Chapter 5: Scope of Issue: Statistics and Consequences

Balbir Gurm and Jennifer Marchbank

Key Messages

  • Relationship violence is any form of physical, emotional, spiritual and financial abuse, negative social control or coercion that is suffered by anyone that has a bond or relationship with the offender.
  • Relationship violence can span the entire age spectrum and all genders. Relationship violence is a global social and health problem.
  • Women are considered common victims of physical relationship violence. Boyce (2016) states relationship violence occurs equally between men and women, though current researchers suggest that women are over-represented when the violence is most intense. Indigenous/immigrant/limited ability/language barriers/isolated women are at greater risk (COAG, 2016).
  • Relationship violence is under-reported by all age groups. Reporting rates vary between 19-33%. When victims report RV to family, friends and health professionals, these individuals are not sure how to address the disclosure.

Relationship violence (RV) is any form of physical, emotional, spiritual and financial abuse, negative social control or coercion that is suffered by anyone that has a bond or relationship with the offender. In the literature, we find words such as intimate partner violence (IPV), neglect, dating violence, family violence, battery, child neglect, child abuse, bullying, seniors or elder abuse, male violence, stalking, cyberbullying, strangulation, technology-facilitated coercive control, honour killing, female genital mutilation gang violence and workplace violence. In couples, violence can be perpetrated by women and men in opposite-sex relationships (Carney et al., 2007), within same-sex relationships (Rollè et al., 2018) and in relationships where the victim is LGBTQ2SAI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, Two-Spirit, intersex and asexual plus (The Scottish Trans Alliance, 2010; Rollè et al., 2018). Relationship violence is a result of multiple impacts such as taken for granted inequalities, policies and practices that accept sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia and homophobia. It can span the entire age spectrum. It may start in-utero and end with death.

Scope of Issue

There are multiple factors called social determinants (see chapter 6) that contribute to RV that are mediated by social norms and context. It is important that we don’t only address individual factors but consider them as they interact together. Such intersectional considerations are necessary for both recognizing risks and for creating policy. Sometimes referred to as GBA+ (gender-based analysis plus), such considerations are part of the policymaking framework in Canada. Click here for details of federal and here for BC information on GBA.

Below are some factors that put people at risk:

  • Social norms that:
    •  Normalize heterosexual relationships and myths about male masculinity
    •  Accept power and privilege
    •  Accept violence
  • Environments that support:
    • Inequity and exclusivity
    • Homelessness
    • Conflict
    • Low socio-economic status (though RV occurs in all social classes)
    • Violation of human rights
  • History of abuse

Counting Relationship Violence

The statistics included in this book come from a variety of sources and countries. So, occasionally the statistics contradict each other—this is due to the way they have been collected. Janice Ristock (2003) notes that a number of surveys of lesbians who have suffered violence are self-selected whilst others use survey tools that are not adapted for this particular demographic.

From the 1970s, there has been a debate on who perpetrates violence and who is victimized. Feminists and others point out that the vast majority of violence in adult heterosexual relationships is conducted by men towards their female partners. Others have argued that there is gender symmetry in interpersonal violence (IPV).

Family theorists Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz (1980) conducted the first National Family Violence Survey in the USA and found that violence towards men and women was about the same. They developed the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) that continues to be used today. They stated that men had a greater stigma in reporting and that further study was needed. Straus & Gelles (1986) modified the CTS and repeated the study and found similar results. When reporting, Straus & Gelles (1986) stated that they could not determine how much of the violence towards men was self-defence – this is due to the fact that the CTS does not ask for the context in which violence occurred.

As this is a popular measure—it is the measure used by Statistics Canada—it is not surprising that study after study using it has found gender symmetry, which is men and women reporting equal incidences of violence. Yet in contradiction, many other studies, including statistics on who turns up in the ER, police stations, shelters, report great gender asymmetry (i.e., women are victimized at much greater rates than men). These differences are not due to errors in surveying but in what is being measured. Critiques of CTS point out the following:

  • Only asks about the violence of cohabiting couples in the past year
  • Does not include statistics on people murdered by their spouses (as they are no longer cohabitating)
  • Counts a push back in self-defence as one incidence as is a beating resulting in hospitalization – there is no measure of severity of the violence
  • Does not count sexual assault and much IPV may include sexual violence
  • Does not make clear the meaning, context and consequence of relationship violence

The exclusion of murdered spouses is an important omission as the Canadian Women’s Foundation (2014) reports that almost half of female murder victims in Canada (49%) are killed by their current or former partner. For male murder victims, 7% are killed by their current or previous partners. Approximately every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner with violence against women costing Canadians collectively $7.4 billion to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence alone (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2021). Most men are likely to initiate violence while women are more likely to use violence in self defense (Canadian’s Women’s Foundation, 2021). .

Straus himself later acknowledged that understanding the severity of abuse matters, and we can see this with figures from Statistics Canada provided in Family Violence in Canada. A Statistical Profile 2005 (Statistics Canada, 2016). It seems that 2005 is the last time family violence figures were specifically and explicitly reported in Canada though other figures are available.

After conducting a meta-analysis of several studies on IPV, sociologist Michael Kimmell (2002) concludes that both men and women use violence, but he found that they use violence for different means:

It is certainly possible and politically necessary to acknowledge that some women use violence as a tactic in family conflict while also understanding that men tend to use violence more instrumentally to control women’s lives. Furthermore, these two types of aggression must also be embedded within the larger framework of gender inequality. Women’ s violence toward male partners certainly does exist, but it tends to be very different from that of men toward their female partners. It is far less injurious and less likely to be motivated by attempts to dominate or terrorize their partners (p. 1355-1356).

So, when reading statistics, we ask that you keep in mind what was actually being counted and what counting methods were used for you will find contradicting reports.

Relationship Violence against Women

Although RV occurs across cultures and genders, it is still normalized to heterosexual relationships in most of the literature. Internationally and locally, one out of three women is abused by their partners (World Health Organization [WHO], 2017; Public Health Agency of Canada, 2018). Specific literature on gender and sexual diversity RV can be found in chapter 20. Many women that experience violence accept it as a normal cultural/family practice and do not recognize it as abuse.

Some key statistics of RV (IVP) against women:

  • Among all types of violence, sexual and intimate partner violence against women is a major public health problem (WHO, 2017)
  • 1 in 3 women has experienced intimate partner violence through acts of physical and/or sexual abuse (WHO, 2021)
  • Globally, 38% of murders against women are committed by an intimate male partner (WHO, 2021)
  • In Canada, 28% of all violent crimes are connected to relationship violence (Burczycka & Conroy, 2018)
  • Women are two times more vulnerable than men to experience sexual assault, being beaten, choked or threatened with a gun or a knife (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2018)
  • Increased risk of intimate partner violence among lesbian or bisexual women (11% versus 3%) (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2018)
  • Women and girls between the ages of 15 to 24 years old represent 67% of all cases (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2018)
  • 79% of police-reported relationship violence is against women and girls (Burczycka & Conroy, 2018)
  • The homicide rate is four times greater among women versus men (David, 2017)
  • Indigenous women are more vulnerable to experience physical abuse than non-aboriginal women (60% versus 41%) (Boyce, 2016)
  • Pregnant women have an increased risk of relationship violence (Baird, 2015; Garcia-Moreno et al., 2006)
  • Women were killed by an intimate partner (45 per million population) – more than five times the rate at which men were killed by an intimate partner (9 per million population) (Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, 2020).

A woman or girl is killed by a known male every 2.5 days in Canada (Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, 2020). According to the report to the chief BC Coroner (2016) using results from 2010-2015, there were 75 fatal relationship violence incidents against adults resulting in 100 deaths (73 victims and 27 perpetrators). Some other findings from the report are:

    • 78% were women, and 22% were men
    • Most women were 25-59 years of age
    • Two-thirds had a history of relationship violence
    • Less than one third had reported the crime to the police
    • Ten cases had protection orders
    • 80% were killed in their home (Government of British Columbia, 2016).

Risk factors for men in heterosexual relationships who abuse women and girls from WHO (2017) and Neilson (2013) include:

    • Low education
    • History of child abuse
    • Witnessed abuse of mother
    • Alcoholism
    • Unequal gender norms
    • Acceptance of violence
    • Male privilege
    • See women as subordinate
    • Situations of conflict, post-conflict and displacement (WHO, 2017)

Besides causing fear among survivors, violence can escalate to homicide. According to Neilson (2013), the risk factors of violence to become homicide are:

    • Pattern of any type of domestic violence
    • Pattern of any type of abuse against other family members
    • Violence against any non-family members
    • Any type of coercive control
    • Unstable lifestyle (unemployment, refusal to accept family responsibilities)
    • Any type of conviction
    • Failure to comply with previous court orders
    • Escalation of frequency and severity
    • Separation

Below are additional risk factors that have mixed results. Consider these in conjunction with the above and when those on the previous list are present:

    • Mental health problems
    • Other than PTSD, there is not a strong association with mental health,  the presence of mental health problems does not cause RV
    • Survivors may become offenders from stress due to repeated RV
    • Insecure attachments in the family of origin and in intimate partnerships
    • A new partner in the target person’s life
    • Prior arrest
    • Assault during pregnancy linked to a lethal outcome
    • Continuing conflicts relating to children. The presence of children increases opportunities for contact. Increased contact increases opportunities to harm (Neilson, 2013)

The Canadian government has started the family violence initiative to learn more click here. As well, more institutions are looking at RV from a health promotion lens and gathering literature in one place. One example of this is the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, to visit their site, click here.

Relationship Violence Against Men

In Canada, surveys from 1999 and 2016 show that the percentage of men who were abused were about the same as women (Burczycka & Conroy, 2018). In another analysis, data from the Canadian Survey shows that in most types of physically and sexually violent acts men experience higher rates of violence than women (Lysova et al., 2019). Figure 5.1 below reports that there are more male targets (victims) in severe physical violence with sexual abuse, hitting with an object, kicking, slapping, throwing things and slapping  in heterosexual relationships. The same figure shows that being beaten/choked/knifed and being pushed/ shoved/grabbed are equally prevalent for men and women in heterosexual relationships. Although this study contradicts previous research that indicated that women were the majority of victims, it is critical to acknowledge that regardless of incidence rates, any group of people can experience relationship violence and nobody should have to suffer in silence.


Figure 5.1Victims of Physical Violence in Heterosexual Relationships (2019)


Risk factors of intimate partner violence among men in heterosexual relationships:

    • Risk of relationship violence among young men between 25 to 34 years old seems to be four to five times higher than among men 45 years old and more (4% versus 1%, respectively)
    • Different percentage risk when categorizing groups in different age range groups. For instance, men between 18 to 29 years old show a risk of 21.8% versus 4.2% among men 65 years old and over
    • Men in a common-law relationship are at higher risk than married  (4% versus. 1%)
    • Conflict increases abuse (Burczycka & Conroy, 2018)
    • 25% lifetime prevalence of RV in the United States (Walters et al., 2013)

Conflict in other parts of lives is indicated as a risk factor associated with women who abuse men.

Violence in Adult LGBTQ2SIA+ Relationships

LGBTQ2SIA+ rates of RV are similar to or greater than in heterosexual relationships. In 2014, Canada’s rate of victimization (of sexual assault, physical assault or robbery) was 69 per 1000 for heterosexual identified people; 142 per 1000 for lesbians and gay men and 267 per 1000 for bisexual people (Conroy & Cotter, 2017). A study from the United States provides prevalence rate comparisons for adults found that bisexual women had significantly higher rates than other adults. See table 5.2. below. The rates are significantly higher for bisexual women than heterosexual couples for all types of violence but are not statistically significant compared to lesbian women (Walters et al., 2013, p. 18). The rate for men was about 25% for all men (24.0% gay men, 27.0% bisexual men, and 26.3% heterosexual men). See chapter 20 for a deeper discussion.

Table 5.2 – Prevalence Rates by Identity from the National Intimate Partner & Sexual Violence Study  (NISVS), 2010 Findings, USA (Waters, et al., 2013)   IPSA (intimate partner sexual assault)

Lifetime IPV Lifetime IPV Lifetime IPSA Lifetime IPSA
Men % Women % Men % Women %
General population 28.1 32.9 8.0 15.9


28.7 32.3 * 15.3


37.3 56.9 * 40.0^
Gay, Lesbian


25.2 40.4 * **

* Estimate not reported    ** estimate not reported sample size too small

Relationship Violence against Children (child abuse/maltreatment/neglect)

Children are also included in our definition of relationship violence. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls it child maltreatment.

Child maltreatment is the abuse and neglect that occurs to children and youth under 18 years of age. It includes all types of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect, negligence and commercial or other exploitation, which results in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power. Also, exposure to intimate partner violence is sometimes included as a form of child maltreatment (WHO, 2016).

About 25% of adults state they were abused as children (1/5 women and 1/13 men, WHO). In Canada, 32% of adults state they were abused by the age of 16 (Public Health Agency of Canada). Some facts from the Public Health Agency of Canada related to the types of abuse children are exposed in Canada are below:

    • Exposure to intimate partner violence (34%)
    • Neglect (34%)
    • Physical abuse (20%)
    • Emotional abuse (9%)
    • Sexual abuse (3%)
    • Of police-reported cases:
      • Perpetrators were parents, siblings and extended family members
      • Girls are more likely to be victims compared to boys (four times more likely for sexual abuse, two times for other abuses) (Burczycka & Conroy, 2018)

Also, LGBTQ2SA+ youth are at higher risk than heterosexual peers (Martin-Storey, 2015). As well as minority status, of any kind (race/gender/ability) is a risk for acceptance and thereby stigma that may also increase the risk of violence.

See chapter 16 for further discussion on children.

Relationship Violence of Older Adults (elder abuse)

Relationship violence also includes older adults—see chapter 17. Relationship violence of older adults (elder abuse) is “a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust that causes harm or distress to an older person” (WHO, n.d.). Older adults are 60 years of age and older according to WHO and 65 years and older according to Statistics Canada.

    • Abuse rates are 4-10% (Burczycka & Conroy, 2018), 8-10% (Canadian Association for Retired Persons) and 15.6% globally (WHO, n.d.).
      • 61% of physical abuse
        • 21% involved threats
      • 34% of perpetrators were family members (33% spouse and 31% adult child)
        • For men, most perpetrators were adult children
        • Caregivers in senior’s homes and hospitals may also be perpetrators
    • In BC, 8% have been financially or emotionally abused (BC Centre for Elder Advocacy Support, n.d.)
    • Couples are at risk when they have a conflict or as they transition to life stages such as retirement


The statistics provided are estimates and the actual numbers are unknown. It is estimated that in relationship violence against women, only about 19% report the abuse to the police. Canadian Association for Retired Persons (n.d.), an advocacy group for seniors, agrees with the Public Healthy Agency that only about 20% of abuse is ever reported to police. It is theorized that one reason adults don’t report RV is because of the stigma associated with it (see chapter 6 on Why do survivors not report). Children do not report it because they have limited contact outside the family whom they trust. Locally, in Surrey, British Columbia, one-half of the calls to the police are in regard to cases of relationship violence. RV is an international, national and local challenge. Although we have provided risk factors, keep in mind that these are averages and risk does not equate to causation.

We know that abuse happens across the lifespan, in many places and types of settings. It is often surprising when prominent men, who are very successful in their field, are charged with sexual abuse. The “Me Too” and “Time’s UP” movements, which started in 2017, demonstrated how common sexual harassment is in workplaces, including the academic environment, breaking the myth that it only happens in low socioeconomic situations or to those with little education. For more details in academia read: It’s time to recognize how men’s careers benefit from sexually harassing women in academia (Mansfiled et al., 2019).

Consequences of Abuse

The consequences of abuse are physical, psychological, financial and spiritual.  For female victims, it can impact their reproductive health and for children, it can lead to neurological problems such as learning disabilities and other health conditions. They also lead to decreased economic opportunities and decreased well-being. Consequences of abuse can last over the life-time and over generations.

High-level toxic stress from trauma has generational impacts. It results in neurological changes and physical ailments. Toxic stress can be from experiencing RV or witnessing RV and changes in cognitive, emotional and brain development may start in-utero (Mueller & Tronick, 2019). It results in changes in the brain (Center on Developing Child, n.d.) and the remainder of the neurological system and has huge social and health impacts (psychological, social, physical, and cognitive). A review by Howell et al. (2016) provides consequences for infants/children as a result of experiencing or witnessing violence. Some are listed below:

    • Adjustment problems
    • Delinquency
    • Mental health challenges
    • Intergenerational violence
    • Detachment (leading to difficulty with social relationships)
    • Irritability (fussy)
    • Inability to self soothe
    • Atypical behaviours (repetitive movement or making odd sounds)
    • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (even in infants)
    • Premature birth
    • Low birth weight
    • Physical illnesses (For example, two times more likely to get asthma, gastrointestinal problems)
    • Dysregulation in stress response leading to later adulthood difficulties
    • Social withdrawal and anxiety
    • Mood swings
    • Poorer memory
    • Decreased IQ
    • Early-onset obesity

Table 6.1 – Consequences of RV Across the Life Span (MacMillan & Wathen, 2014). Research Brief: Interventions to Prevent Child Maltreatment. PreVAiL: Preventing Violence Across the Lifespan Research Network. London, ON.;  Public Health Agency of Canada, (2015). Snapshot of Family Violence in Canada- Infographic.

Age group Health Challenges
Infants Injury, decrease in emotional control, parent-infant bonding challenges, growth and development delays, neurobiological impairment
Children Anxiety disorders and PTSD, mood disorders, disruptive behaviour disorders (e.g. ADHD), academic failure, poor peer relations
Adolescence Conduct disorder, alcohol & drug abuse, other risk-taking behaviours, recurrent victimization

Older Adults

Personality disorders, relationship problems Maltreatment of one’s own offspring, chronic disease including heart disease, cancer

Isolation, shorter life, dependence and financial problems


Some of the behavioural signs can be found in the Early Childhood Expose to Domestic Violence years toolkit, (MacPherson et al., n.d. p. 8). Identification and treatment for children who witness abuse or are exposed to domestic violence need to start as early as possible, as there can be lifelong impacts on their development during formative developmental periods. See Toxic Stress and the Brain (Hall, 2019). Click to listen to the video about long-term impacts (Public Health Network Cymru, 2017).

For more on women, see chapter 15 and for more on children, see chapter 16.

Economic and Social Costs of RV

Neilson (2013) in a report for Justice Canada estimates the economic cost of relationship violence against adults may be as high as $15 billion. This estimate does not include “cumulative, compounding, long-term institutional costs—educational, workplace-related, medical and mental health, drug and alcohol therapeutic, legal— when we fail to intervene early and effectively in RV cases (Neilson, 2013). The Canadian Department of Justice (2012) estimated the financial cost of spousal violence in 2009 to be $7.4 billion. Check out the table with the breakdown of the cost for spousal violence (Criminal Justice Canada, 2017). Bowlus et al. (2003) in a paper prepared for the Law Commission of Canada, estimated that the cost of child abuse in Canada is almost S6 billion. The Institute of Public Health in partnership with Children First Canada estimated the cost of child abuse at $23 billion in Canada (Prince Albert Daily Herald, 2018). The Circle Project (2016) estimated the cost of one child being abused causing broken ribs at $116,000 in Saskatchewan.  The costs included only immediate costs (justice, social, health system and personal costs to the family such as loss of income and moving expense) see table, page 7 (The Circle Project, 2016). Cost estimates are difficult to obtain because families are hesitant to report, different definitions are used, and it is difficult to measure the impact.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States “estimates the lifetime economic cost associated with medical services for IPV-related injuries, lost productivity from paid work, criminal justice and other costs, was $3.6 trillion. The cost of IPV over a victim’s lifetime was $103,767 for women and $23,414 for men” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], n.d.). This was just for intimate partner violence and not all relationship violence.

There are cost estimates calculated for child and spousal abuse, but no figures could be obtained for elder abuse and male violence in Canada. It is safe to say that the cost of relationship violence is in the billions per year.  This is a significant number. These costs only increase yearly, for rates of relationship violence appear to have not decreased significantly over the last few decades. Therefore, much work needs to be focused on prevention to bring these costs to society down and to increase the safety and well-being of individuals and society.

Role of Media in Relationship Violence

Kohlman et al. (2014) in the article, Contribution of Media to the Normalization and Perpetuation of Domestic Violence explain how the media has normalized domestic violence. They note how news, TV shows, social and print media highlight acceptance and perpetuation of gender roles and use humour to minimize issues of relationship violence. Media highlights that good families cover up relationship violence and perpetuate stereotypical roles of males as aggressive, dominant and controlling while women are shown as subservient who will do anything to keep peace in the family. Quite often, sexist jokes are accepted by television characters normalizing a serious problem. The media, thus, plays a role in perpetuating stereotypes and contributing to gender myths and desensitizing the audience regarding relationship violence. As well, popular music has hits about toxic relationships such as Rihanna’s Love on the Brain (Angel & Ball, 2016) and numerous others, Gangsta by Kehlani (Parrish, 2016) and Circus by Brittany Spears. (Gottwald et al., 2008).


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Gottwald, L. S., Kelly, C., Blanco, B. (2008, December 1). Circus. [Video]. Youtube.

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Kohlman, S., Baig, A., Balice, G., DiRubbo, C., Plancencia, L., Skale, K., Thomas, J., Flitter, J., Mirzad, F., Moeckler, H., & Aquino, S. (2014). Contribution of media to the normalization and perpetuation of domestic violence. Austin Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences1(4), e6-e6.

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