Domestic Violence in the US

Intimate Partner Violence – Causes, Frequency, and Risk Factors in the 

by Charles Montaldo

Updated March 30, 2017

Over the past 25 years, the National Institute of Justice has worked to educate the public and policymakers about the widespread problem of domestic violence in the US. Because of the increased exposure, there has been more public awareness and policies and laws have been instituted, resulting in the decrease of 30% in domestic abuse.

In an effort to learn more about domestic violence and the effect of the policies designed to help combat it, the NIJ has sponsored a series of studies over the years.

The results of the research have been two-fold, by first identifying the top causes and risk factors surrounding domestic violence and then by taking an in-depth look at how and if the policies designed to combat it are actually helping.

As a result of the research it was determined that some of the policies, such as removing firearms in homes where there is domestic violence, offering increased assistance and counseling to the victims, and prosecuting the violent abusers, have helped women get away from violent partners and decreased the number of domestic violence incidents over the years.

What was also revealed was that some of the policies may not be working and in fact, could be detrimental to the victims. Intervention, for example, sometimes has an adverse effect and can actually endanger the victims because of an increase in retaliatory behavior by the abusers.

It was also determined that those domestic abusers who are considered to be “chronically aggressive” will continue to be abusive no matter what type of intervention is given including arrest.

By identifying the major risk factors and causes of domestic violence, the NIJ can focus their efforts where it most needed and modify policies that are found to be ineffective or detrimental.

Major Risk Factors and Causes of Domestic Violence

Researchers found that the following situations either put people at greater risk of being a victim of intimate partner violence or were the actual causes of domestic violence.

Early Parenthood

Women who became mothers at the age of 21 or under are twice more likely to become victims of domestic violence than women who became mothers at an older age.

Men who have fathered children by age 21 were more than three times as likely to be abusers as men who were not fathers at that age.

Problem Drinkers

Males who have severe drinking problems are at a greater risk for lethal and violent domestic behavior. More than two-thirds of the offenders who commit or attempt homicide used alcohol, drugs, or both during the incident. Less than one-fourth of the victims used alcohol and/or drugs.

Severe Poverty

Severe poverty and the stress that comes with it increase the risk of domestic violence. According to studies, households with less income have higher incidents of domestic violence reported. In addition, the reductions in aid to families with children are also associated with an increase in domestic violence.


Domestic violence has been linked to unemployment in two major ways. One study found that women who are victims of domestic violence have a more difficult time finding employment. Another study found that women who receive aid for themselves and their children were less stable in their jobs.

Mental and Emotional Distress

Women who experience severe domestic violence face overwhelming mental and emotional distress. Almost half of the women suffer from major depression, 24% suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, and 31% from anxiety.

No Warning

A woman’s attempt to leave their partner was the number one factor in 45% of the women murdered by their partners. One in five women killed or severely injured by their partner had no warning. The fatal or life-threatening incident was the first physical violence they had experienced from their partner.

How Widespread is Domestic Violence?

Statistics from select studies sponsored by the National Institute of Justice shows how large a problem domestic violence is in the US.

  • Every year approximately 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are physically assaulted by their partners.
  • Women are significantly more likely than men to be injured during an intimate partner assault (39 percent compared with 24.8 percent).
  • Out of all women murdered in the US each year, 40-50% were murdered by their intimate partners. In 70-80% of the homicides that occurred during incidents of domestic violence, no matter which partner was killed, the man physically abused the woman before the murder.
  • Sexual assault or forced sex occurs in approximately 40-45% of the relationships where there is domestic abuse.
  • Among those surveyed, the lifetime occurrence of domestic violence for women age 18 and older was nearly 25% and 7.6% for men.

In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began the National Intimate and Sexual Violence Surveillance program to gather and distribute additional information for each state about the frequency of domestic violence, sexual violence, and stalking.

The results of a 2010 survey conducted by the NISVS showed that on average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the US. Annually that equals more than 12 million women and men.

These findings emphasize the need for continued work in the development of strategies for prevention and in bringing effective help to those in need.