As we wrap up Domestic Violence Awareness month, I hope the key take-away is that we all need to be vigilant year-round to this profound problem that impacts about 1/3 of women and 25% of men in intimate relationships.
The abuse rarely starts right away. In fact, there is usually a very romantic honeymoon period that lures people into the relationship. Yet ever so slowly, things start to change. It can start with little digs that are played off as a joke, or small embarrassing stories shared with others that appear to be in jest. Over time, the slights escalate, and either a person starts to doubt his/her self-worth or grows to resent the other, maybe a bit of both.
Arguments can easily escalate, especially when alcohol is involved, and even without raising a finger certain words can cut deeper than a knife. Apologies the next day grow old when the same repetitive behavior persists without any effort to change. The cycle of violence can go on for a while, until one day someone finally accepts this one fundamental truth: love should not hurt.
Over the past two decades, I have worked with countless survivors of abuse. Those that manage to escape these situations do not succeed on their own– they rely on the help of either family, friends, neighbors, therapists, neighbors, the police, an attorney, or some other trusted individual that can lend a sympathetic ear and provide sage advice. If you see someone in need, do whatever you can to connect them with the appropriate resources to develop an escape plan.
Here are the 4 most common scenarios my clients have encountered from their partners:
Physical abuse– this often starts as an accident- someone held on a little too hard, swung unintentionally, or pushed a little too hard, and yet these mishaps keep happening. Many fail to documents the injuries, or have any witnesses, a police reports or medical records that can verify their allegations. There is also a lot of shame around this situation, and it’s important to change the narrative immediately. The abuser is the only one who should feel any shame, and the person finally leaving the abuser should be celebrated for finding the courage to leave the toxic situation. Ultimately, what they wish to do with the evidence of abuse varies a lot. Some want to file for a Civil Protective Order, some incidents may lead to criminal charges, but many often just want to separate and move on. The pros and cons to each choice have to be weighed carefully, and it really isn’t fair for anyone else to pass judgment.
Psychological abuse– this one is very difficult to prove, and is considerably more subjective, however the common sentiment survivors share is that they were made to feel like they were walking on eggshells, bracing for the next explosion. What if there are no emails/texts/phone messages/social media posts that clearly show one person made statements or took any actions with the intent to scare, harass, humiliate, manipulate or provoke another individual? While we may not doubt the fear that victim felt was real, when we have a he says vs. she says situation, the courts may be limited in providing a real remedy. The best use of resources here is to focus on working with a mental health professional to delve a bit more into past patterns and help establish boundaries to build healthier relationships moving forward.
Financial abuse– while this one may be difficult to imagine, especially if you are a professional that has always maintained your own finances, not everyone is in such a fortunate position. Some people do rely entirely on their partner’s income or management of the marital assets. It’s not something that happens overnight, but often one person becomes more focused on child rearing while the other one takes control of the family finances. At first, there is typically little reason to doubt the person handling the money will make the best decisions to preserve the family’s financial security, until one day a devastating discovery is made that destroys all trust and then the economically dependent person finds s/he has no access to cash or credit, and has been saddled with tremendous debt.
Post-separation abuse– one would think that after a break up the drama would end, but sadly this is not true in all cases. Sometimes, one person simply cannot let go and so they will continue to harass or stalk a former partner, try to alienate the kids from the other parent, or use the legal system to intimidate an ex. Professional help is often needed in these difficult situations, which tend to be incredibly time consuming and expensive, particularly when repeated court appearances are required.
It takes tremendous courage to escape an abuser, who often uses a person’s sense of obligation, fear or guilt to keep them trapped. To end the suffering in silence, we all need to do our part to check in on those we love, and remind ourselves that healthy, loving relationships never involve physical harm, verbal abuse, or threats of economic ruin.
By Regina A. DeMeo