Domestic Abuse

I’d like to discuss risk factors and effects of partner abuse, and how being able to recognize these factors can help victims escape their abuse or prevent it from happening. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence stated that, “on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States.” That is equal to more than ten million women and men in one year. This epidemic is particularly toxic and can quickly escalate to fatal violence to not just the intimate partners, but also the other people around them, from bystanders to family members and friends to law enforcement, or anyone who tries to intervene (NCADV).

Domestic abuse encompasses a vast range of types of abuse, such as physical, sexual, and emotional, among others. Domestic violence is usually not an isolated incident, nor is it sudden or unexpected; many cases of physical domestic abuse start with gradual, minor incidents to frequent, severe, and destructive ones, often paired with months or years of emotional and psychological trauma. This simultaneous abuse can explain why, according to NCADV, “72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner; 94% of the victims of these murder suicides are female.”

Intimate partner violence can be defined as a pattern of purposeful, coercive behavior that may include physical injury, psychological abuse, sexual assault, progressive social isolation, stalking, deprivation, or intimidation and threats. It is aimed at establishing control of one partner over the other.

There are several factors that may increase an individual’s chances of victimization.

  • Many women who find themselves in abusive intimate relationships often experienced physical and sexual abuse in childhood and/or adolescence; however, childhood sexual abuse alone did not predict future victimization.
  • Yet, when sexual abuse occurred throughout childhood and adolescence, the risk for future sexual abuse increased to 75%, and the risk for severe domestic violence—beating, punching, hitting, choking, burning/scalding on purpose—to 85%. This is compared to the 28% of women who reported being sexually assaulted as an adult but not as a child or teenager.

Why are past victims more likely than others to experience partner abuse? It’s referred to as revictimization, and young women (particularly college students) are especially vulnerable to it. When victimized or a witness of domestic abuse in childhood, that individual’s chances of revictimization in high school increases, and when in high school, the chances of revictimization in college increases, and so on. When experiencing abuse both in childhood and adolescence, the victims were far more likely to start dating at a young age or experience a high numbers of caregivers and living situations. There also situational risk factors, such as having multiple sex partners and abusing alcohol.

The effects of abuse can be extremely devastating. Many victims go on to develop substance abuse problems, mental illness, behavioral problems, and lowered physical health.

But what about the perpetrators; how do we know if someone will grow up to abuse their partners? There are a few red flags to be wary of.

  • There is a significant relationship between childhood sexual victimization and future perpetration of sexual and physical assault in high school.
  • They were also much more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, have many sex partners, engage in delinquent behavior, and approve of male use of violence against women.
  • Young men who committed sexual assault during high school are four times more likely to commit sexual assault during the first year of college; however, these perpetrators generally experience a decline in sexual aggression over time.

With this in mind, how do we work to prevent intimate partner violence? Early intervention is key, as “boys who are victims of violence are especially in need because they are more likely to grow up and mistreat their partners.”

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Oxytocin: The Bonding Hormone

Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus and is released by the posterior pituitary gland. There are many different situations that trigger the release of oxytocin.

  • Oxytocin is most notably stimulated during childbirth and breastfeeding, and facilitates maternal bonding.
  • Medically, oxytocin can be used to help start or continue labor, control bleeding after giving birth, and can also be used to help in milk secretion in breastfeeding as well as induce abortion (National Library of Medicine).
  • It is also released during orgasm in both males and females, and during hugging, touching, and cuddling.

It facilitates social bonding between people, and is shown to lower stress and increase relaxation. People with higher levels of oxytocin in their systems are more willing to trust, and are more likely to be generous and empathetic. Oxytocin is essential, especially during the early years of our lives, in order to pave way for healthy relationships as an adult.

“It’s like a hormone of attachment, you might say,” said Carol Rinkleib Ellison, a clinical psychologist and former assistant clinical psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “It creates feelings of calm and closeness” (Live Science). Oxytocin is often dubbed the “cuddle hormone” or the “love hormone” for this reason. When people touch or embrace each other by hugging and cuddling, or when other social bonding is occurring, oxytocin is rapidly being produced, which in turn lowers stress levels and helps establish a sense of security and affection between two people. This is also what promotes and strengthens a bond between mother and child. It seems to solidify relationships and promote attachment among people; for example, it may encourage fidelity between two monogamous partners.

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