Spouses and domestic partners, by the nature of the closeness of the relationship, often have disagreements and arguments. But when does this adversarial behavior venture into the territory of domestic abuse? Obviously, direct violence (hitting, pushing, and other forms of physical abuse) should not be a result of arguing and fighting. But neither should the more subtle forms of abuse. How can women (and sometimes men) recognize when they are falling into a pattern of domestic abuse and take steps to avoid it? Are you Abused?
Control through Fear
First and foremost, domestic abuse stems from the need to control, as well as from the fear that the spouse or partner will leave especially after they recognize that they (or their children or other relatives) are being abused. Though both men and women can be abusers or the abused, figures show that most abused partners are women. In fact, 1 in 4 women can expect to be victimized by a spouse or partner during their lifetime, usually by someone close to them. These are not encouraging statistics, but the very fact that more light has been shed on the subject of domestic abuse leads us to believe that the rate was even higher in the years before society began to deal publically with the issue. Domestic abuse has always been a problem that lurked in the shadows and was never talked about, even among those who experienced it. It was thought to be shameful to have an abusive spouse or partner, and many times women endured their abuse in silence.
Domestic abuse crosses all barriers, young and old, male and female, diverse ethnicities, gay or straight, all races and religions. But today, we know that help is available and the abused person need not live in fear with nowhere to turn. The establishment of hotlines and safe houses has been a giant leap forward in dealing with the domestically abused partner, and there are facilities available for treating the abuser as well. It’s important for anyone being abused to recognize that they are in an abusive relationship and to understand how to fight back (not through violence, but through developing a plan and acting on it). The hardest thing for the abused partner to do is to make the first move in breaking out of the relationship and feeling that he/she is safe from retaliation.
Abusers begin by bullying and threatening their partner, exerting control and gaining the power to restrict that person’s interaction with others. Jealousy and possessive behavior are often the first signs of abuse, ones that women can overlook as a testament of love or commitment. One person exerting control over another is never acceptable, and the amount of control will only increase as the relationship becomes more serious. The next step is often intimidation, through threats and taking out aggression on objects (punching walls, slamming doors, breaking things). This is an attempt to make the abused individual feel weak and powerless against aggression.
Control may also take the form of financial abuse, making the abused person feel dependent upon the abuser. Many individuals feel that they are powerless to leave an abuser because they have no money or no way to earn a living. They feel helpless and see no way out. This is exactly what the abuser wants them to feel, powerless and with no options other than staying in the relationship and making the best of it. The abused individual begins to change his/her thinking and accepts the abuse in increments, slowly moving from verbal threats and physical intimidation to sexual abuse, increased use of drugs and/or alcohol, and actual violence or death.
Signs of Abuse
Domestic violence can be both covert and overt. The covert abuse generally begins with the jealousy and denigration stage. The abuser tries to gain control through verbally abusing or insulting their partner, making them feel less worthy of love and consideration. This can also involve making them financially dependent. If there are children involved, the abused person feels even more helpless at the thought of having to leave the relationship and supporting the family.
Covert abuse can take the form of direct violence or the creation of an emotionally destructive atmosphere. The abused partner can feel afraid to leave or to challenge the control of the abuser. The problem with many abusers is that they are usually willing to risk everything to preserve the relationship; they can often be willing to “go down with the ship,” and cannot face relinquishing control. There is no bargaining with an abuser; every time the abused individual returns to the relationship, they give the abuser even more cause to think they can continue their controlling behavior and get away with it. It also tarnishes the reputation of the abused person in any court proceeding.
Abuse can take the following forms:
- Emotional abuse – creating an atmosphere of fear, putting the abused “off-balance.” Often takes the form of threatening other family members
- Verbal abuse – continually berating and intimidating the abused person
- Sexual abuse – making the abused sexually dependent and giving them the feeling they are not worthy of finding another spouse/partner
- Financial abuse-limiting financial resources and making the abused (and children) financially dependent
- Physical abuse – when intimidation fails, physical abuse is the last resort of exerting control; it engenders shame in the abused partner and they will often cover for the abuser
Abusers often lack empathy and are unable to sympathize with others. Their tactics include:
- Creating fear – abusers often react to disagreement with exaggeration and disproportionate violence; they fear the loss of control over the abused
- Objectification – treating the abused as an object to be manipulated
- Abuse by proxy – turning family and friends against the abused
- Dehumanization – making the abused feel “less than” and unworthy Help is Available
The most important step in escaping from abuse and intimidation is to learn to have confidence in yourself and ask for help. Call the police and ask for protection, or make a plan to leave and carry through with it. Don’t fall prey to uncertainty or indecision. Above all, stick to your guns (not literally, of course; guns have no place in a domestic dispute).
If you don’t want to contact the police, call an advocacy group; they can give you advice and support, as well as information for getting out of the situation. When the time comes to get out, make sure you have an escape route. Hide a suitcase of clothing so that you can leave quickly. Have extra copies of car and house keys, extra money, checkbook, and/or credit cards, and make sure you have identification such as your Social Security card, driver’s license, and birth certificates. If you do not have a bank account or credit card, open one, but keep its existence secret.
It’s also important to know that you have legal rights; you do not have to stay in an abusive relationship. For teenagers involved in abuse dating relationships, getting out is a little easier; they have parents to defend them and a place to go. But it is often hard for them to escape abusive relationships due to peer pressure and, if the abuser goes to the same school, the added threat that they will have to face their abuser every day. However, there is a toll-free Teen Dating Abuse Hotline for young people when they feel threatened of intimidated: 1-866-331-9474. Help is available and there is hope for young people who feel they have nowhere to turn.
There are also advocacy groups available to anyone who feels he/she is in an abusive relationship. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE/1-800-799-7233) and the Coalition Against Domestic Violence (www.ncady.org/resources/StateCoalitionList.php) are available to offer support and information. The hotline is open 24 hours a day and information is available in English, Spanish, and other languages 365 days a year.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It is a time to educate the public about the dangers of domestic violence and to encourage victims to come forward and accept the help available. It’s time to make the decision not to be a victim. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse or intimidation, call or contact law enforcement, an attorney, a doctor, or call a hotline to assist with getting out of this potentially violent situation. There is no shame in asking for help; you have legal rights and are entitled to live your live without fear or the threat of retaliation.