Skip to main content

The Myths Behind the Idea That Domestic Violence Is a 'Personal Problem'

A viral Thrillist story about a burger joint left out domestic abuse charges against the owner—but intimate partner violence isn't a private issue.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2006 and 2015, an average of 600,000 incidents of domestic violence went unreported each year.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2006 and 2015, an average of 600,000 incidents of domestic violence went unreported each year.

"I feel like I've done a bad thing," Kevin Alexander wrote in a Thrillist story earlier this month. He was talking about the closure of beloved Portland, Oregon, burger joint Stanich's, a neighborhood mainstay since 1949, which shuttered in January of 2018. This had happened, Alexander's piece said, because he'd ranked its cheeseburger the best in America the year before. Masses of tourists descended and Stanich's buckled under the pressure. The story went viral.

The owner, Steve Stanich, told Alexander that there were other problems too. "He asked me not to reveal the details of that story," Alexander begins, "but I can say that there were personal problems, the type of serious things that can happen with any family, and would've happened regardless of how crowded Stanich's was, and that real life is always more complicated and messier than we want it to be."

On Wednesday, Portland alt-weekly Willamette Week reported that those personal problems included Stanich choking his ex-wife in front of their teenage son in 2014. After his arrest for that incident, he pleaded no contest and was banned from contacting his wife. But his multiple probation violations included "offensive contact" with her. He signed, then reneged on, a divorce settlement, and was held in contempt of court. Stanich told the Week his legal issues had "nothing to do" with the restaurant's troubles. For his part, Alexander told the Week the legal issues were different from the "personal problems" he didn't reveal. Now, Thrillist is updating the piece to include information about Stanich's abuse.

But the incident points at a common perception: Domestic violence is often considered a personal, private problem, one that "can happen with any family" and shouldn't be exposed.

That perception appears to have informed then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recent decree that domestic violence is a crime motivated by "personal" and "private" reasons, not a victim's membership in a "particular social group"—one of the five protected categories for refugees and asylum seekers.

Attitudes toward domestic violence in the United States have been changing over the past decades. The 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which pushed justice systems across the country to take domestic violence seriously and treat it as a public crime, was a landmark victory. Since then, police officers and other first responders have been better equipped and better trained to deal with intimate partner violence, and a public-private safety net has been better funded and developed.

But things aren't perfect in law enforcement. A survey of about 500 elected U.S. sheriffs found that many of them felt neutral about or agreed with common myths about violence against women, like "many domestic violence victims could easily leave their relationships, but do not." Most of them disagreed or strongly disagreed with the myth that domestic violence is a private issue that shouldn't involve police, but the survey also found that their beliefs about women's equality in larger society correlated with their attitudes toward domestic violence.

One of the myths is the idea that abusers—especially those who present themselves as charismatic, intelligent, and respectable in public—suddenly "snap" when they hurt their partners. But research shows abuse is almost always a pattern of behavior, not just a tantrum gone too far or poor impulse control exacerbated by alcohol or drugs. Abusers aren't out of control; they use violence as a tool for control.

Often, violence goes unreported or hidden before becoming noticeable to either first responders or friends and family. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that, between 2006 and 2015, an average of 600,000 incidents of domestic violence went unreported each year. Only 34 percent of people harmed by partners receive medical attention for their injuries. And many victims keep silent out of fear of reprisal or escalation. The same goes for leaving the relationship: Abusers typically get more violent when their victims leave. That's why separation is often called the most dangerous time for victims.

For example: Dr. Tamara O'Neal had recently left the man who then killed her and two others at Mercy Hospital in Chicago last week. Documents showed he'd been abusive to his previous wife and frightened his female co-workers at the Chicago Fire Department, but he had no criminal record on the day he shot O'Neal, a Chicago police officer, a pharmacist, and himself.

It's true that real life is always complicated and messy, but intimate partner violence follows predictable patterns. It's almost never a one-off incident. It's not a matter of victims provoking their abuser or of abusers being out of control. The issue of who's at fault isn't complicated: It's always the abuser. And while it can happen to any family—people are victimized by partners across race, class, gender, education, and geographic lines—it isn't a private family matter. It's a major public-health issue that affects close to 10 million Americans every year.