Trapped in an Abusive Relationship

Violence against women is a public health problem.  How can each of us contribute to changing the conditions in our society that perpetuate domestic violence?

Domestic violence is willful intimidation, physical assault, sexual assault and other abusive behavior perpetrated by an intimate partner against the other.  Verbal and emotional abuse almost always precede physical abuse.  The statistics are astounding.  One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.  There are 3.3 million children in the United States exposed to violence in the home.  Children are so deeply affected that many develop post traumatic stress symptoms.  Witnessing violence between parents is the strongest risk factor for perpetuating violence from generation to generation.  Domestic violence cuts across every demographic group.  The most common batterer is one who uses violence to get his partner to do what he wants without regard for what she wants.  Battering is considered a learned behavior.  Domestic violence is one of the most underreported crimes.  While there is some violence in gay and lesbian relationships, research points to less physical harm in lesbian relationships and more physical harm in short term but not long term gay male relationships.

Research shows that middle class men are more likely to use violence within their family.  The result is a behavior that is invisible and protects his social status.  Sonkin and Walker point to 15 factors that lead to lethal abuse.  The top four include:  an increased frequency of violence; the severity of violence escalates; the man threatens to kill the woman or someone else; increased use of drugs or alcohol.  It is common for the survivor to report that the batterer threatened to kill before the lethal incident.  It is not uncommon for the police and others told of the threats and abuse to discount the severity of the situation.

What can you do to protect yourself?

  1. Remember that the batterer must take full responsibility for using violence. It is not a family problem.  Neither family or couples therapy is appropriate when there is violence in the home.
  2. The woman or abused partner needs to restore her sense of self, make her own decisions and learn to identify what she wants.
  3. A safe house provides immediate relief from the batterer. The goal of a safe house is to keep women and children free from violence.
  4. When seeking therapy, make sure you find a therapist who has some experience in domestic violence. If the therapist you choose does not believe you, then go somewhere else.  It is most important that you be believed, your experiences validated and that you receive reassurance that you are not “crazy”.  An egalitarian relationship with the therapist is most effective.
  5. If you are still in the battering relationship, then it is essential that you and your therapist or healthcare provider create a safety plan together. With the support of the therapist identify the cues or red flags that let you know that your partner will become violent.  Cues may be recognizing a familiar anxiety within yourself, a facial expression, the look in the partner that no one is home.  When the danger signal is recognized then an escape plan must be put into effect.  This requires preplanning such as having an extra car key hidden, a personal bank account so that you have access to money, extra clothes left at a friend or neighbor’s house.  Rehearse the plan with your therapist so that it is automatic when you need to implement it.
  6. Find healthcare providers to treat and heal the physiological effects of the trauma, both acute and chronic. We must do a better job of training both conventional and complementary healthcare providers to ask about the origin of injuries when medical treatment is necessary.
  7. You may find yourself repeatedly talking about your experience. This is one way to gain mastery over your emotions and with the help of a therapist learn new ways to cope with and heal the trauma.
  8. The goal of therapy is to regain your emotional strength and sense of who you are in an environment that is free of violence.
  9. If you are living with a batterer or have contact with him, do not discuss your therapy. It is possible that the batterer will attempt to intrude upon the therapy to insure that nothing occurs that will interfere with his interests and keeping the relationship the same.
  10. The most important message to hear from a therapist is that the battering behavior is unacceptable.
  11. When you are in a separation period from the batterer, know that this is a dangerous time and have as little contact as possible with the batterer.
  12. If there is a restraining order, it is the responsibility of the batterer not to violate it. Mutual restraining orders are not as effective in stopping a batterer’s violence.
  13. If children are involved then it is helpful for the children to be picked up and returned at a neutral place. Bring someone with you to avoid harassment and intimidation.
  14. When property and finances are involved, obtain an attorney who you trust and who has some experience in domestic violence.

While there are steps to take to heal and strengthen each victim of domestic violence, we must also look at the deeper issues in this society that perpetuate violence including inequality, sexism and violence sanctioned under the guise of discipline.