Intimate Partner Violence

By OBOS Violence & Abuse Contributors | October 15, 2011
Last Revised on Apr 4, 2014

Intimate partner violence and battering, also known as domestic violence, are among the most common yet least reported crimes in the world. All couples at times disagree, argue, and have feelings of anger; not all aggressive behavior between partners constitutes domestic violence.

While a single act of physical or psychological violence between intimate partners is an act of domestic violence, most domestic violence involves a pattern of behavior that causes fear and intimidation in which one person in the relationship exerts coercive control over the other person. Within that pattern, acts of physical or psychological violence may occur frequently or rarely, but the threat is always present and serves to shore up the abuser’s coercive control.

I was living with my then-girlfriend, and everything was okay for a while. Then she started to.​..force​ me into doing things that I didn’t want to do. She wouldn’t take no for an answer to anything. If she wanted it, she would get it.

A young homeless woman who moved in with an older man says of her experience:

It started with him ensuring that all ties with friends and family were broken .​ . . he​ would ask me to make unreasonable demands from them, such as borrowing money, and when they refused, he managed to convince me that they didn’t care about me at all. Within a year, he had me convinced that he was the only person that cared for me. Once I got pregnant, he became very abusive. There was a lot of yelling and name-calling. He had me feeling completely worthless. I couldn’t make a decision without asking him. I justified it to myself saying that he wasn’t really abusive because he never hit me, which I now understand is absurd.

Intimate partner violence can be expressed by an array of threatening and harmful behaviors intended to reinforce coercive demands and to assert power and control. It may include physical violence, threatening with weapons, sexual assault, verbal and emotional abuse, control of finances or physical freedom, destruction of objects, and threats of harm or actual harm to loved ones including children or pets.

When I first dated my husband, I explained my childhood sexual abuse history and expressed my need for clear consent. But, a few years later, when I was pregnant with our first child, he stopped paying attention to my sexual boundaries and while I slept he anally raped me. I awoke, hit him, pushed him away, and said no. A year or two later, he sexually assaulted me in my sleep again. Many of the things he chose to do were things I said I was not okay with when awake. My husband has since admitted that he knew it was wrong, that he knew I wouldn’t like it, and that he did it anyway.

Intimate partner abuse often follows a pattern. Over time, the abuser sets the stage by doing things that will make the partner increasingly susceptible to coercion. These can include:

  • Exploiting vulnerabilities such as immigration status, childbirth, financial debt, or illness
  • Wearing down resistance through emotional abuse or isolation from family and friends
  • Increasing emotional dependency, for example, by inflicting injuries and then caring for those injuries

The abuser then introduces coercion by communicating a demand—for sex, perhaps, or not to leave the house without permission. The abuser makes a credible threat of meaningful negative consequences if the partner does not comply, like a threat of physical or sexual violence. When the abuser delivers the threatened negative consequences, this increases the likelihood that the abused person will comply with future demands and threats. After that, the abuser can often get what he or she wants with just a hint of negative consequences, a particular scowl, or a quick “You know what you’re supposed to do.”

Intimate partner abusers are often skilled manipulators and use tactics designed to cause a woman and/or her family members, her employer, or the legal system to believe that she is mentally incompetent, unfit to parent, or otherwise unqualified to retain her constitutional rights. Abusers use such tactics to coercively control the women in their lives, including wives, mothers, and grandmothers.

When the battered partner attempts to leave or does leave the relationship, the abuser may stalk her in an attempt to regain control. If intimate partner violence is not adequately addressed in its early stages, it can escalate in magnitude and severity and ultimately end in murder.

Women who obtain assistance from advocacy programs and legal services attorneys increase the likelihood that they will be able to obtain and enforce protection orders. They can improve their safety by combining protection orders with safety planning.

For more information, see Understanding and Recognizing Abusive Behavior. If you are in an abusive relationship, see Making a Safety Plan.