What is Intimate Partner Violence?

Adolescent girl sadly looking out window Intimate partner violence (IPV), sometimes called domestic violence or domestic abuse, is a pattern of behaviors used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner such as a spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, or ex-partner.

Physical and sexual assault are often the most visible forms of IPV. But physical violence is only one tool that a partner might use to gain or maintain power and control. Other behaviors include emotional abuse (putting a person down, making a person feel “crazy” or guilty), isolation (controlling who they talk to or where they go), and economic abuse (controlling all the finances of the household, preventing someone from getting or keeping a job, or withholding information about finances).

Children are often made a part of these patterns, with behaviors such as using children to relay messages, threatening to take the children away, or using visitation/custody disputes to harass their partner.

How common is IPV?

IPV is very common and happens across all income levels, genders, and relationship types. According to the CDC, 1 out of 3 women and 1 out of 4 men experience IPV at some point in their lives. For many survivors of IPV, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the ways that a partner attempts to gain power and control over them. If this is happening to you, you are not alone, and it is not your fault.

How are children affected by IPV?

More than 15.5 million children in the U.S. every year are exposed to IPV.

Witnessing IPV is very harmful to a child’s present and future health and is considered one of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) linked to long-term health outcomes in children and adults.

Children are often caught in the middle of physical abuse, but they are not only affected by physical violence. They are impacted by the sadness, uncertainty, anger, worry and fear caused by all kinds of abusive behaviors. They may experience problems with sleep, the ability to concentrate in school, the ability to form healthy relationships, and other life factors important to their health and well-being.

Children who witness IPV:

  • Are at a high risk of becoming victims of abuse by the abusive parent
  • Are at increased risk for depression, developmental issues, and mood and social disorders
  • Are at increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, bowel diseases, and other life-threatening physical ailments as adults
  • Are at risk of continuing the cycle in their own intimate relationships

What step can I take?

If you are experiencing IPV, you are not alone. Millions of people in the U.S. are experiencing IPV right now. And there is hope. There are millions of people who have managed to get out of these relationships and establish a better situation, creating a cascade of positive effects for themselves and for their children.

You can talk to your doctor, your child’s doctor, or another professional. It’s important to know that every state requires medical professionals to report child abuse, which includes physical or sexual abuse or any kind of neglect. In some states (not Pennsylvania), witnessing IPV is considered child abuse and your doctor will have to report what you tell them to a child welfare agency. If this is true in your state, talk to your children’s doctor about your concerns about reporting and request they include your safety plan in the report.

If you aren’t ready to talk to your doctor and want to know what options you have, call one of the numbers below. These agencies serve both women and men who are victims of abuse. In addition to helping adults, many of the agencies have therapists specially trained to help children who have witnessed IPV.

These agencies also know there are many reasons why it may not be possible for someone to leave an abusive relationship right away. Everyone’s situation is different. The goal is not to force to you to leave. If leaving right away isn’t an option, there are ways to improve safety if you stay with your partner.

National hotline (thehotline.org): 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788
Philadelphia Domestic Violence hotline: 866-723-3014
Delco Domestic Abuse Project (Delaware County): 610-565-4590
Laurel House (Montgomery County): 800-642-3150 or text “HOPE” to 85511
A Women’s Place (Bucks County): 800-220-8116
Domestic Violence Center of Chester County: 888-711-6270
New Jersey Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-572-SAFE (7233)

But what if I am worried that I am the one being abusive to my partner?

If you are concerned about the way that you are treating your partner, there is hope for you, too. Even though change is hard, it is possible to save your relationship and protect your children. In situations of IPV, marriage therapy or couples counseling isn’t the first step. The first step is to get help for yourself. Reach out to an organization like Courdea or a private licensed therapist who specializes in helping individuals who have acted harmfully toward their partners or family. 

Contributed by: Katherine Obenschain, MSW, LSW, intimate partner violence specialist with the STOP IPV Program, a partnership between Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia's Center for Violence Prevention and Lutheran Settlement House

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