Understanding intimate partner violence

A woman experiencing abuse at the hands of an intimate partner often feels isolated and alone. But the truth is, she has a lot of company. As many as one in three women in the United States has experienced intimate partner violence (IPV), which is violence involving a current or former spouse, partner, significant other, boyfriend or girlfriend, says Eve M. Valera, an associate professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. This number includes women from all different ages and backgrounds.

Those who experience IPV may be left with lingering health effects, including mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. IPV is also linked to a number of physical symptoms and conditions, according to the federal Office on Women’s Health, such as digestive problems, migraine headaches, arthritis, asthma, chronic pain, sexual problems, and heart problems. Another area of growing concern for many researchers is the potential for cognitive changes caused by traumatic brain injuries linked to abuse, says Valera.

What is intimate partner violence?Intimate partner violence is defined by the CDC as physical or sexual violence, psychological harm, or stalking by a current or former partner or spouse. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with domestic violence. But while domestic violence may include elder abuse, or child abuse, intimate partner violence typically involves a past or current romantic partner, says Eve M. Valera, an associate professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. It does not need to occur in the home. Intimate partner violence affects both -genders and can occur in heterosexual and same-sex relationships.

A time for concern

The pandemic has made IPV worse for some women. Many people who were already experiencing IPV saw their problems compounded when the pandemic hit, says Valera. Experts say that intimate partner violence often escalates in times of high stress. “Anytime people are facing financial strain or financial uncertainty, family stress rises, as does the risk of intimate partner violence,” says Valera. Incidents also may spike when families spend more time together.

The pandemic checked both of those boxes. But while experts anticipated a spike in calls related to intimate partner violence during the pandemic, in some instances the opposite has been true. Some advocacy organizations saw a drop in the number of calls — something that many saw as even more concerning, says Valera. “The fact that these calls were going down was a cause for alarm. This meant that women either aren’t able to call, or were too afraid to do so. Women may have been unable to be away from their abusive partners for long enough to safely call, or afraid of contracting the virus if they went to a shelter,” says Valera. In addition, many courts were closed, so people were unable to seek restraining orders to help protect them from their abusers.

Data show that while calls in some places did drop, the women who did reach out for help with IPV were experiencing injuries that were much more severe than seen during more typical times. Also on the rise were cases of women murdered by their partners, says Valera.

Helping others

While things are still not back to normal as the pandemic continues, resources are available if you or someone you know is experiencing IPV.

If you suspect a friend or family member is in an abusive situation, use the pandemic as an opportunity. Try saying “I’ve been learning that relationships are really strained right now for many people. How are you guys doing? Do you feel safe?” says Valera. Something as simple as saying that, and then just letting the person talk, can help. “If she does reveal something, don’t feel like you have to come to a solution. Sometimes just being an ear is super helpful,” she says. It’s often not helpful to insist someone take action to leave the situation. There are many real and valid reasons why women are reluctant to leave. “I think people don’t realize the reality of the situation for many women and some of the horrific things that some of these women have had to endure. Some people say, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ I can give you 20 reasons why they don’t leave,” says Valera. But while you shouldn’t push someone to do something she’s not ready to do, you should let her know that you are available to help, and outline any assistance you are willing to provide — a temporary place to stay, financial assistance, or child care, for instance.

Reaching out for assistance

If you are experiencing intimate partner violence there are some things you should know and actions you can take to help improve your situation.

Recognize you’re not alone. Intimate partner violence is common. “I think there is a stigma about talking about intimate partner violence,” says Valera. Some people may even blame the victim, “how could you let this happen to you?” But women shouldn’t feel this way. “The abuser should be ashamed of the behavior, not the victim,” she says. Keeping quiet helps the abuser and gives the abuser power, she says. Don’t be ashamed to reach out for help to see what your options are.

Have a plan. The domestic violence hotline (toll-free at 800-799-SAFE or online at http://thehotline.org) can connect you to resources in your local area and offer tools, such as how to help you make a plan to leave a bad situation. This plan might include keeping crucial documents at the ready and knowing where you would go if you did leave. It’s far easier to leave the situation if you map out the process of doing so ahead of time, says Valera. It can be difficult to think clearly when an emergency situation arises, so knowing what to do is crucial. If children and pets are involved, making a change can be very complex, but it can be done, she says.

Seek treatment for injuries. If possible, seek treatment for your injuries, particularly if you experience head trauma. Receiving proper treatment can help your brain heal. Symptoms of a concussion can go away over time with proper medical care and advice. Also, whenever possible, try to avoid getting another concussion. This might be as simple as learning how to protect your head in the midst of an attack, says Valera. Also, be aware of how a history of head injuries might affect your current health. “I’ve had a number of women reach out to me in their late 40s or 50s,” says Valera. “They survived abusive relationships, and while they are in stable relationships now, they’re struggling.” They are experiencing depression, memory problems, or other cognitive changes. While most of the evidence related to traumatic brain injuries and IPV is anecdotal, it’s an area that has been receiving more focus lately, says Valera. “It’s something women should be mindful of if they’ve been out of the relationship for a while,” she says.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one. 2 Thessalonians 3:3 NIV 

Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always. 1 Chronicles 16:11 NIV 

I love you, Lord, my strength.  The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. Psalm 18:1-2 NIV 

But I will sing of your strength, in the morning I will sing of your love; for you are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble. Psalm 59:16 NIV 

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. 1 Corinthians 16:13 NIV 

Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you. Jeremiah 32:17 NIV

The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. Habakkuk 3:19 NIV 

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 | NIV

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