize as abuse, but it’s a common tactic abusers use to get a partner to come back. They’ll say, “If you leave, no one else will ever love me,” or “If you don’t come back, I’ll kill myself.” That often ends in the partner returning, and the abuser ultimately harms or kills the partner or the children.

FACT: In the U.S, 3 women are killed each day by a man who says he loves her. Tennessee ranks 9th in the nation for the rate at which men kill women.

8. Patriarchy, religion & extreme world views 

Bertrand: It can be dangerous when someone uses religion or relies on privilege to justify controlling or violent behavior.

I’ve seen situations where a preacher will show up to a shelter where a woman is seeking refuge with an abusive husband in tow. The way he interpreted scripture, if he saved the marriage, he saved their souls from divorce (a sin), which is more important than if the wife was harmed or killed.

And it doesn’t just apply to religion. I’ve seen atheist abusers who use outdated eugenics research to “prove” that men are smarter than women and should control them. Any extreme viewpoint that says one gender is better than the other is very dangerous.

9. Substance abuse

Bertrand: Substance abuse and control go hand in hand. The abuser often uses drugs or alcohol and blames the substances for their violent or abusive behavior. The abuser may also foster a drug or alcohol addiction in the person they’re abusing, which makes that person even more dependent and unable to leave.

10. Promise of change

Bertrand: Abuse is a cycle: In the honeymoon period, abusers tend to be extremely romantic. In the escalation phase, there’s isolation, jealousy and verbal abuse. Finally, there’s the explosive event, such as a really bad outburst of verbal or physical abuse that causes injury. It may not be a singular event but rather several situations that add up to the abuser “hitting rock bottom.” After that, they return to the honeymoon period, saying, “I’m sorry,” “I found Jesus,” “I’ll quit drinking,” or “I’ll never do it again.” And the cycle starts again.

Are there any groups who are more at-risk of intimate partner violence?

Bertrand: Intimate partner violence can happen to anyone, regardless of race, creed, gender or socioeconomic status.

Women

Women are obviously the most at-risk group with 1 in 4 women being a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime.

But there are some groups who are less likely to get help that we don’t often hear about.

Men

Bertrand: Men can easily find themselves in psychologically, emotionally and financially abusive relationships. When I worked as an advocate in the New Orleans court system, 20% of my cases were men.

Men are also sexually assaulted more than people think — 1 in 12 men will experience sexual assault at some point in their lives. In our society, male sexual assault is often played for laughs on TV or YouTube. So even if they do admit it, they’re likely to be shamed or ignored.

Geography

Bertrand: There’s a stigma about poor people having more domestic violence, but the statistics don’t back that up. Often, it comes down to geography. People in poorer neighborhoods typically live closer together, so when violence occurs, someone is more likely to call the police.

In wealthier neighborhoods, where houses are farther apart, the neighbors are less likely to hear what’s happening. In addition, there’s an outdated sense of privacy in some groups. People say, “That’s a family problem” or “That’s none of my business.”

Some people may also be shocked how much abusive behavior people can get away with, even in public, just by saying, “It’s okay, she’s my wife,” or “He’s my husband.” And so the abuse continues.

FACT: More than half of crimes against Tennesseans are domestic violence-related. Metro Nashville Police respond to a domestic violence call every 20 minutes.

Seniors and people with disabilities

Bertrand: In our society, people who are elderly and/or who have disabilities often go unnoticed. That makes it very easy for a person to get into an abusive relationship that lasts their whole life, especially when isolation increases with age.

LGBTQ+

Bertrand: There’s also very little reporting for abuse in LGBTQ+ populations. In some communities, people think, “I can’t call the emergency shelter because I’m gay and they won’t let me in.” You can imagine how difficult that makes it to escape a bad situation.

LGBTQ+ health spotlight: 10 health care needs to know

What tools can people use to figure out if they’re experiencing intimate partner violence?

Bertrand: If you recognize any of the signs we’ve mentioned, talk to someone. You can also look at the Power and Control wheel to see if you’re experiencing any of those signs.

Power and control wheel graphic from National Domestic Violence Hotline

Image credit: National Domestic Violence Hotline

If you’re not sure, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) and talk to someone one-on-one who’s been trained to help people just like you. (To answer phones at a hotline like this, you have to have 40+ hours of sexual and domestic assault training.) Tell them exactly what’s going on. They’ll be able to guide you through options in your area and help you make a plan for what to do next.

What’s the first step to getting help for intimate partner violence?

Bertrand: Making a safety plan. Everyone’s plan is different. It could be as simple as “We’re going to wait it out and see what happens,” or it might be more urgent or detailed — making copies of documents for friends or family, packing a bag for an emergency shelter.

The person helping you should focus on these goals:

  • Survivor safety: Maximizing your safety and not increasing your risk for further harm
  • Survivor empowerment: Helping you make your own choices
  • Perpetrator accountability: Confirming that the violence you experienced happened because of the perpetrator’s behavior not yours
  • Advocacy for social change: Being a partner to you and others in your situation

How can you help someone who you suspect is being abused?

Bertrand: Be available. It’s the most important thing. The person you’re trying to help is isolated. They may not be ready to leave yet, and getting out of the situation right now may not be the safest option. Don’t blame them. They know the abuser, you don’t.

Think of it this way: What we’re dealing with here is far more than an anger problem.

  • If someone has anger issues and they’re rear ended at a stoplight, they’ll get out of the car and assault the other driver.
  • If someone is a domestic abuser and they get rear ended, they’ll contact the authorities, shake everyone’s hands, go home and then assault their spouse.

It’s a far more complex situation than most of us understand. So believe the survivor, give them options, let them make the best choice they can, and be available.

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Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).