Isn’t Relationship Abuse a Rare Occurrence?

No. Worldwide, including in the United States, men will commit relationship abuse or sexual assault against at least one in three womxn.* On average more than three womxn a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States.** Womxn and children are more at risk of violence in their homes and relationships, by men they know, than in the street. Relationship abuse never shows up in statistics as much as it occurs. *World Health Organization, Global and regional estimates of violence against women: Prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence, (2013);
**Catalano, Shannan. Intimate Partner Violence in the United States. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2007)
Visit the Futures Without Violence website for more information on the prevalence of relationship abuse.

Does Relationship Abuse Happen in LGBTQI+ Relationships?

Relationship abuse occurs at roughly the same rate in LGBTQI+ relationships as it does in heterosexual relationships. The elements of abusive relationships are similar for heterosexual and LGBTQI+ relationships, and there can be different tactics of control used; for instance, the abusive partner may threaten to out the other partner to family or professors. An individual’s size, strength, politics or personality does not determine whether she or he could be abused or an abuser. In our still largely heterosexist society, the threat of “outing” someone who is not ready can be used to isolate and silence a person who is experiencing relationship abuse. For more information, please see our resources on LGBTI+ Relationships.

Does Relationship Abuse Happen to Nonbinary and Genderqueer People?

Individuals of all gender identities experience relationship abuse and intimate partner violence. An individual who identifies as nonbinary does not identify themselves within traditional categories of male or female, and an individual who identifies as genderqueer can identify with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders, while refusing traditional gender norms. Some men commit violence against nonbinary and genderqueer individuals. Perpetrators (those who choose to do harm), peers, and the media sometimes “blame” acts of violence on a nonbinary and genderqueer survivor’s gender identity. For advocates working with survivor’s who identify as nonbinary or genderqueer, maintaining gender neutrality in service delivery is important.

Does Relationship Abuse Happen to Teens?

Women, nonbinary and genderqueer people, of all ages are at risk for domestic and sexual violence by a male partner, and those ages 20 to 24 are at the greatest risk of experiencing nonfatal intimate partner violence. One in five U.S. teen girls report ever experiencing physical and/or sexual IPV by a boyfriend. Adapted from Catalano, Shannan. Intimate Partner Violence in the United States. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2007);Tween and Teen Dating Violence and Abuse Study, Teenage Research Unlimited for Liz Claiborne Inc. and the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline (2008); CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (February 2008); and Silverman et al. (2001).

Isn’t Relationship Abuse Caused by Alcohol?

No. Abuse is a choice. Although alcohol and drugs are often associated with relationship abuse (because so many people drink in general), they do not cause the violence. A lot of people drink and use drugs and most people do not abuse. Not all abusers drink and not all people who drink are abusive. Violence often continues even after an abuser stops drinking. Adapted from Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse. See What Causes Relationship Abuse for more information.

Does Mental Illness Cause Relationship Abuse?

Personality disorders, mental illness, poor impulse control, and generational abuse do not cause relationship abuse. Even in cases where a particular mental illness may cause a person to be abusive (such as Alzheimers), the abuse is not specifically targeted at one person but to everyone around during the episode. However, abusers who are severely depressed or isolated may stop caring about the consequences of their actions. Adapted from Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse. See What Causes Relationship Abuse for more information.

Does Poverty Cause Relationship Abuse?

No. Relationship abuse occurs in all socioeconomic groups. Many people are poor and most people do not choose to abuse their partners. There are studies that report that there is more abuse in low-income populations and there are studies that report that there is more abuse in higher-income populations. Many statistics are skewed because they come from public agencies, city hospitals, police departments, social service agencies and the courts. Since upper middle class individuals are often less likely to seek services from a public agency, they are not included in these stats. In low-income groups, there is often decreased access to resources which can be a barrier to leaving an abusive relationship. In addition, during “hard” economic times, nationally, resources are often cut and can impact the likelihood that survivors of any economic class can access safety. Adapted in part from Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse. See What Causes Relationship Abuse for more information.

Don’t Low Self Esteem and Stress Cause Abuse?

Relationship abuse is not caused by stress. Many people are stressed and do not choose to abuse. Many people have low self-esteem and do not choose to abuse. See What Causes Relationship Abuse for more information.

Doesn’t Abuse Occur Due to Anger Issues or the Perpetrator Losing Control?

Abuse is not about anger management. For example, abusers do not choose to hit their bosses or TAs, no matter how angry they are. Relationship abuse is not a result of the perpetrator (those who choose to harm) losing control. The abuse is targeted and controlled—perpetrators choose to be violent only against their intimate partners. See What Causes Relationship Abuse for more information.

How Do We Hold Abusers Accountable?

Holding abusers accountable is important because it sends a message to others that abuse of any kind will not be tolerated in our community.  Unfortunately, there are still many barriers to justice in the criminal justice system, and when professionals do not understand the dynamics of relationship abuse, it can make it difficult to adequately identify and prosecute abusers.  In addition, many women cannot rely on the criminal justice system due to institutional barriers, including discrimination or heterosexism. Therefore, it is important for us to hold abusers accountable on an individual level as well.  Do not blame the survivor. Teach your children that violence is never the answer to a problem, and that controlling another person is wrong.

Don’t Women Abuse Just As Much As Men Do?

No. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 95% of relationship abuse is perpetrated by a man against a woman and the remaining 5% is primarily a man against a man or a woman against a woman. However, men can be victims and women can be perpetrators (those who choose to harm), and relationship abuse occurs in LGBTQI+ relationships. This is not to minimize, in any way, the experience of men as survivors of relationship abuse, but instead to highlight the fact that this is a type of gender violence. This also does not mean that all men are abusive. In the same way that all NFL players are men, but most men aren’t NFL players—most abusers are men, but most men aren’t abusive. Finally, these stats do not include child abuse.

National Crime Victimization Survey: Criminal Victimization, 2007. 2008. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Bureau of Justice Statistics Selected Findings: Violence Between Inmates (NCJ-149259), November 1994; A Report of the Violence Against Women Research Strategic Planning Workshop sponsored by the National Institute of Justice in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 

But What About Those Studies That Show Women Are Just as Violent as Men?

These studies use a research tool called the “Conflict Tactics Scale,” which does not control for the context in which the violence occurred, such as use of force in self-defense or retaliation. So, for example, if a man is strangling a woman and she scratches him to get him to stop, they each get “one point” on the conflict tactics scale for use of violence! Even more significantly, if a woman has been abused by a man for years, he pushes her into the wall, and she picks up a knife, brandishes it and says “get away from me,” she will get two points and he will get one. This is the substance of studies that found women are more violent than or as violent as men. Furthermore, other studies consistently find that no matter what the rate of violence or who initiates the violence, women are 7 to 10 times more likely to be injured in acts of intimate partner violence than men are. Adapted from Susan McGee, Minerva, Inc. For more information, please see A Critique of the Conflict Tactics Scales (PDF).

So, is Mutual Abuse a Myth?

There is almost always a dominant aggressor; someone whose actions are part of a larger pattern of abusive behavior. The dominant aggressor is “the person determined to be the most significant, rather than the first aggressor.” Studies that say abuse is mutual are based on inaccurate tools such as CTS or surveys that failed to control for context. The myth of mutual abuse contributes to wrongful arrests due to improper investigation and contributes to a cyclical misunderstanding of the existence of mutual abuse. In addition, the myth of mutual abuse is dangerous for victims who may have used self-defense because it colludes with the perpetrator who tells the victim that it is the victim’s fault. Please see What is Wrong with Mutual Orders of Protection and Some Thoughts on the Myth of Mutual Abuse.

Isn’t Most Violence Against Womxn Committed by Strangers?

No. Most violence against womxn is committed by a current or former partner. 76% of women who report having been physically assaulted or raped were victimized by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, or date. Only 14% of physical assaults against women are committed by strangers.*

Additionally, most violence committed against individuals in LGBTQI+ relationships is by an intimate partner. Intimate partners perpetrate violence against nonbinary and genderqueer individuals, as well.

*Patricia Tjaden & Nancy Thoennes. Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, 1998. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why Don’t Womxn in Abusive Relationships Just Leave Their Partners?

Many people ask “Why doesn’t the victim leave? Why does the victim stay?” as if it is that simple. It is important to understand that there are many barriers to safety in an abusive relationship. The better question is “Why does the abuser do this and how can I help the survivor gain access to safety?” There are many factors an abused partner must consider in the analysis of how to respond to an abusive partner.The reality is that the most dangerous time for a survivor/victim is when they leaves the abusive partner; 75% of relationship abuse related homicides occur upon separation and there is a 75% increase of violence upon separation for at least two years. These concerns are very real and must be addressed with safety planning.

Please see Barriers to Leaving for more information.

What About Culture?

All cultures have both traditions of resistance to relationship abuse as well as forms of acceptance of it.  Culture cannot excuse relationship abuse—though abusers may use “culture” as a way to justify their choice to abuse. Abuse is not inherent or natural to any culture or group — it is always a choice, and focusing on cultural background takes the focus away from accountability. Many cultures have internalized patriarchal values and structures; in some instances, this is due to colonization and the violent introduction of Western social principles. Patriarchal beliefs enforce rigid gender roles and devalue the autonomy of womxn, which can lead to men feeling empowered to commit gender based violence. Unfortunately, intimate partner violence is prevalent in all cultures. Across the world, different cultures may have different responses to relationship abuse, and some may hold abusers more accountable than others. In every culture, many men choose not to abuse; therefore, cultural background should never be blamed. Ultimately, relationship abuse and sexual assault is always a choice made by the perpetrator (those who choose to harm).  Perpetrators need to be held accountable in every culture.

See What Causes Relationship Abuse for more information.

Won’t Therapy for Abusers Stop the Violence?

Referral of a abuser to a Batterer Intervention Program (BIP) or therapy often provides victims with a false sense of security. Couples counseling is dangerous and should not be utilized. BIPs, rather than individual therapy, should be the only referral, but there is not conclusive evidence that BIPs are effective in ending violence and abuse. Research indicates that only a small number of abusers who complete BIPs are committed to a violence free life. Stats show non completion rates of up to 89% in some counties and the people who drop out are the most likely to re-offend.* There is a lack of consequences for noncompliant perpetrators (those who choose to harm) who may be re-enrolled in another program. The effectiveness of BIPs is often measured by victim reports (via telephone rendering it potentially unsafe to disclose) and re-arrest (which does not accurately represent re-offense). Individual therapy for abusers may be useful for other issues, but it can be dangerous as a method to address relationship abuse. If the accused or convicted individual is the therapist’s only source of information about their relationship abuse, the therapist’s information is at best, faulty, and at worst an ongoing danger to the victim.* Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse.

See Why Individual Therapy for Batterers is Problematic

Why is Couple’s Counseling Dangerous?

Couples counseling is contraindicated in cases of relationship abuse. From Confronting the Batterer, written by Phyllis B. Frank, MA, and Beverly D. Houghton, PhD: “Couples counseling is beneficial to work on relationship problems. Abusing a partner, however, is a violent criminal act, not a relationship problem. It is illegal. It is a behavior that is solely the responsibility of the violent person, is chosen by him, and he alone is capable of changing it. This is true regardless of the alleged provocation, since the behavior of one family member cannot compel another family member to be violent…Treating a couple together…could:

  • Endanger the survivor who may face violence or threats of violence for revealing information during therapy which is disapproved by her partner;
  • Lend credence to the common misunderstanding that abused women are responsible for the violence inflicted upon them;
  • Ignore the denial, minimization and deception about the violence that occurs when the focus of counseling is on the couple’s interaction.
  • Indicate that the therapist condones violence or that violence is acceptable or not important;
  • Increase the survivor’s sense of isolation, as they may prevaricate about the violence of fear to speak, even in therapy.
  • Imply that the survivor has responsibility for seeing that the abuser gets help. Therapists need to be particularly wary of the manipulation inherent in an abuser’s refusal of anything other than couple treatment.

Do All Boys Who Witness Relationship Abuse Grow Up to Be Abusers?

Studies have found that between 10% -30% of male child witnesses choose to become abusers as adults. The remaining 70%-90% do not become abusers. Witnessing relationship abuse does not mean that a child will become abusive as an adult; it is still a choice and many child witnesses are actively against abuse.

For more information, please visit Children and Relationship Abuse.

Isn’t Relationship Abuse Often a One Time, Isolated Occurrence?

Physical violence is only one of the tactics used to control another person and is usually part of a larger pattern of control that includes the repeated use of a number of tactics including threats, intimidation, isolation, economic and financial control, psychological and sexual abuse. Abuse escalates over time and often physical violence is used when perpetrators (those who choose to harm) feel they have lost control of their partner.

*Safe Place, ending sexual assault & domestic violence (n.d.).

Don’t Abused Womxn Provoke the Abuse? Explain the Myth of Masochism

Victim provocation is no more common in relationship abuse than in any other crime. Abusers make a choice to abuse; an abuser can always make a choice to break up with the person or walk away or talk it out rather than use abuse. There are no studies that show survivors like being abused. People who are being abused by their partners often make repeated attempts to leave violent relationships, but are prevented from doing so by increased violence and control tactics on the part of the abuser. 75% of relationship abuse-related deaths occur after a victim takes steps to separate from the abuser. Therefore, staying in a relationship is often a survival strategy.

Why Does Language Framing Matter?

The way we discuss relationship abuse and sexual assault is directly tied to our ability to end it. As an example, look at this situation (also outlined in Avoiding Victim Blaming). Let’s say that John and Mary are in a relationship and John chooses to act abusively. If we say “Mary was beaten,” it makes us focus on Mary and her actions, when we should be thinking about John and his decision to abuse. “John beat Mary” is more effective because it draws attention to John, who has perpetrated the act, and forces us to think about the root of the problem. When we say “violence against women” we continue to try to figure out what is wrong with the women. When we say “men’s violence against women” or “violence committed by someone in LGBTQI+ relationships” we start to look at specifically what has the perpetrator (those who choose to harm) done to the woman. Gender-based violence encapsulates both, but important to note that this means we are being gender inclusive, rather than gender neutral (which is important in service provision, but should be avoided in a discussion about gender based violence). This sort of reframing is important when it comes to statistics about relationship abuse and sexual assault. Most of the statistics are framed like this:

“Worldwide, including in the United States, at least 1 in 3 women will experience relationship abuse or sexual assault in her lifetime.” (World Health Organization, 2013) When they should be reframed to look like this: “Worldwide, including in the United States, a man will commit relationship abuse or sexual assault against at least 1 in 3 women.” (World Health Organization, 2013)

Here are some more examples of how to reframe the World Health Organization statistics so that we focus on who is committing the violence:

  • Men will hurt 1 in 3 women in a relationship
  • Men will rape 1 in 4 women and 1 in 33 men
  • An individual will hurt their partner in 1 in 4 LGBTQI+ relationships