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Do you believe your partner is capable of killing you? An examination of female IPV survivors’ perceptions of fatality risk indicators

Johnson, L., Cusano, J.L., Nikolova, K., Steiner, J.J., & Postmus, J.L. (2020)

Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1 – 26.


This study examined the factors most associated with lethality risk for survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV). Different analyses were used to differentiate between women who believed their partners were capable of killing them and those who did not.

Expanded Abstract:

Intimate partner violence (IPV) continues to impact the health of millions of women in the United States. On average, 1.3 million nonfatal IPV victimizations occur annually in the U.S., and over three-fourths of these incidences involve a female victim (Reaves, 2017). In the U.S., homicide is a leading cause of death among women below the age of 45 years (Logan et al., 2011), and prior research has found that roughly half of these murders are inflicted by an intimate partner (Fridel & Fox, 2019; Jack et al., 2018). Intimate partner homicide (IPH) is the most common type of domestic homicide and is the only form of lethal violence in which the principal victims are female (Liem & Roberts, 2009; Reckdenwald & Parker, 2012). Between 2000 and 2004, up to 1,750 IPHs with female victims occurred annually in the U.S. (Campbell et al., 2009), and a recent study by Fridel and Fox (2019) found that since 2010 there has been a 26% increase in IPH cases involving guns, while murders with other types of weapons experienced a decline.

Advocates in the IPV field have started to more actively engage survivors around their own perceptions of lethality risk, as well as assist them in developing strategies for reducing and managing risk related to reassault and intimate partner homicide (IPH).

Although research has examined the factors most associated with risk and utilized this information in the development and validation of risk assessment tools to be used with survivors, less is known about which indicators survivors most associate with lethality risk. This study aimed to fill this gap by examining which risk indicators IPV survivors associate with fatality risk. Different analyses were used to differentiate between women who believed their partners were capable of killing them and those who did not.

Results from the study showed that more than three fourths of participants believed that their violent partners were capable of killing them. Although this reflects a majority of survivors, there was variation in how survivors prioritized risk indicators. Factors associated with perceptions of fatality risk included: (a) prior homicide threats; (b) whether the violent partner had control over survivors’ daily activities; (c) partners’ access to a gun; and (d) partners’ drug use. Findings suggest that IPV survivors need targeted intervention strategies around IPH, particularly those at higher perceived risk levels given the presence of risk indicators and their perceptions of lethality threat.