Study Shows Pandemic Resulted in Increases in Intimate Partner Aggression

First of its kind study found aggression in US couples saw a 6- to 8-fold increase during the pandemic.

According to a new study by Georgia State University researchers, rates of intimate partner physical and psychological aggression increased significantly after the enactment of shelter-in-place orders at the COVID-19 pandemic’s outset. Published in the journal Psychology of Violence, the study is one of the first to document increases in aggression among couples following the start of the pandemic.

The study found aggression in US couples was 6 to 8 times higher due to the pandemic, with physical aggression increasing from 2 acts per year prepandemic to 15 acts per year once shelter-in-place restrictions began, and psychological aggression increasing from 16 acts per year to 96 acts per year. The findings reveal that pandemic-related stress was strongly associated with perpetration of intimate partner aggression, even among those considered at low risk.

“If you think about it, that [increase] represents an enormous shift in people’s day-to-day lives,” said Dominic Parrott, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Research on Interpersonal Violence, and the study’s lead author. “It’s the difference between having a bad fight with your partner once a month versus twice a week.”

During the height of US shelter-in-place orders, April 2020, researchers recruited 510 participants and asked them questions about their community both prepandemic and after the onset of the COVID-19. Participants answered questions about COVID-19 stressors, physical and psychological aggression towards their partner, and heavy drinking.

“People were suddenly under an enormous amount of stress, and we felt relatively certain that this was increasing aggression and violence,” said Parrott. “There’s data showing that after natural disasters, for example, when basic resources are lost and people have to live in close proximity, intimate partner violence goes up. Our fundamental aim was to document what was happening as a result of the pandemic.”

Rates of intimate partner aggression were high among heavy drinkers, but it seems nonheavy drinkers were most affected by COVID-related stress: the association between physical aggression after the onset of the pandemic and COVID-19 stress was most apparent in individuals who consumed fewer drinks per day. However, the findings indicate a focus on couples’ acute and chronic stress is critical, regardless of their average alcohol consumption.

“People who aren’t heavy drinkers may be able to prevent stress from affecting their relationships under normal circumstances, but we hypothesized that the extreme events of the pandemic might change that. And that’s how the data played out,” Parrott said. “Pandemic stress didn’t really tip the scales towards violence among heavy drinkers, but for nonheavy drinkers, all bets were off.”

Policies designed to assist with the negative effects of the pandemic, such as economic relief packages or polices that provide increased access to health care, may reduce stress and perpetration of intimate partner aggression, according to the study’s authors.

“Most people wouldn’t think about intimate partner violence as a reason to offer an economic relief package, but our data suggest that it has potential to be an effective measure,” Parrott shared further. “The data also suggest that typical high-risk groups are not the only ones at risk of perpetrating violence in this kind of crisis environment. The stress of the pandemic is so profound and so ubiquitous that you need interventions or policies that hit big swaths of the population.”

Learn more about recognizing and addressing intimate partner violence while earning CE credits.

Reference

1. Georgia State University. COVID-19 pandemic linked to an increase in intimate partner aggression, study shows. News release. August 16, 2021. Accessed August 18, 2021. https://news.gsu.edu/2021/08/16/covid-19-pandemic-linked-to-an-increase-in-intimate-partner-aggression-study-shows/?utm_source=press-release&utm_medium=meltwater&utm_campaign=health-wellness&utm_term=pandemic-linked-to-an-increase-in-intimate-partner-aggression