Complex Dynamics in IPV

25 Nov, 2014

The next-to-last in our series on Intimate Partner Violence is about learning from the experts to gain understanding and empathy for the complex dynamics of abusive relationships including how race and gender uniquely compound the challenges Black women face. Now a 5-part series, in our last post, we’ll examine relationship violence in the LBGTQ community.

Abusers destroy the very tools one needs to leave them

Hilary Bok at, writing about why people stay, reminds us that leaving can be dangerous, even fatal. While leaving is not everyone’s goal, if it is, then it would make sense to stay “at least until you had figured out how to leave safely and cover your tracks.” Not always so easy – where to go, how to support yourself and children, dealing with blowback from friends, family, community, managing shame and self-blame. Let’s just say, it is a high bar for many. And, because someone hasn’t left yet doesn’t mean they’re not in the process of figuring it out – which might require time and great discretion for the sake of their safety.

Bok notes 4 additional considerations that come into play:

  1. Abuse often begins on the honeymoon or with a first pregnancy. Imagine experiencing one of the happiest times of your life accompanied by unexpected verbal and/or physical violence. It can be mind-bending to experience confusion, disbelief, shock, grief, and self-doubt, just as you’ve entered into a serious commitment.
  2. While issues may be present in the relationship, the escalation to physical abuse nonetheless may come as a surprise. Isolation at first might feel like the amazing cocoon of the best relationship ever, not like a strategy to strip you from your family and friends and support system. If your biggest “problem” is that your partner loves you too much, violence might be the last thing you’d expect. This can leave people questioning their own judgment, thereby making it harder to have faith in one’s future choices about staying or going, or in one’s ability to interpret actions and behaviors.
  3. When the relationship is in its earliest stages, the times that are good far exceed the times when there is abusive or violent behavior. Those incidents can still feel like aberrations, not a pattern.
  4. The abusers may be themselves under serious emotional distress. If you know that leaving will create more pain for them, it’s not so easy to hurt someone you love – even when they are hurting you and especially when you’ve been taught that other’s needs come first.

The capacities one would call on to leave are the same capacities that are being eroded by the cycle of abuse – for example, self-respect and confidence. The longer the relationship lasts, the more those capacities are affected, and the more ties have been created – financial, children, household, community for example. Contrary to myth, most women (85%) in an abusive relationship do leave, or at least try, according to Sara Staggs.

Racial stereotypes and a special kind of victim-blaming

After the video of Ray Rice knocking out and dragging Janay Palmer Rice, it’s fair to say the NFL was forced to kick it up a notch in terms of their internal response to players accused of perpetrating IPV. The NFL created an advisory group to assist in developing new policies to eradicate domestic violence in the NFL. In response, the Black Women’s Roundtable had to send a letter pointing out the glaring omission of any Black women appointed to that group. None. Leaving out the voices of those who are experts on their own unique experience at the intersection of race and gender is illogical and willfully ignorant. Particularly so considering that in 2013, two thirds of the players in the NFL were Black.

At ForHarriet, Racine Henry explains how stereotypes of Black women play into the victim-blaming discourse. The “angry Black woman” stereotype is used to project suspicion on Black women for being the instigator, or somehow “having it coming” for being feisty and not taking crap docily. In a no-win situation the “strong Black woman” stereotype means she can take it, be counted on to fight back adequately and take care of herself. Community pressure to avoid airing dirty laundry or looking bad in front of White people may create an obligation to fight back instead of report or access outside help.

Mychal Denzel Smith writes, “We’ve been presented with a false choice: protect black men from state violence or respect black women’s bodily autonomy. Any movement toward liberation that would pit those two issues against each other is not one worth respecting.

And when you make people choose, black women lose every time.”

IPV disproportionally affects Black women

Henry says, “But in a world in which one in four women is the victim of intimate partner violence and black women are disproportionately targeted, this victim blaming is not just irresponsible; it is lethal. Black women are punished when attempting to defend themselves: 94% of black female homicide victims are killed by people they know and 64% of those victims are wives, ex-wives or girlfriends of their killers. Who will support victims when abuse is … subtle and drawn out, or when the state itself commits violence?” Indeed, see below.

Feminista Jones on reports that “… Black women are almost three times as likely to experience death as a result of DV/IPV than White women. And while Black women only make up 8% of the population, 22% of homicides that result from DV/IPV happen to Black Women and 29% of all victimized women, making it one of the leading causes of death for Black women ages 15 to 35. Statistically, we experience sexual assault and DV/IPV at disproportionate rates and have the highest rates of intra-racial violence against us than any other group. We are also less likely to report or seek help when we are victimized.”

Sexism + racism = more challenges

Some of the barriers and challenges discussed are rooted in institutional and structural racism and more no-win situations. While any person in a DV/IPV relationship might face some or all of these pressures, the impact is disproportionate for Black people and Black women in particular.

  1. The bias of the legal system across all divisions (police, district attorneys, judges, prisons). This impacts both the person reporting DV/IPV and the person who perpetrated abuse. The reporter faces possible criminalization of their own actions to protect themselves and children as well as the possible removal of children from their care, for example. The perpetrator too faces higher rates of conviction and incarceration for their actions compared to other populations.
  2. Employment and economics. Unemployment and wage disparity for Black people creates or adds to economic stressors and a sense of powerlessness that might lead to violence. Incarceration makes it harder to return to the community and families as employable, rendering more economic hardship. Financial dependence on one’s partner can leave someone with choosing between homelessness/food insecurity or staying in an abusive relationship.
  3. Spiritual and religious beliefs and negative views about mental health services. “One in three Black Americans who need mental health treatment actually receive it, and we are more likely to rely on religious guidance and faith-based practices when working through relationship issues. Religious beliefs often discourage divorce, encourage forgiveness and occasionally condemn those who seek psychiatric services instead of relying on faith. Black women’s perceptions of what constitutes abuse have been influenced by their negotiation of spiritual and mental health beliefs and how they have shaped our paradigms.”

IPV is a complex topic with no quick fixes or easy answers. But the answer doesn’t lie in blaming the victim.

Please join us and invite others to do so as well.



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