Drowned out by the shocking stories in the popular media about brutal domestic violence cases, rape, spouse murders, and child abuse is a startling and well-documented trend in American life – violence among intimates is down. And the decline is not small. Between 1993 and 2010, “Intimate partner violence” fell by 64 percent.

The decline in intimate partner violence, moreover, is common to all racial and ethnic groups. In the 1994-2010 period, violence declined 61 percent among non-Hispanic whites, 62 percent among African Americans, and 78 percent among Hispanics.

This startling and under-publicized development has major implications for how we think about family and intimate partnerships in America and how we should think about family-related social policies.

The data come from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), an annual national household survey that collects self-reported data on victimization from persons 12 years of age or older, conducted by the U.S. Justice Department and the Census Bureau. The 2010 survey of intimate partner violence involved 73,300 individuals in about 41,000 households. The methodology is similar to other national-level social surveys.

Created in 1972, the NCVS is a much better source of crime data than the better known FBI Uniform Crime Rates (UCR), which has been severely criticized by criminologists almost since it was created (and yet plods forward virtually unchanged). The fatal flaw in the UCR is that it counts only reported crimes. If you do not report your domestic assault, those crimes never enter the official record. It is as if they never happened. As a national household survey, the NCVS gives us a far more complete picture of crime in America by capturing both reported and unreported crime.

Image by Raul Lieberwirth via Flickr CC
Image by Raul Lieberwirth via Flickr CC

“Intimate partners” in the NCVS survey covers the full range of personal relationships: current or former spouses, and current or former male and/or female romantic relationships. (Presumably it covers same-sex relationships. The NCVS records self-reports, and so if the person interviewed refers to a spouse or intimate partner who happens to be of the same sex the survey duly reports it as an intimate partner relationship.)

Criminologists are not surprised by the decline in intimate partner violence. It is simply one part of what has been called the Great American Crime Decline. Around 1993-94 crime began a long and unprecedented decline in all crime categories. Murder, robbery and burglary have all declined to a significant decree. In recent years, New York City murder rates have fallen to levels not seen since the early 1960s. The same is true on the other side of the country in San Diego.

Several aspects of the decline in intimate partner violence merit comment. The data reveal stark contrasts in the rate of violence by marital status. Married couples have the lowest rate of all (2 per 1,000), while “separated” couples have by far the highest, at 59.6 per 1,000. But before anyone concludes that we should make divorce harder to get, we should consider two important aspects of the data. First, the violence rate among “divorced or widowed” (6.5 per 1,000) is lower than that for “never married” (8 per 1,000). It is safer to conclude that it is not divorce per se that is associated with partner violence but the process of separating, with all of its well-known conflicts and pressures, that is associated with violence.

The second point about the variations by marital status is particularly important. The NCVS data clearly indicate that intimate partner violence declined at almost the same rate for all groups regardless of marital status. Married, divorced or widowed, and separated victims all experienced declines of 60 percent or more. In short, something positive was happening between 1994 and 2010 that was experienced by all categories.Since the Great American Crime Decline began in 1993 crime has been unprecedentedly declining in all crime categories; murder, robbery and burglary – including the decline in intimate partner violence.

Image by John via Flickr CC
Image by John via Flickr CC

Criminologists have not reached consensus on the causes of either the Great Crime Drop or its intimate partner component. Apart from ideologues who want to push a single issue, they agree on only one thing: that there is no single cause. What is clear, however, is that intimate partner relationships are not affected by a different dynamic than other violent crimes. Alarmist claims about a new or growing “epidemic” of domestic violence are not supported by the best evidence available. Nor can anyone plausibly claim that the violence that does exist is a result of the decline in marriage rates or the rise of unwed motherhood, since both continued to increase during the period that these large declines occurred. This is good news with respect to trends in marriage and non-marital relationships in the U.S.  Regardless of the trends in divorce or cohabitation, people in troubled relationships have been steadily less likely to resort to violence.

A number of questions merit deeper investigation. Some evidence suggests that the decline in sexual assault began before the early 1990s. It could well be that beginning in the 1970s the women’s movement, by raising public consciousness about sexual assault and helping to create a network of social services related to that crime, has had a significant impact on both behavior and how public and private agencies respond to it. At the same time, the women’s movement since the 1970s has had a major impact on police policy and practice related to domestic violence, on the prosecution of domestic violence cases, and on the availability of social services for victims. Further research might be able to specify the direct impact of these developments on the long-term decline in intimate partner violence.

This was part of the CCF Online Symposium on Intimate Partner Violence

Samuel Walker is in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at University of Nebraska at Omaha. Sam Walker is author to 14 books on policing, criminal justice policy, and civil liberties. His most recent book on policing is titled The New World of Police Accountability (Sage 2014).