Loneliness, Social Withdrawal, and the Connection to Intimate Partner Violence

Social isolation and fear of being alone increase susceptibility

Fear of loneliness and social withdrawal may help explain the relationship between having an eating disorder and risk of a violent intimate partner relationship, according to a recent study from Madrid (Nutrients. 2022.14:2611).

Dr. Janire Momene, of the University of Deusto, Bilbao, Spain, and colleagues in Great Britain and Madrid evaluated 683 individuals to study the mediating role of fear of loneliness and poorer social functioning, and among persons with eating disorders who also must deal with intimate partner violence. Intimate partner violence includes stalking, and actual or threats of physical, verbal, emotional, economic, and sexual abuse.

Some coping mechanisms increase the risk

The authors noted that persons with an eating disorder predominately use coping mechanisms to gain control over stressful circumstances. Social isolation and fear of being alone may make someone with an eating disorder vulnerable to staying in a violent relationship. The study included 683 participants (78% female and 22% male; average age: 21). This study sought to analyze the mediating role of the fear of loneliness and the effects of an eating disorder have on the relationship with a violent partner.

Participants were recruited online and through social networks and advertisements. Surveys were available through an online platform; the authors also used social networks and ads on research websites. Face-to-face recruitment occurred at the Computense University of Madrid and at gyms in Madrid. All participants were at least 18 years old. The authors then used a series of questionnaires to evaluate eating disorders characteristics (Eating Disorders Inventory-2; EDQ-2); fear of loneliness (Emotional Dependency subscale of the EDQ); social avoidance from the Coping Strategies Inventory (CSI); and perceived violence (the Violence Received, Exercised and Perceived in Youth and Adolescent Dating Relationships Scale, or VREPS).The last questionnaire, the VREPS, rates violence on a five-point scale, from “no violence” to “very violent.”

Results supported a relationship between some ED symptoms and risk of violence, and suggest that fear of loneliness often helps explain the relationship.

The pandemic also played a role

Unfortunately, the pandemic and other social restrictions “have limited and deprived individuals of social interactions, resulting in decreased social support and similar coping strategies,” say the authors. [Also, see “The COVID-19 Lockdown,” elsewhere in this issue.] This lack of social support, associated with exposure to partner violence, could lead to many psychological consequences, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and anxiety, for example. Low levels of social support have also been related to increased risk of eating disorder symptoms among women exposed to intimate partner violence. Children exposed to violent situations also appear to be more susceptible to developing eating disorders.

The authors stressed the importance of developing strategies to intervene while working with individuals, male and female, who experience violence from an intimate partner. They underscore the importance of developing paths of intervention for those who are experiencing intimate partner violence. The authors suggest that individuals exposed to violent situations in relationships may also develop eating-disorder-related symptoms as a way of coping with their adverse situations.

One helpful approach for clinicians is to work with the patient, male or female, on his or her fear of loneliness and social withdrawal, to decrease the chances of establishing a violent intimate partner relationship. [Note: a wide range of websites, videos, and books are available for clinicians and patients who are dealing with violent intimate partnerships. For example, see the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE and www.thehotline.org/get-help, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Strategies: Intimate Partner Violence, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention, or, for veterans, https://www.veteranscrisisline.net)].

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