🚧 Website Maintenance in Progress: Thank you for visiting! We are currently in the process of enhancing our website to serve you better. Please check back soon for our new and improved website.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is physical, sexual, or psychological violence and aggression by a current or former partner (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reports that 1-in-3 women and 1-in-4 men have been physically abused, sexually abused, and/or stalked by an intimate partner in their lifetime (Black et al., 2011). Although IPV is a prevalent public and private health concern, there is a dearth of visibility and understanding regarding the nuanced and complex nature of violence and abuse in relationships. Television shows, movies, and the larger media are traditionally seen as having a negative impact on intimate partner violence and relational aggression. A study by Coyne et al. (2011) found that viewing physical and relational aggression in the media was related to subsequent aggressive behavior towards their partners for males only; viewing relational aggression was also associated with subsequent relational aggression by females.

At times, the media can romanticize perpetration and emanate judgment, but it can also reveal the multifarious dynamics, complexity, and trauma associated with IPV. Romance, passion, aggression, and abuse can become easily entangled in intimate relationships and it is not uncommon for third parties to question why victims do not leave their abusive partners. HBO’s Big Little Lies, select coverage of domestic violence in celebrity couples, and certain social media movements are factions of the media that give visibility to the intricacies of IPV.

HBO’s Big Little Lies has received rave reviews from viewers, not only for its high-quality acting and gripping script, but also for its authentic portrayal of intimate partner violence. Celeste, a powerful attorney turned wealthy housewife, is in a relationship riddled with physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. Celeste and her husband, Perry, are prone to verbal disagreements, subsequent physical altercations, and closing bouts of aggressive sex. This cycle of violence raises one concerning question: are we watching consensual sex or marital rape? It’s not always clear. Romance, fighting, sex, and abuse can often be conflated, therefore making victims and perpetrators hesitant or unable to label behavior as abuse. In one episode, Celeste says to her friend, “Sometimes I think he likes to fight because it leads to sex. Sometimes I think I like it, too.” Romantic beliefs, such as placing high value on one’s relationship, endorsing traditional romantic ideologies, and believing jealousy is a positive trait, can have detrimental effects on relationships. Research supports this. A study by Papp and colleagues (2017) found that romantic beliefs (e.g., thoughts like “there will only be one real love for me”) were related to romanticizing controlling behaviors (e.g., tactics to keep a mate), which were in turn related to experiences of intimate partner violence (both physical and psychological abuse).

This concept is not dissimilar to the intimate relationship of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, another media portrayal of IPV that has garnered attention. They have both spoken publicly about their intense love for one another, a love that turned violent at times. In a joint statement they released, they hinted to this: “Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love,” but they further muddy the waters by adding “there was never an intent of physical or emotional harm” (statement published by the Associated Press, 2016). A source close to the couple told People magazine in 2015, "Johnny is crazy in love with Amber, but there is turmoil in the relationship." It is sometimes challenging to disentangle passion and abuse. As part of the #GirlGaze Project, Heard filmed an emotional Public Service Announcement regarding her experience with domestic violence. She communicated the complex hardship associated with being abused by an intimate partner: “When it happens in your home, behind closed doors [and] with someone you love, it’s not that straightforward. If a stranger did this — as it was pointed out to me — if a stranger did this, it would be a no-brainer." Recognizing IPV can be difficult, even among medical professionals (e.g., Sullivan, 2014). When individuals recognize and identify IPV, stigma can hinder help-seeking behaviors (Overstreet & Quinn, 2013).

Victims may also find it difficult to leave their perpetrators because of the intense love and intimacy they might still feel towards them. Big Little Lies does a commendable job illustrating some of the other complex barriers associated with leaving an abusive partner. Celeste was concerned for her safety, her children’s well-being, housing logistics, and the social stigma associated with leaving Perry. The Ray Rice scandal revealed similar hindrances to leaving an abusive relationship. The media released a video of the ex-NFL football player physically assaulting his partner in an elevator, to the point where she appears to be unconscious. The couple married six weeks later. These events sparked a conversation about domestic violence and how love, safety, religious values, and finances all affect someone’s ability to walk away from a relationship. The #WhyIStayed Twitter movement precipitated by this incident in 2014, illuminated the numerous reasons why it is challenging, and sometimes even more unsafe, to leave an abusive relationship. Research shows that about 40 percent of women leave their abusers (Copp, Giordano, Longmore, & Manning, 2016; Zlotnick, Johnson, & Kohn, 2006). Social support is a consistent, significant predictor of whether or not an abused partner leaves the relationship (Copp, Giordano, Longmore, & Manning, 2016; Zlotnick, Johnson, & Kohn, 2006).

Social media projects and movements, such as Amber Heard’s #GirlGaze video and #WhyIStayed, can promote connectedness and belonging (as discussed in a StressPoints Media Matters section by Rhodes, October 2016). These hashtag ventures, which were originally sparked by media coverage of domestic abuse in celebrity couples, can also disseminate important information regarding the lesser-known intricacies of intimate partner violence.  Similarly and most recently, HBO’s Big Little Lies has sparked a vital dialogue about domestic violence. The show, and the discussion surrounding it, has exposed viewers and readers to the trauma and complexities associated with IPV. Such exposure and understanding will ideally provoke wider-spread action and support in the fight against intimate partner violence.

It is still important, however, for researchers to continue to examine the negative effects that IPV media portrayal may have. The media can disseminate messages of victim-blaming and victim-responsibility, which can impede victims from getting help (Easteal, Holland, & Judd, 2015). To counteract this, journalists, news reporters, and members of the media should be educated and informed on how to discuss and present IPV in ways that are supportive and empowering.

About the Author

Nora Kline, MA, is a research technician at the VA Boston Healthcare System under the mentorship of Dr. Brett Litz. She graduated from Vanderbilt University with a BA and MA in psychology and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology. Her research interests include intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and betrayal in relationships.


Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M.R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Intimate partner violence: Definitions. Retrieved from http://cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/intimatepartner violence/definitions.html

Copp, J. E., Giordano, P. C., Longmore, M. A., & Manning, W. D. (2015). Stay/Leave decision-making in non-violent and violent dating relationships. Violence and Victims, 30(4), 581-599.

Coyne, S. M., Nelson, D. A., Graham‐Kevan, N., Tew, E., Meng, K. N., & Olsen, J. A. (2011). Media depictions of physical and relational aggression: Connections with aggression in young adults' romantic relationships. Aggressive Behavior, 37(1), 56-62.

Easteal, P., Holland, K., & Judd, K. (2015, February). Enduring themes and silences in media portrayals of violence against women. In Women's Studies International Forum (Vol. 48, pp. 103-113). Pergamon.

Overstreet, N. M., & Quinn, D. M. (2013). The intimate partner violence stigmatization model and barriers to help seeking. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 35(1), 109-122.

Papp, L. J., Liss, M., Erchull, M. J., Godfrey, H., & Waaland-Kreutzer, L. (2017). The dark side of heterosexual romance: Endorsement of romantic beliefs relates to intimate partner violence. Sex Roles, 76(1-2), 99-109.

Rhodes, C. A. (2016, October, 24). Media matters: Online safe spaces for trauma survivors: A helpful source of social support? [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.istss.org/education-research/traumatic-stresspoints/2016-october/media-matters-online-safe-spaces-for-trauma-surviv.aspx

Sullivan, T. (2014). Triage challenges: Recognizing intimate partner violence. Journal of Emergency Nursing, 40(6), 632-633.