Every minute, approximately 20 people are the victims of physical abuse by an intimate partner in the United States. On average, husbands or boyfriends are responsible for the murders of more than three women each day. Every month, the National Domestic Violence Hotline receives over 27,000 calls for help. And each year, over 10 million Americans are subjected to psychological and physical abuse from people they love and trust the most.
But while the numbers are staggering, they don’t tell the whole story. Intimate partner abuse is a complex issue that transcends age, race, and gender and can go unrecognized and unreported for years – sometimes until it’s too late. To get a better idea of what victims face every day, we surveyed 571 Americans about their experiences in abusive relationships – including why they stayed, how their partners tried to control them, and how they finally left the situation. We hope their stories might inspire others to get the help they need.
The Demographics of Domestic Abuse
Just how prevalent is abuse in relationships, and who is affected most frequently? The exact figures can be difficult to pin down, given that most domestic violence occurs at or near the victim’s home and much of it also goes unreported. Our survey results, however, show that 57 percent of respondents have felt afraid or uncomfortable in their current relationship, while 87 percent have felt this way in previous relationships.
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While a large percentage of domestic abuse is experienced by women – especially women aged 18 to 34 – men are not immune. Studies show that men are just as likely as women to be abused emotionally. Nearly 50 percent of both men and women reported psychological aggression. This falls roughly in line with our survey results, which showed that an equal number of men and women experienced fear or discomfort in their current relationship.
Criticism and Control
Emotional abuse can be more difficult to recognize than physical violence – though it can be just as damaging. Common displays of psychological abuse include verbal assaults and demeaning comments, isolating a victim from his or her family and friends, humiliation, and exerting extreme control in the relationship.
Of the survey respondents who experienced abuse, many cited these types of behavior in their partners. The most common insults were about victims’ intelligence, financial status, and physical appearance. These derogatory comments can create feelings of low self-worth and spark depression, which makes it difficult for victims to assert themselves or leave the relationship.
According to Nancy B. Irwin, a doctor of psychology in Los Angeles, victims often become dependent on their abusers because it is a “familiar, unconscious attraction.” Irwin notes, “The hallmark trait of an abuser is control; most will slowly reel in the victim with money or other forms of “care” and attention, demanding 100 percent trust and dependence on him or her.”
Survey respondents also cited that their partners tended to control their time with friends and family, their access to money, and their activities outside the home. In addition to feeding the abuser’s need for power, these past experiences can make a victim totally dependent on his or her abuser for money, shelter, and companionship. It’s another display of the ways abusers keep their victims close.
One respondent describes how their partner’s controlling nature resulted in their dependence for basic needs: “My former partner was a co-worker, and I was fearful that he would harass me at work/create an uncomfortable working environment if I broke up with him (which did in fact happen). He also made me dependent on him for most, if not all, basic daily functions like transportation and grocery shopping. I was also isolated from family and without any friends, and so I felt like I had no resources to help me leave.”
If you’ve experienced any of these signs of psychological abuse in your relationship or have noticed them in the relationship of a loved one, it’s never too early to get help. Go visit our homepage at www.MentalHelp.net for resources.
Violence and Gender
Unfortunately, psychological abuse often goes hand in hand with physical abuse – far too many Americans are hurt at the hands of their domestic partners every day. In fact, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been physically assaulted by a significant other; furthermore, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men experiencing severe abuse.
Our survey shows that 50 percent of respondents who have been physically abused by a current partner are men – a much larger percentage than men (22 percent) who were abused in previous relationships.
In addition to gender, sexual orientation may play a role in abuse. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey concluded that homosexual and bisexual people experienced intimate partner violence at rates equal to – and in many cases, higher than – that of heterosexual individuals. For example, 44 percent of lesbian women experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, compared with 35 percent of heterosexual women, and the rate of violence was 24 percent higher for bisexual men than heterosexual men.
A Difficult Decision
So why do people remain in harmful, and even dangerous, relationships instead of just leaving? We asked survey respondents why they stay (or previously stayed) in abusive partnerships – their answers painted a diverse and complicated picture of their relationships and the challenges associated with escaping them.
Some repeated themes involved the victim still being in love with his or her abuser as well as being married or having children together. One respondent, who has been with his or her partner for more than seven years, said having young children and keeping them from a broken home was a motivation for staying.
Robyn Lewis, a case manager at a domestic violence shelter in Cedar City, Utah, said physical or emotional violence in the home impacts children more than we may think. Children are “experts at reading their mother’s body language and can be very protective,” she said. Lewis notes this bond can also leave children vulnerable to a “pawn” role, where the abuser uses the partner’s son or daughter as an instrument of manipulation.
Financial concerns were also a main issue, with many respondents saying that they couldn’t afford to move into their own place or had no source of income outside of their abuser. Other answers illustrated subtler emotional hang-ups that made it difficult for people to leave. “I don't believe I'm good enough for anyone else,” one respondent wrote, while another admitted, “I thought that I had to save him from himself.”
Victims need to know that they’re not alone. As difficult as it may be to leave, it’s always the right decision. You can’t save anyone until you’ve first saved yourself. For help with the transition, visit our homepage at www.MentalHelp.net to find our helpline and additional support resources.
Small Steps Forward
Even when victims manage to leave destructive relationships, the effects of the abuse linger. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey showed that women and men who were previous victims of abuse (including domestic violence) demonstrated a general decline in their well-being and suffered from increased incidents of chronic pain, difficulty sleeping, and poor mental health – sometimes at more than twice the rate of non-victims.
Physical and psychological abuse also take their toll emotionally. Many victims reported having problems in their other relationships as a result of the abuse. When asked how long it took them to start trusting people again after their abusive relationship, many survey respondents admitted that they’re still struggling to get to that point or that it took them several years to enter into another romantic partnership. Among those who managed to move on:
- “My friends and family were great and really supportive. The hardest part was remembering that that kind of conduct is 100 percent unacceptable and reminding myself that I don't deserve something like that.”
- “It took me a good year. I just had to go through enough instances of better interactions.”
- “After leaving the house I shared with my ex-husband, almost immediately I felt the weight had been lifted from my shoulders; as a result, I realized that I was an OK person and that left me free to trust again.”
Recognizing that you are enough and that you deserve loving, respectful interactions in relationships may take time, but leaving the unhealthy situations behind – if you can do so safely – is a good first step.
Moving Out and Moving On
Every person who manages to leave an abusive situation has already defied the odds, and their stories can offer hope and inspiration to women and men still looking for a way out.
When asked about who or what gave them the strength to leave their harmful relationship, survey respondents offered a variety of factors that helped them finally leave their abuser for good. In addition to support from family and friends, which played an integral part, victims were also motivated by their own growth, development, and self-love.
One respondent said she left because “I knew I wanted to go to college, and I probably wouldn't go to college if I stayed with him,” while another stated that when they learned their boundaries were being repeatedly ignored, they left. Another respondent admitted, “I love myself too much to allow someone to disrespect me.”
Leaving an abusive relationship is never easy; in some cases, it can be quite dangerous. If you think you’re ready to leave, or if you’re helping a loved one escape an abusive relationship, take time to prepare. Consider who you’ll stay with, how you’ll separate your finances from your abuser’s, whether you’ll need a restraining order or a similar legal injunction, and how to pack and leave without a potentially violent situation arising.
Studies have shown that intimate partner violence is more prevalent in areas where people are socially isolated and have a lack of connections with friends and family. In other words, community support is an essential ingredient in the fight against domestic abuse. If you or a loved one is stuck in an unhealthy relationship, visit our homepage at www.MentalHelp.net to find the support you need to break free.