Divorce and Intimate Partner Violence: How to Know If You're at Risk of Being Stalked, Harmed, or Killed
When Love Turns Dangerous
From Commitment to Betrayal to Threats of Murder/Suicide
Don't lull yourself into believing that domestic or intimate partner violence could never happen to you. Below, I've changed the names involved for privacy, but this story is real.
Sarah could be your neighbor or best friend. She could be your coworker or daughter. Or she could be you.
Are You at Risk for Violence?
My interest in this topic is deeply personal. Not because I face intimate partner violence myself but because someone very close to me does. The divorcing young mother lives in fear that the father of her three young children will carry out his threats. Her experience has encouraged me to inform others like her regarding the risks.
Intimate partner violence describes physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. This type of violence can occur among heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy.— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Has your life been touched by Intimate Partner Violence?
She Could Be You
Sarah is a respected professional, a loyal friend and relative, and an involved mother of three young children. But she's also the divorcing spouse of a mentally ill man who has threatened murder/suicide.
He Wasn't a Great Catch After All
On the surface, Jack, her husband of more than 15 years, seemed to be a great catch: a senior executive, a Boy Scout leader, a devout Christian, and a committed family man. He had been raised by a severely mentally ill mother and alcoholic father, but his traumatic beginnings in life seemed far away.
Sarah believed Jack to be a good husband, father, and member of the community. Never mind that for years, people in their social circle whispered that he was "creepy" or that something just didn't sit right about him. Never mind that a bipolar relative keenly remarked about Jack that "it takes one to know one." Or that Jack himself struggled with alcoholism and serial job loss, and he was often the source of unnecessary conflict.
Sarah had been his biggest champion until she couldn't do it any longer. When it comes to love and marriage, people often go "all in." That's what the vow is about, right?
After an unusually difficult work week, Jack handed his cell phone to Sarah. On the line was his mental health counselor, suddenly alerting Sarah that Jack needed to go to the emergency room for a suicide threat.
Sarah later learned that Jack was also having intrusive thoughts of killing both her and at least one of their children. Newly diagnosed as bipolar, Jack was hospitalized for nearly two weeks and took an extended leave of absence from work. He was released to Sarah's care by the mental hospital and attended National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) support groups and therapy sessions.
While trying to keep the family finances in order—something that Jack had previously managed—Sarah discovered that her husband had liquidated a previous 401(k) account without her knowledge. Almost $200,000 in retirement savings had simply vanished. She learned that he had also stopped paying bills in her name and had long ceased all contributions to their children's 529 college plans.
Credit card statements showed that the couple was in deep financial distress and that Jack had been a regular visitor to strip clubs and related establishments. At work, he was again at risk of losing his job due to poor performance. At home, he lashed out angrily at his family.
If only his deception had been strictly financial in nature. Sarah discovered dubious charges for a storage shed, plus frequent cash advances and ATM withdrawals amounting to sometimes thousands of dollars daily. In the storage shed, Jack had stockpiled guns and accessories (e.g., a rifle scope) and a massive amount of ammunition and cash, along with a backpack. He couldn't explain what the contents of the shed were for.
Moreover, since his release from the mental hospital, Jack had secretly spent several hours each day at a local shooting range—something he had never done before. He even left his day treatment therapy at lunch to practice his shooting, then returned for afternoon sessions. Not wanting to return to work, Jack also reiterated his threats of bodily harm.
Divorcing and Now Living in Fear
Sarah moved her troubled husband out of the house and into a room-for-rent living situation, changing the locks to their house. The 401(k) liquidation alone triggered more than $50,000 in federal income taxes to the IRS if they filed jointly. Instead, she filed taxes separately to protect herself from further financial ruin and petitioned the court for both divorce and child custody.
As legal proceedings advance, Jack's job situation further deteriorates. His job loss is imminent. Sarah lives with her small children in the house that they once shared, unaware if her angry estranged husband will make good on his threats of violence. She is coming to grips with the fact that Intimate Partner Violence has turned her life upside down.
Intimate Partner Violence: Let Go Of the Stigma and Seek Help
Survivors of intimate partner violence like Sarah are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge the realistic threat and label it for what it is. They may be hesitant to disclose their victimization for a variety of reasons, including
- shame and embarrassment
- fear of retaliation from perpetrators, or
- a belief that they may not receive support from law enforcement.
IPV began to receive the public visibility that it deserves on account of several high-profile stalking cases in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a result, a federal law—The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA)—was enacted which has drastically enhanced law enforcement's response to IPV.
If Sarah's story sounds familiar to you, then for safety's sake please let go of the stigma. Recognize the risk, and seek the help you need. Following is information on what IPV includes, prevalence, risk factors, and recommended action steps.
National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
Call this number if you need help.
What Is Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)?
Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) includes any completed act of violence or threatened act of violence that takes place between individuals who are currently or formerly involved in an intimate relationship (e.g., sexual, dating, marital, or co-habitation1
It can also include violence between partners whose relationship is not sexual. IPV is distinguished from the broader term "domestic violence" in that domestic violence also encompasses child abuse, elder abuse, and abuse towards family members such as siblings.
Such violence can occur between heterosexual or same-sex couples. Violence between same-sex couples tends to occur at the same frequency and severity as heterosexual couples.2
While IPV cuts across all socioeconomic groups, the risk is highest among women who are immigrants, poor, multiracial or disabled. Both women and men can be the targets of IPV, however studies show that women are far more likely to be victimized, harmed or killed.3
The risk of IPV is serious, as more than one-third of all female murder victims die at the hands of intimate partners.4 Every day in the United States, this amounts to three women who are killed by their partners.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month
Prevalence Of Stalking and Violence by Intimate Partners
Prevalence in the United States
More than 1 in 3 women and more than 1 in 4 men have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
One in 6 women and 1 in 19 men have experienced stalking at some point during their lifetime in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.
Nearly 1 in 10 women in the United States has been raped by an intimate partner in her lifetime.
74 percent of all murder-suicides involved an intimate partner. Of these, most of the murder victims (96%) were women.
Understand the Types of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)
Forms of IPV include not only completed acts of violence such as punching, hitting, beating, and sexual coercion but also a variety of threats of harm. These acts can include physical as well as sexual violence.
In addition, IPV perpetrators may use controlling behaviors such as limiting their partner's access to financial, education, or medical resources or isolating their partner from family and friends.
Emotional or psychological abuse is another common form of IPV and includes insults, humiliation, threats of harm, threats to take away pets or children, and stalking.
Stalking tends to disproportionately impact younger victims, particularly women ages 18-24. It encompasses a variety of obsessive behaviors: physical surveillance, unwanted phone calls or other communication with the victim, property invasion or destruction, or even proxy stalking (having others "keep an eye" and report back regarding the victim).5
One study found that 78% of stalkers used more than one surveillance method.6 In inflicting fear upon their victims, perpetrators commonly employ text messages, social media, emails, phone calls, monitoring technology like "nanny cams" and GPS devices, and other people.
Unfortunately, stalking by an intimate partner tends to escalate rapidly, with two-thirds of stalkers contacting their victim at least once a week. Further, prior stalking is predictive of future stalking; about one-third of stalkers have stalked before.
Getting a protective order may stop stalking behavior in as many as 65% of cases. However, that means the remaining 35% or so continue to do so even after a protective order is issued.
Types of Intimate Partner Violence
Type of Intimate Partner Violence
slapping, hitting, punching, kicking, beating, shoving
rape and other forms of sexual coercion
insulting, belittling, constantly humiliating, intimidating, making threats of harm, threats with a weapon or threats to take away pets or children
isolating a partner from family and friends, monitoring their whereabouts and behavior, restricting access to financial resources, employment, education or medical care
Call 1-855-4-VICTIM (1-855-484-2846) to speak with a Victim Assistance Specialist or chat live at https://chat.victimconnect.org/
Why Don't Abused Partners Just Leave?
fear of retaliation
concern for their children
fear of losing child custody in a divorce
lack of alternative economic resources
lack of support from family and friends
hope that the partner will change
shame and embarrassment
belief that the police won't believe or help them
not understanding the gravity of the danger
Are You At Risk Of Intimate Partner Violence?
Screening for IPV is best conducted by a mental health professional. Although a variety of research-based screening tools are used, there is no one accepted screening tool.7
IPV screening tends to focus on a combination of individual factors as well as relationship factors. Individual factors refer to characteristics of the abuser and his past experiences. They include the perpetrator's childhood background, mental health, use of violence in previous relationships, and access to a weapon.
Relationship factors examine behavior interaction patterns between the perpetrator and victim. Because past behavior is a strong predictor of future behavior, you may be asked about the following:
- an increase in severity or frequency of physical violence over the past year
- an increase in specificity of threats
- whether your partner has ever forced you to have sex when you didn't want to
- if he controls/monitors your daily activity and if their is a pattern of possessive, obsessive and jealous behavior; and
- whether he has beaten you while you were pregnant, has issued threats to kill you or has threatened you with a weapon in the past.
Risk Factors For Becoming A Victim or Perpetrator
Individual Risk Factors
Individual Risk Factors
Relationship Risk Factors
Marital conflict (i.e., fights, tension, and other struggles)
Belief in strict gender roles (e.g., male dominance and aggression in relationships)
Marital instability (history of divorces or separations)
Low academic achievement
Emotional dependence and insecurity
Dominance and control of the relationship by one partner over the other
Desire for power and control in relationships
Aggressive or delinquent behavior as a youth
Being a victim of previous physical or psychological abuse
Unhealthy family relationships and interactions
Heavy alcohol and drug use
History of experiencing poor parenting as a child
Anger and hostility
History of experiencing physical discipline as a child
Prior history of being physically abusive
Borderline personality traits
Prior history of perpetrating psychological aggression
Antisocial personality traits
Having few friends and being isolated from other people
The risk for Intimate Partner Violence increases during life transitions: pregnancy, separation and divorce.
What to Do About Intimate Partner Violence
While each situation is different, here are tips for what to do regarding intimate partner violence:8,9
- If you are in immediate danger, call 911.
- Don't underestimate the risk. Take all threats seriously. If you feel unsafe, you probably are.
- Identify your partner's triggers and pattern of violence so you can escape with your children before conflict situations escalate to harm.
- Periodically contact a domestic violence hotline, crisis hotline, or victim services agency. They can help you in a variety of ways: assessing your options, providing support and peer counseling, helping you to figure out a safety plan, referring you to other services, and assisting you with a protective order and criminal prosecution.
- Develop a safety plan, and practice it with your children. Plan your escape route from the home. Identify areas that have no weapons, as well as rooms that have a window or door to the exterior. Stay away from the kitchen during an argument. Avoid closed-in rooms such as interior bathrooms where you can become entrapped. Move towards safe areas when arguments occur.
- Protect your children by teaching them how to access help in an emergency and agree on a secret signal to evacuate the home. Instruct them not to intercede in violent incidents.
- Always carry a cell phone. Identify women's shelters and other key resources in advance.
Even more advice:
- Don't protect your abuser by keeping his behavior secret. Instead, tell trusted friends, relatives, co-workers and neighbors about your situation. Devise a safety plan that includes a code word and visual signal to warn trusted others in case of emergency.
- Tell HR and security at your workplace so they can help you stay safe on the job.
- Tell your family doctor, emergency room personnel and other health care providers whose help you might need in documenting your abuse and accessing resources.
- Pack an emergency bag. Give it to someone you trust, or hide it in a safe place. It should contain money, extra house and car keys, medications, important contact numbers, extra clothes for you and your children, and important documents. Examples of key documents: immigration papers, passports and birth certificates, medical records, and protective orders.
- If violence occurs and you cannot escape, make yourself a small target. Curl up tightly in a corner and protect your face and head.
- Document abuse incidents using an event log. Then, retain your evidence on a designated technology platform. For example, at no cost you can use a Google drive as well as the Google Keep syncing note-taking app to store photographs, screen shots, emails, contacts, notes and lists, and audio recordings. Make sure a close friend or relative you trust knows the password.
1 "Sexual Assault Education and Resources | What is Intimate Partner Violence?" The University of Virginia. Last modified July 7, 2015.
2 Taranto, Ashley. "Same-Sex Intimate Partner Violence: Current Barriers to Service & Future Goals for Community Agencies." Council on Crime and Justice. Last modified 2016.
3 Thompson, Martie P., Kathleen C. Basile, Marci F. Hertz, and Dylan Sitterle. "Measuring Intimate Partner Violence Victimization and Perpetration: A Compendium of Assessment Tools." PsycEXTRA Dataset (n.d.). doi:10.1037/e611952007-001.
4 Gerney, Arkadi, and Chelsea Pa. "Women Under the Gun." Center for American Progress. Accessed May 14, 2016. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/guns-crime/report/2014/06/18/91998/women-under-the-gun/.
5 Logan, T. K. Research on Partner Stalking: Putting the Pieces Together. National Institute of Justice, 2010. https://victimsofcrime.org/docs/Common%20Documents/Research%20on%20Partner%20Stalking%20Report.pdf?sfvrsn=0.
6 Stalking Resource Center. "Stalking Fact Sheet." Welcome to the National Center for Victims of Crime. Last modified January 2015. https://victimsofcrime.org/docs/default-source/src/stalking-fact-sheet-2015_eng.pdf?sfvrsn=2.
7 "Intimate Partner Violence Screening Tools." PubMed Central (PMC). Last modified 2009. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2688958/.
8 American Bar Association. "Domestic Violence Safety Tips For You and Your Family." American Bar Association. Accessed May 14, 2016. http://apps.americanbar.org/tips/publicservice/safetipseng.html.
9 The National Domestic Violence Hotline. "Path to Safety." What Is Safety Planning?. Accessed May 14, 2016. http://www.thehotline.org/help/path-to-safety/.
Questions & Answers
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