Intimate partner violence

October 10, 2017

No one deserves to be abused: A discussion about intimate partner violence

In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we spoke to University Health Services social worker Viviana Urdaneta Melo to better understand intimate partner violence, and what we can do to help those who are impacted.

On date 1, he says your blouse is ugly. 

On date 15, he says you look like you belong on the streets in that blouse.

On date 50, he says if you ever wear that blouse again, he will rip it off.

This is what intimate partner violence looks like.

Intimate partner violence is verbal, emotional, or physical abuse of one partner by another. It happens when one person in a relationship uses force, intimidation, and/or coercion to make the other person do something. It’s relatively easy to identify physical abuse--the black eye, the bruises. It’s more difficult to recognize verbal and emotional abuse. It’s not a person insulting their partner one time; it’s a pattern of behavior that often escalates into violence over time. Read more below to understand myths of intimate partner violence, warning signs, and how to help yourself or someone you care about.   

Myths about intimate partner violence 

  • Partner violence is rare: Intimate partner violence is common and universal. It happens within every community. It impacts all cultures, all socioeconomic statuses, and all ages. One in every four women and one in every 14 men will become a victim of intimate partner violence.  
  • Abusers are mentally ill: This is not true. A very small percentage of abusers suffer from mental illness. In the majority of cases, abusers are charming and charismatic to the point that it makes the charges difficult for others to believe. Abusers use power and control to manipulate and intimidate.   
  • If the victim really wanted to leave the relationship, they would: The reality is that the most dangerous time for someone experiencing violence is when they are leaving the relationship. At that time, the abuser is losing power and control, and they will fight to retain it. Most of the time this is when the violence escalates the most. It’s not easy to leave. It’s this moment when victims must be the most careful and do the most safety planning.   
  • Violence is caused by substance misuse: Many people think abuse happens because the perpetrator is under the effect of drugs or alcohol. Substance misuse and intimate partner violence are two separate problems. Some people misuse substances that don’t harm other people, and abusers who don’t use substances but hurt their partners. While substance misuse can increase the violence of the events, it doesn’t mean it is the root cause. 
  • Women are abusers as often as men, and it’s more prevalent in the gay community: Eighty-five percent of victims of intimate partner violence are female, yet it happens among heterosexual and same-sex couples. Intimate partner violence does not happen more or less for same-sex partners. In intimate partner violence, heterosexual and same-sex couples experience similar dynamics. It’s important to recognize that LGBTQ victims may experience more barriers to seeking help.  
  • If the victim didn’t provoke the abuser, the abuse would stop: No matter what, nobody deserves to be abused. If a person is naked in the street, nobody has the right to sexually assault that person or commit any kind of violence. It’s the same with intimate partner violence. No one deserves to be abused. For any reason.  
  • Experiencing abuse as a child is the root of the behavior: Previous abuse is not the root of the behavior. Childhood abuse can affect one's physical and emotional well-being, but it does not predict that one will grow up to harm others. What we know is that it’s a choice, it’s a learned behavior. To change this behavior, the abuser has to have a desire to make a change. It also helps to be in an environment that does not tolerate this behavior.  
  • They are still a good parent because they don’t abuse the children: Many people assume intimate partner violence only impacts children if they are in the middle of the abuse, or experience it directly. Some people think children may be too young to understand or be impacted by the behaviors. The primary time for child brain development is from zero to five years old. When children are in an unsafe environment, it impacts them. Even if they don’t understand what happened, there is an attachment disruption. Infants have been shown to develop startle responses to raised voices. Even if they don’t see the abuse directly, they can see fear in the parent. Some mothers can find it difficult to concentrate or give as much attention to their children or connect with them because of the ongoing violence. Children are very smart; they will catch on that something is wrong. They will feel affected in multiple ways: cognitively, thinking this is the correct way to live because they don’t know anything else; and emotionally, because they might be angry and confused at the same time, getting wrapped up in the same confusion the victim experiences by the inconsistent behavior of the abuser. It’s also common for victims with children to think the abuser would never hurt the children because they are a “good parent” to the children. If someone is harming the other parent, they can not be a good parent. Fifty percent of victims who are parents say they stay in an abusive relationship for the child’s sake.  

Warning signs of intimate partner violence

  • Fear: If someone is fearful of their partner at any point, that’s a big sign to notice. No matter what, one should not be fearful of their partner. A partner is supposed to be one of the people one trusts the most. 
  • Isolation: Abusers will isolate their partner to gain control. They will express jealousy of other relationships and try to restrict time with friends and family. Sometimes it comes across as merely wanting to spend more time alone. It doesn’t always come across as mean. It might seem sweet, as though they love you so much they want to spend every moment together. Sometimes it can be subversive, like just talking badly about certain friends or close family members. The abuser knows the less support a victim has, the harder it is to actually leave the relationship. Isolation keeps the power and control with the abuser.  
  • A history of abusive behavior: If someone has displayed previous abusive behavior in relationships, don’t assume it was a one-time incident. It’s a learned behavior that does not change on its own. If a person has been violent in the past, they would need to change their behavior for anything to change. This is likely to repeat unless the person seeks treatment. 
  • The abuse escalates: Like the opening story showing the escalation in emotion over the shirt the partner was wearing, abuse generally starts with controlling behavior. This type of behavior will increase. It may start with controlling behavior like checking cell phones or requiring to know where you are at all times. Then it might ascend to insults, yelling, and name-calling; eventually escalating to physical and sexual violence. Fairytales tell us that people change. But with intimate partner violence, the more it happens, the worse it gets unless the behavior is addressed. 

How to help someone experiencing relationship violence  

  • Listen without judgment: Always listen without judging. If the person is saying that something happened, believe them. Tell them it is not their fault. We know that many victims may blame themselves already, and the perpetrator of the abuse tells the victim that it is their fault. "If you would not do this, then I would not do that." However, no one deserves to be harmed. Explain that relationship abuse is not okay, that it’s a crime, and that it is okay to look for help.
  • Don’t intervene while the abuser is present: If you notice some troubling behavior, don’t try to intervene when the abuser is there. That could put the victim in more danger after you leave. Wait until you are by yourself with the person. Let them know you are there for them if they want to talk or if they need something. Share resources on campus or in the community, and help connect them if and when they are ready. The most important thing is to consider the victim’s safety and not pressure them to take action if they are not ready.
  • Help with safety planning: If the victim lives with the person harming them, you could offer to hold a bag with clothing, cash, or important documents. Remind them you do not want to be there to support them, not to make decisions for them, and that you can keep some things safe for them. Agree on a code word or something the victim can say that will alert others to seek help or know that things are not okay.
  • Be prepared for your feelings and frustrations: You might feel like you want to make decisions for the victim. Keep in mind that the abuser also wants to control the decisions of the victim, and forcing decisions or actions perpetuates the problem they are experiencing. Give them information, and be there to support them.
  • Connect them with resources: There are many campus and community resources to help. See references at right.

What you can do if you are experiencing relationship violence

  • Safety planning: The most important advice is to think about your safety first. Although victims do not have control over the abuse, if you feel the tension rising, look for all possible doors and exits. What is your strategy for an exit? If you live with this person, have an exit plan for the house. Keep your keys and cell phone with you at all times in case you need to call for help. Prepare a bag with clothing, keys, cash, important medication, and documents, and be ready to take it quickly if you need it, or store it somewhere else with someone you trust. And remember, as important as all of these things are, they can be acquired again. Things are replaceable; your life is not. If there is an argument, avoid places like the kitchen or bathroom because there are objects that could become weapons. Have a safety plan when you leave work or class, or anywhere you think violence might appear. Pay attention to your surroundings.
  • Reach out for help and support, even if you aren’t sure you are experiencing abuse: We can help! There are many campus and community resources to help (see references at right). Often people are not sure if they are in an unhealthy relationship. If you are wondering or worried about something, it’s a good sign that things might not be okay. It’s better to look for help and talk to someone before the situation escalates.

Did you know?

One in every 4 women and one is every 14 men will become a victim of intimate partner violence.


A note of assurance: Looking for help doesn't mean you will be forced or encouraged to leave the relationship. This is always your choice. We help people make informed decisions without judgment.  

  • Social Services - Individual confidential, compassionate counseling for victims of violence.
  • Sexual Assault Survivor Groups - Supportive and confidential space to process the multiple ways violence can affect one's life, and regain well-being and a sense of personal power.  
  • PATH to Care Center - Confidential, urgent campus support for sexual violence, dating/domestic violence, and stalking. (510) 643-2005
  • Intimate Partner Violence Coalition at Cal - Student peer-led support and crisis resource.
  • Bears that Care - Active bystander initiative to recognize and intervene in harmful or potentially violent situations.
  • Emergency support
    • When UHS is open: Come to Urgent Care at UHS for medical care. The Urgent Care parking lot and entrance are located on Durant Avenue between Fulton and Ellsworth Streets. A UHS social worker or campus CARE advocate will be called to offer support and discuss options. 
    • When UHS is closed: Get immediate medical attention. Call campus police at (510) 642-3333 or your local police for assistance. You may also go to the nearest emergency room. For referrals to local resources call the After Hours Assistance line at (510) 643-7197. For help with restraining orders and emergency shelter in Alameda County, contact the 24-hour crisis line of the Family Violence Law Center at (800) 947-8301. 
  • Employee Assistance - Free, confidential counseling and referrals for UC Berkeley faculty and staff.
  • Alameda County Family Justice Center - One-stop center for individuals and families experiencing domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault and exploitation, child abuse, child abduction, elder and dependent adult abuse, and human trafficking. (510) 267-8800
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline - Highly trained, experienced advocates offer compassionate support, crisis intervention information, and referral services in over 170 languages. (800) 799-SAFE (7233)

UHS social worker Viviana Urdaneta Melo

Intimate Partner Violence infographic