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Primary Prevention of Intimate Partner Violence

Woman with dark hair in bun and black eye with her face in hands looking into mirror.

I will never forget the ladies’ dinner party I attended in 2015. We were noshing and chatting in the hostess’s small kitchen. I mentioned to a woman I had just met that I been strangled by my first husband, when I was 21. The woman had a similar experience, and the next thing I knew I was asking the group of eight women in the kitchen how many had been strangled. Six hands went up! According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), one in four women in the United States have experienced some form of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV, aka domestic violence)1. Systemic social changes are needed for primary prevention of IPV and to help women leave abusive relationships. What if, instead of a man who beats his wife, Johnny grows up to be a man who would never dream of dominating and abusing a woman? And what if being a single mother was normalized and supported, making it easier to leave an abusive relationship? In this article, we’ll explore systematic factors that can be altered to reduce the number of men who abuse women and how we can remove financial barriers that make women dependent and limit their escape options.

What is Intimate Partner Violence?

Woman with dark hair in bun and black eye with her face in hands looking into mirror.

The CDC defines IPV as including sexual violence, physical violence, stalking, and psychological aggression within a current or former intimate partner relationship. It further defines psychological aggression as the “use of verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent to harm a partner mentally or emotionally and/or to exert control over a partner.”

The Making of an Abuser

While the #metoo movement helped raise awareness about sexual violence, little has been achieved in raising awareness about Intimate Partner Violence. However, opening the dialog about sexual abuse of women can certainly pave the way, if the #metoo movement has any momentum left. Changing how we perceive and talk about women is the first and most essential step to preventing the violence in the first place, and it’s something everyone can do. It’s important to learn to talk about these issues and learn better ways of communicating that foster nonviolent conflict resolution and ensure our children have a strong sense of self-worth. It’s easy to see the need for intervention and resources for the victims of IPV, but how much better to add primary prevention, so the number of victims dwindles? In his book, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men2, psychologist, author and researcher Lundy Bancroft takes a close look at the factors that contribute to this aberrant behavior in men. Bancroft devotes a chapter to the question: Where did he learn to be that way? He points out that influences and modeling from home, peers, media, popular culture, religion, and society have contributed to a culture of men dominating women.

7 Systemic Factors We Can Change to Prevent IPV Before It Starts

Every man who abuses women has a different story. In addition to protecting their victims, we need to take a closer look at what leads to this dysfunctional, violent behavior. Here are 7 factors that can contribute to Johnny becoming an abuser.

1. Modeling

The most obvious example of modeling at home is a son seeing his father dominating or abusing his mother. Mom forgives him and stays, and dad’s position in his family and in his social circle is unchanged. Consequently, the son learns that it’s normal behavior. Less-obvious influences include popular entertainment and peers bragging about their dominance of women like an alpha male gorilla thumping his breast after mounting the females.

2. Sons Who Didn’t Grow Up

When it comes to these first influences from one’s own family, phrases we thought were innocuous, when seen through the toxic masculinity lens, become not just disturbing, but dangerous. For example, a father dies and the uncle tells his brother’s son, “Now you’re the man of the house. Take good care of your mothers and your sister.” This is extremely loaded and devastating on so many levels. The boy not only lost his father, now he lost his childhood. He has responsibilities foisted upon him that he’s unable to step into as a child. How can he do anything but blame himself, if the family falls apart? And he’s also given the very clear message that the women and girls need men to take care of them. That they’re helpless and defenseless without a male protector. He grows up, well gets older anyway, believing that it is his duty to protect his family. He may later decide that the man holding the door for his wife and smiling at her too long is a threat to his relationship. Rather than rail against a smiling stranger, he may decide to blame his wife and “discipline” her at home, believing he’s fulfilling his duty. How much better it would be if the uncle became a positive role model and gave him a shoulder to cry on, and told him that it’s okay to be sad. That he’s sad, too.

3. Bedtime Stories Gone Wrong

Girl with long curly hair showing the pictures in her Beauty and the Beast book to her teddy bears.

The indoctrination starts early, beginning with children’s books and fairy tales. An example that Bancroft gave of a popular culture influence hit home with me. He called out Russel Hoban’s Bedtime for Frances3 because the father threatens to spank his child when she comes to him afraid of the dark. I read that book to my kids when they were young and thought it was a sweet tale about a girl (or badger in this case), who was afraid to go to sleep. I had, however, already stricken it off my list for another reason. One of the times Frances is scared, it’s because of a thump, thump, thump on her window. After she gets her dad, he explains that it’s just a moth being a moth, doing its job. What job? Ramming against a window in a desperate attempt to get to the light? And taken metaphorically, it is like a woman trying to get an abusive man to stop abusing her. Futility. And Frances’ job, the dad says, is to go to sleep. When I was in an abusive relationship, it felt light sleepwalking. Life went on around me, but my world was dark and small. I wasn’t fully alive, nor fully awake.

4. Media Influences

Pop culture entertainment often portrays IPV as normal or even romanticizes it. Song lyrics, movies, TV show themes, and video games all have examples of this. Beauty and the Beast is a caricature of masculine domination as romantic. More recently, a Game of Thrones episode “Breaker of Chains” showed a rape scene. In the book of the same name, which the show is based upon, George R. R. Martin wrote the scene as rough, but consensual. So, why change it?  

5. Underlying Aggression

While it’s easy to see a correlation between immersing oneself in examples of abusive, dominant behavior and acting out violently toward intimate partners, many studies have come up empty when it comes to definitively proving the correlation. In “The Influence of Media Violence on Intimate Partner Violence Perpetration: An Examination of Inmates’ Domestic Violence Convictions and Self-Reported Perpetration” (Gavin, S.M. and Kruis, N. E., 2021)5, many studies are cited that can only prove a weak link. In their conclusion, Gavin and Kruis point out that previous studies and their own had significant limitations. They suggest that “When considering domestic violence perpetration, prior victimization experience and endorsement of domestic violence beliefs appear to be significant correlates worthy of future exploration and policy development.” They also saw the need for further study into Cultivation Theory as it pertains to IPV. In other words, how individuals embody ideals, over time, that affect their disposition toward the behavior portrayed in popular media they consume.

6. Religious Indoctrination

Woman wearing wedding band has hands clasped under chin and eyes closed. Bible is on her lap.

A less subtle influence, which could be arguably termed indoctrination is adherence to patriarchal religions. Many of the world’s religions have patriarchal attitudes embedded into their sacred texts. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism, for example, teach women to submit to their husbands, and men to keep their wives in line. If either did otherwise, they could suffer eternal consequences. Having been in two marriages within two Christian religions, I have seen it firsthand. In addition, a priest at a church I used to attend told a woman in a body cast, unable to nurse her newborn, that she had to continue to submit to her husband’s abuse, even if it (he) killed her. 

7. Mothers Passing on Cultural Norms

We can’t put all the blame on men for raising abusive men. Mothers need to consciously move away from outdated gender roles and norms that date back to the 1800s with the cult of domesticity. This is seen most often from members of patriarchal churches and where cultural family values have been passed down, unchanging and held sacred for generations. The “virtuous woman,” as described in the bible’s Proverbs 136 and what became the ideal held up for all middle-class women in the 1800s has been cemented into place for many. The very notion of equality flies in the face of the virtuous woman, who is the guardian of piety and virtue in the home, teaching her daughters to cook and telling her sons not to cry. As an example, there is a blog that seeks to help women maintain these “values,” which include being submissive to their husbands. A post by a blogger there provides “20 Reasons to Be a Stay-at-Home Mom” (Ringstaff, M, July 2022)7. Many of her reasons center around keeping those values intact for their children. Their organization is A Virtuous Woman: A Proverbs 31 Ministry. So long as they believe the bible as being the infallible word of God and hell as being the consequence of not following it to the letter, they will be unmoved and remain part of a culture that breeds potential abusers. This same indoctrination made me think I needed to be a good wife to be delivered from my husband’s abuse. Leaving, within the faith tradition I was affiliated with at the time, was not condoned. Even within the walls of Al-Anon (my abuser was an alcoholic/drug addict), I found a culture that often implied that it was a virtue to stay and leavers were quitters. It may have had less to do with the teachings and more to do with the particular people in the meetings. Also, my own preconceived notions could have colored my perceptions.  

How Can We Help Women Leave?

Woman at computer with eyes closed, head down, holding bridge of nose in one hand and toddler on her lap with other.

Those who have never been in an abusive relationship may find it hard to understand why women don’t leave. Abusers make them feel guilt, shame, and hopelessness. They become an extension of his problem, with their whole world revolving around not poking the bear. In day-to-day survival mode, it’s hard to see the door. The sad fact is that women who seek asylum in women’s shelters typically go back to the abusers several times before leaving for good. Others go back and the aggression escalates to murder. The abuse cycle is a psychological nightmare that chips away at women’s self-esteem and plays on their compassion. Beyond this often deadly cycle, economic barriers make it harder for victims to get out when one sees the warning signs.

Economic Barriers

In addition, economic dependence often prevents women, especially mothers, from leaving these relationships. In fact, one of the ways abusers control their victims is through fiduciary abuse, which can include restricting access to their money, preventing them from working, or causing them to miss work due the physical injuries they cause. (See National Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s “Quick Guide: Economic and Financial Abuse” to learn more.) A number of things can be done to ensure that women have the financial support they need to leave. In its conclusion, the “Domestic Violence against Women, and their Economic Dependence: a Count Data Analysis,” (Basu, B. and Famoye, F., 2004)8 outlines three ways government can mandate employers to help:

1. Requiring part time and flex time work for working mothers

2. Encouraging work-place daycare

3. Expanded healthcare benefits

Another factor that continues to keep women down and make them more financially dependent on a partner is the unequal pay and unequal access to jobs and promotions that men enjoy. Employers still need to be called into account for this.

Employers will argue that they can’t afford to make these adjustments; that they can barely afford to keep people in the positions they have and are struggling with the existing mandates for healthcare. I can certainly sympathize with the limitations of small business owners. I feel that the efforts should fit the size of the company, which is a harder thing for government to control and mandate. As with so many things, we have to look to the larger corporations to pave the way. The ones with deeper pockets, who care about their triple-bottom-line (profit, people, planet) image. Making the link between financial dependence and IPV clear will, perhaps, help employers to see the need to do their part, in whatever way they can, without the government dictating what that looks like in their company. 

We Can Turn the Tide of Intimate Partner Violence

Preventing IPV at a primary level is crucial to seeing its decline. This task is not just the responsibility of the underfunded survivor resource centers. This is a job for you and I. A responsibility for fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, teachers, employers, politicians, media professionals, recording artists, authors, celebrities, neighbors, and friends. We can all do our part to change the conversation in order to change our violent culture and, hopefully, bring IPV to its knees. 

1 Smith, S.G., Zhang, X., Basile, K.C., Merrick, M.T., Wang, J., Kresnow, M., Chen, J. “The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2015 Data Brief – Updated Release.” National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 2018, Atlanta, GA.

2 Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. Berkley, 2003.

3 Hoban, Russel. Bedtime for Frances. HarperFestival; New – Illustrated edition, 1995.

4 Gavin, Samantha M. and Kruis, Nathan, E. “The Influence of Media Violence on Intimate Partner Violence Perpetration: An Examination of Inmates’ Domestic Violence Convictions and Self-Reported Perpetration.” Springer Nature Springer Science+Business Media, 20 June, 2021,

5 The Bible. Old Testament, Proverbs, Chapt. 31. King James Version.6 Ringstaff, Melissa. “20 Reasons to Be a Stay-at-Home Mom.” A Virtuous Woman: A Proverbs 31 Ministry, 11 and 18 July 2022,

7 Ringstaff, Melissa. “20 Reasons to Be a Stay-at-Home Mom.” A Virtuous Woman: A Proverbs 31 Ministry, 11 and 18 July 2022,

8 Basu, Bharati and Famoye, Felix. “Domestic Violence against Women, and their Economic Dependence: a Count Data Analysis.” Review of Political Economy, vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 457-472, Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2004.