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How Domestic Violence is Different for Unmarried Couples

by Katie Moritz
February 16, 2018 | Love

Maybe you've heard the statistic: one in three women and one in four men will experience domestic violence. It's a reminder of how very common it is to find yourself in a violent situation with someone you trusted. But with fewer and fewer people getting married these days, shouldn't domestic violence rates be going down, too?

Sadly, no. The vast majority of reported domestic assaults actually take place between boyfriends and girlfriends. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania discovered that more than 80 percent of incidents of domestic violence reported to the Philadelphia police in 2013 happened between current or former unmarried couples.

Domestic Violence pbs rewire
Source: University of Pennsylvania

These relationships were also more violent than those between married couples.

“Current boyfriends or girlfriends were more likely than current spouses to injure their victims,” said researcher Susan B. Sorenson, director of Penn’s Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence, in a news release about the research.

"They were more likely to push and shove, to grab, to punch," Sorenson explained. "They were more likely to strangle—some pretty awful behaviors toward a partner. They were also more likely to use a knife, a bat or another kind of weapon. We were not expecting to find this."

What's really going on?

Sorenson teamed up with the Philadelphia Police Department in 2011 to improve the way domestic violence reports are taken by officers. When responding to an incident, officers now write a description of the event as well as details about the relationship between the couple involved, regardless of whether an arrest is made.

With this more detailed information, researchers Sorenson and Devan Spear hoped to get beyond statistics about how many people are being hurt by their partners, and into who is doing it and how.

Of 31,206 forms filled out by Philadelphia police officers in 2013, they found that 82.1 percent of intimate partner violence happened between current or former dating partners. Less than 15 percent involved spouses, and 3.5 percent involved ex-spouses.

What's marriage got to do with it?

Why such a huge disparity? It could be that married and unmarried couples are experiencing domestic violence at the same level, but unmarried people might be more willing to call the police to report an incident, Sorenson said. Maybe victims of domestic violence are deciding not to marry their abusers.

Domestic Violence pbs rewire
Source: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Or maybe it’s Philadelphia’s demographics at play. Of the 10 largest cities in the U.S., Philadelphia tops the list for percentage of never-married adults—more than half the adult population have never tied the knot. In Chicago, never-married people make up 49.7 percent of the adult population. for Los Angeles, it’s 46.5 percent.

Because marriage trends have shifted drastically over the past few decades, policies surrounding domestic violence should, too, Sorenson said.

Even the official definition of domestic violence should be revisited, to include different types of romantic relationships that are more common today. For example, recent studies have shown that same-sex couples are just as, if not more, likely to experience intimate partner violence than heterosexual couples are.

“The federal policy focuses on people who are married, live together or have a child in common. We know that abuse occurs in addition to those kinds of relationships,” she said. “Unfortunately, the federal policy doesn’t address that, and the policy is from nearly a generation ago by now. It might be time to revisit.”

How to recognize and address domestic violence

Some relationships are complicated and emotional. It can be hard to tell whether something is abuse or just poor behavior.

If that sounds like your relationship or the relationship of someone you love, read up on these warning signs of abuse from

Intimate partner abuse is never, ever okay. If you suspect you are the victim of abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for confidential help over the phone or via instant message.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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