Domestic violence, also called intimate partner violence, domestic abuse, or relationship abuse, affects more than 12 million people in the U.S. every year. The statistics are shocking; about 1 in 3 women have experienced physical violence, rape, and/or stalking by an intimate partner. Nearly half of all women and men have experienced psychological aggression from a partner.
But while it’s happening basically everywhere, domestic violence is still profoundly misunderstood. We must speak up and challenge these myths about domestic violence.
It’s only domestic violence if there’s physical assault.
False. Domestic violence includes a range of controlling behaviors that can be physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, or financial. Examples of non-physical domestic violence include:
- Calling their partner names / putting them down
- Controlling what their partner eats, what they wear, how they spend money, where they go, or who they talk to
- Stalking their partner’s social media and texts
- Threatening to hurt themselves or others if the partner doesn’t do what they want
Any behavior intended to harm, arouse fear, or coerce a partner’s actions, can be considered abuse.
Domestic violence is a matter of the home.
False. Even though it’s called “domestic”, it happens to people who are married, living together, dating, or separated. It happens at home, or in public.
Domestic violence’s effects aren’t limited to the home. The mental toll of abuse can reduce a victim’s productivity at work. It can strain their relationships with friends and family members. It can contribute to long-term health issues like PTSD, depression, and substance abuse.
Each year, domestic violence costs the U.S. about $460 billion in medical bills, lost productivity, and judicial system expenses. This is not just a private matter; it’s a public crisis.
Victims are responsible for what happens to them.
Ugh, please stop. Not only is this wrong, it’s stupidly narrow-minded. Victims aren’t “asking for it.” They don’t deserve what happens because literally no one deserves to be degraded, humiliated, beaten, raped, or controlled. Blaming the victim for what the abuser does to them is misplacing culpability.
Are there things a victim could have done differently? Perhaps. But does it make it their fault that they did not prevent the abuse? NO.
Did the victim’s naivete or trouble sticking up for themselves help enable the abuse? Perhaps. But is it their fault for allowing themselves to be taken advantage of? NO.
It is the abuser’s fault for engaging in criminal, manipulative, and violent behavior. We as a society need to hold the abuser, not the abused, accountable.
Domestic violence happens because of poverty or lack of education.
False. Domestic violence happens to all kinds of people with no regard for age, ethnicity, financial status, or educational background. Just because a woman has a Master’s Degree and a powerful career doesn’t mean she can’t be abused.
Don’t forget that transgender and non-binary individuals also experience shocking rates of violence.
Although it’s not causation, there is a complex correlation between poverty and domestic violence. Low-income families are significantly more likely to contend with domestic violence. Poverty can play a role in financially abusive behavior. Lack of educational or professional opportunities can make a victim reluctant to leave.
While poverty increases risk of domestic violence, domestic violence also increases the risk of poverty. Domestic violence is the 3rd leading cause of homelessness among families. The trauma can lead to substance abuse, depression, or other health conditions that have a long-term negative effect on a survivor’s ability to succeed.
Domestic violence happens because men can’t control their anger.
False. Abuse isn’t a breaking point; it’s a pattern. Even if this is the first time the abuser has hit their partner, there is usually abusive behavior leading up to that attack.
Abuse isn’t about anger management or impulse control. But anger sometimes plays a role. For example, abusers may use anger to control their victim by creating fear.
There’s also an assumption in this myth that men are naturally aggressive. “Boys will be boys.” In fact, both men and women experience anger, and many men are capable of handling their anger without taking it out on others. There is no excuse for abuse.
Domestic violence is a women’s issue.
Sort of. It happens to men too. About 1 in 9 men will experience intimate partner abuse. However, domestic violence is much more common for women; the odds are roughly 1 in 3. Research indicates that most abusers are male; women are the abusers in only 5% of domestic violence cases.
We should always believe that the victim is telling the truth.
Domestic violence affects all genders, so efforts to support survivors should be inclusive. But since 95% of victims are women, this is also distinctly a women’s issue.
People lie about being abused.
Rarely. While there may be a small minority of people who pretend to have been abused for personal gain, this is rarely the case. Similarly, it’s a myth that most rape victims are liars; studies suggest that only 2 to 10% of rape allegations are false.
Reporting an abusive situation takes immense courage. We should always believe that the victim is telling the truth. The more people disbelieve them, the less likely they are to seek help. Too often this is what leads victims to distrust the police and not report incidents.
Good people can’t be abusive.
False. Abusers can actually be very charming, intelligent, and loving—when they want to be. You might think, “Him? No way, he’s such a nice guy!”
But like Jekyll and Hyde, abusers are masters of deceit. They lure their victims in with affection. They display vulnerability to get the victim to trust them. They provide generous support—emotionally, financially, or otherwise.
When we hear allegations of abuse, even against someone we respect, we should take those allegations seriously.
Then, once the abuser maneuvers his victim into a position where it ‘s hard for them to exit the relationship, that’s when the facade fades and the abuse starts to build.
Abusers may treat their other family members and friends well. But remember, your friend or loved one might behave completely differently in their private relationships. That’s why when we hear allegations of abuse, even against someone we respect, we should take those allegations seriously. The signs of abuse aren’t usually obvious to an outsider.
Victims of domestic violence are powerless.
False. Okay, well, it’s true that victims often feel helpless. That’s part of what makes abuse so damaging and difficult to escape. Their abuser has manipulated them into believing they have no power to change things.
It’s precisely because victims feel powerless that we need to remind them that they do have power. How do we do that? By validating their feelings, reminding them this is not their fault, and supporting their decisions.
Because a victim is often voiceless in their relationship, we need to respect their right to make decisions like when to leave. Letting them choose what’s best for themselves is the most respectful thing we can do to invest in their self-empowerment.
Leaving a domestic violence situation is easy.
False. There are many reasons a victim might find it difficult to leave an abusive relationship.
They may be afraid of what their abuser will do them or their loved ones. The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is right after a victim leaves, since that’s when the abuser feels a loss of control and is most likely to resort to violence.
The victim might not leave because they are financially dependent on their abuser. Often abusers take control of their victim’s bank account and income. They coerce the victim into quitting their job or dropping out of school. Without the means to support themselves (and their children), a victim might feel like they have no choice but to stay.
Other reasons it’s difficult to leave include:
- fear of losing custody of children
- fear of becoming homeless
- lack of support from law enforcement
- social or religious pressure to maintain a marriage
- shame that they’re somehow responsible
- unsupportive friends or family
- rationalization that their abuser’s behavior is caused by stress, depression, alcohol, or other situational factors
- hope that the abuser will get better
On average, it takes a domestic violence victim 7 attempts to finally leave for good.
Once a survivor escapes her abuser, everything’s rainbows and sunshine.
False. Lots of victims end up going back to their abuser more than once, so even if she seems “out” it might not be the end of the story. And, even after a victim successfully leaves, the story doesn’t end there. She still needs help rebuilding her life and recovering from the trauma.
It will typically take time for a victim to find stability, both economically and psychologically. It varies from person to person, but that could mean months to years.
They’ll need help finding affordable housing. Getting a job that supports them and their dependents. Saving money to finish a degree. That’s where programs like the Live Your Dream: Education & Training Awards can have a life-changing impact for a survivor.
Letting a survivor choose what’s best for themselves is the most respectful thing we can do to invest in their self-empowerment.
There are also legal matters that might take time to resolve, such as filing for divorce, filing for child custody, obtaining a restraining order, or pressing charges for criminal behavior.
Healing from the trauma takes a long time too. Survivors often talk about having PTSD, suffering from nightmarish memories, struggling with feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness. They may find it difficult to trust again. They often need long-term therapy to process what’s happened to them and learn to build a positive relationship mentality.
Children who have witnessed or experienced abuse will also need lots of therapeutic intervention to mitigate the effects of trauma.
There’s nothing we can do to help.
Wrong! If someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, there absolutely are things you can do to support them. For example, you can listen to their story without judgment, validate their feelings, point them to resources, and offer them a place to stay.
How do I help a victim I know directly?|
Looking for advice on how to support a loved one who is experiencing abuse? Check out our resource: “8 Ways to Help When Someone You Know is in an Abusive Relationship.”
How else can I support survivors?|
If helping survivors of abuse back on their feet is something you’re passionate about, petition your senators to sign the Violence Against Women Act
Karen Rauppius is Manager of LiveYourDream.org, an online community of over 100,000 volunteers and activists committing to improving the lives of women and girls. A digital enthusiast, data geek, and lover of learning, she is interested in using education to lay the foundation for dismantling inequity. Her previous nonprofit work supported programs helping individuals lead with authenticity and integrity.