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When it hits the headlines, domestic violence (DV) or intimate partner violence (IPV) catches our attention. But it’s rarely discussed in our own social circles. With the recent trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, this rather hushed subject is in the spotlight once again. And we need to talk about it.

I get it: It’s so easy for most of us to distance ourselves from this topic as we feel it isn’t applicable to us or we can’t imagine being in the situation ourselves, so it just becomes the fodder for the latest celebrity gossip. 

Yet having worked as a trauma therapist in the field of domestic violence, intimate partner violence and sexual violence for almost 10 years, nothing surprises me anymore. 

I held the same beliefs that most do prior to my work experience: “Not in our community”, “Not Tara and Tom?!”, “She looks so happy!” And then I realized I was wildly mistaken. I’ve worked with 14-year-olds and 72-year-olds. DV is in every community and can happen to anyone. Scarily, that means it could happen to you or someone you know. 

And while physical abuse and sexual assaults are typically the incidents that make the headlines, DV/IPV is far more inclusive than that. Here’s how to spot the signs.

What is domestic violence/intimate partner violence?

Domestic violence, also referred to as intimate partner violence, dating abuse or relationship abuse, is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.

DV far exceeds what it is best characterized as: physical and sexual abuse. It includes emotional, verbal and psychological abuse, digital abuse, financial abuse and spiritual abuse and stalking. Oftentimes, more than one aspect of abuse is present at the same time. 

DV/IPV does not discriminate, as the stigma associated with it often portrays. It can affect anyone, regardless of race, age, gender, sexuality, religion, education level or economic status. 

Prevalence of domestic violence

Domestic violence hits way closer to home than Hollywood. We’re talking about your next-door neighbor, close friend or sister. 

Studies show 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner violence. Experts believe the pandemic has exacerbated issues even more. It’s so prevalent that it means DV likely affects someone you know, whether you’re aware of it or not.

On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by a partner in the U.S.

That’s horrifying. And way more common than we ever make it out to be. 

And if there is a gun in the home? That increases the risk of homicide by 500%. This is not the plot of a horror movie; it’s real life for way too many women and men. 

And did you know that pregnancy and having children can increase the risk of domestic violence too? It’s a recipe for jealousy. 

Related: Mom's story of abuse and survival goes viral on Instagram

Here’s the thing: So many survivors say “I never imagined it would happen to me” when they begin therapy, utterly dumbfounded by reflecting on their situation. I tell them, “I get it. Look, if they came out and hit you on the first date, called you names or insulted you, you never would have had a second date.”

But that isn’t commonly how DV works. 

It isn’t usually a glaring red warning light right out the gate. Instead, it’s a slow and steady game of cat and mouse… all about power and control over time. It’s more coercive, intentional and manipulative than people want to believe, understandably so, because so often the one who uses the violence (i.e., the perpetrator) is also someone we “love”. We don’t want to think that someone we love is capable of such horror.

Signs of domestic violence

DV/IPV looks different for everyone and it can sometimes be hard to identify without the help of a trained professional. It’s also important to note that denial is very real in DV relationships. There is so much grief that comes along with acknowledging one's situation that it can make accepting it ridiculously hard, if not impossible at times.

If any of the following signs describe a situation you are in, don’t hesitate to seek additional support. 

Reach out for support

If you are in immediate danger, call 911. If you or someone you know is struggling with domestic abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline to chat with a trained advocate or call 1-800-799-7233 or text START to 88788. If you are in crisis and need immediate help, text HOME to 741741.

One aspect most commonly shared in all abusive relationships is a power and control dynamic, utilized by various coercive, manipulative and abusive behaviors over time. 

It’s often marked by a cycle of threats, then abuse, followed by repentance, in which your abuser apologizes and promises to change, only to have the cycle repeat itself.

Common signs of domestic violence

  • Telling you what you can and cannot do (i.e., who you can hang out with etc.)
  • Showing extreme jealousy
  • Isolating you from friends and family
  • Insulting or shaming you
  • Controlling finances
  • Pressuring you to have sex
  • Pressuring you to use drugs/alcohol
  • Threatening to harm/take away your children/pets
  • Intimidating you with weapons
  • Destroying your belongings

Physical and mental health repercussions of domestic violence

  • Increased anxiety or stress
  • Feelings of hopelessness or depression
  • Insomnia or trouble sleeping
  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope
  • Physical injuries like bruises or broken bones

Domestic violence perpetrators may also make you feel like they’re putting all the blame on you. But the abuse is not your fault—don’t take the blame. 

Resources for domestic violence support

If those signs sound like something you or a friend are experiencing, here’s what to do next.

If you're in need of domestic violence support

  • Reach out to a helpline. Chat with a trained advocate at the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-7233 or texting START to 88788. Depending on the level of support you might need, help can vary from an educational call to assisting you in finding safe shelter services.
  • Talk to your doctor or a therapist. Your medical provider should be able to help you find a therapist trained in DV/IPV support.
  • Speak to a trusted friend or family member. Confiding in someone you trust can help you feel less isolated.
  • Create a safety plan. If and when you are thinking about leaving or even having conversations around your relationship, safety always needs to be your first priority. Safety planning is a great tool that will help you begin to think “safety first” when making decisions moving forward. There are many safety planning tools online that can help you prepare a safety plan for both you and your children, including what to pack and where you’ll go if you need to leave. 

For a directory of local resources, including counseling centers and shelters, you can search by your city/state here

Related: Domestic violence resources in your state

Take steps to cover your tracks

In many cases, abusers can use technology to track your location and monitor your phone and online communication. To protect yourself, take extra security measures and precautions to cover your tracks. 

Browse with caution: Clear your internet search history often or search in an incognito window, and because abusers can use spyware to monitor your email or site history, consider using a public computer at the library or a friend’s house. Change your passwords frequently and make them difficult to guess.

Use your phone with caution: Abusers may check your call logs or try to listen to your conversations. Consider calling a DV hotline on a trusted friend’s phone instead of your own. 

Turn off GPS: Switch off any features that allow your phone to track your location or share that location with other people.

If you are concerned about a friend or family member

Remember that there is no quick fix, and while it may pain you to see someone in this situation, know that “saving someone” from their relationship is never simple. Here are some ways to offer support: 

  • Be an emotional and physical source of support. Acknowledge their situation and the complexity of it. Validate their emotions. Offer to let them use your phone or computer or go with them to get help. Do not judge them or talk badly about their partner. 
  • Educate yourself on the dynamics of DV/IPV. It can seem so “simple” from an outsider’s POV, yet DV is one of the most complex relationship dynamics that exist. Learn all you can about power and control and use this to find compassion when supporting your friend. You can gently help educate them, too. 

For additional ways to support a friend/family member, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has more resources here

A note from Motherly

The statistics prove that DV is incredibly common and more prevalent than most people can fathom. If you are experiencing DV/IPV in your relationship, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Just remember your safety is foundational, remember that you matter and remember that help is out there.