Domestic violence has recently made frightening headlines with the mass murders of a local family. Domestic violence occurs everywhere and among all social classes. Most often, women and children are the victims, usually of men who are either addicted to alcohol and/or drugs, are highly dependent and insecure, or suffer from severe mental illness.
A physically violent relationship is dangerous. No one should remain in a dangerous environment. However, women in such situations have so often been threatened with their lives or abandonment that they feel totally paralyzed and helpless. They are terrified to tell anyone, for fear of harm to themselves or their children. Escaping may be extremely risky and usually should not be attempted without great care and the help of a professional.
Domestic violence crosses all classes and cultures; educational level, income, and career do not exempt one from becoming abusive. A family therapist who was well-known several decades ago regularly beat his wife. In fact, probably all of us have at some time been unknowingly acquainted with an abuser or victim of domestic violence.
Professionals are given specific guidelines for dealing with victims and perpetrators, but what can we do as friends and neighbors if we suspect a problem? How do we know if a problem exists? Women who are physically abused are very good at hiding the evidence. Their lives may depend on it, and they are too ashamed to admit their situation to anyone. The most obvious signs are bruises, but generally abused women are skilled at finding plausible explanations, as well as using makeup and clothing to hide the evidence. Warning signs may be frequent bruises, wearing sunglasses indoors, avoiding social events with flimsy excuses and a noticeable tendency to be socially isolated.
Even with seemingly close friends, the abused woman may maintain a superficial level of interacting in order to not give away her terrible secrets. Another possible indicator is a husband who is extremely controlling and/or jealous. This may be manifested when a woman is consistently anxious about socializing with friends past a certain time, whether it be day or night.
If you suspect a woman is being abused and you have a trusting relationship, you might ask her if everything at home is all right. You may not receive an honest answer, but can offer to be there if needed. That offer may become a ray of hope to a desperate victim, and possibly provide the courage to leave the abuser.
If you witness abuse or hear someone screaming for help, the best action is to call police. Every community has shelters for abused women. If you know someone who needs protection, remind them of that resource, or call for advice. Professionals at shelters know how to help women to leave in ways that are safe and effective.
Part of the difficulty in leaving an abusive relationship is that the abuse occurs in cycles. The violence begins with verbal and/or emotional abuse that gradually worsens, eventually culminating in physical harm. Physical abuse may escalate gradually until it reaches a dangerous level, possibly requiring hospitalization or medical care, at which point the abuser becomes contrite and remorseful. Then, the abuse stops, with heartfelt promises never to hurt the woman again. She is so grateful and relieved she believes him and a honeymoon period follows that may last days, weeks or even months. She has been given a reprieve from the role of the “bad” person who deserves to be punished. She is now adored and pampered, but only temporarily. Her esteem is totally dependent on how her partner treats her. Sooner or later, the cycle repeats itself, sometimes continuing for years or until serious injuries or death result.
Not all abuse is physical. Verbal abuse, in the form of criticism and put-downs, is no less serious than physical harm; the effects are just as devastating. Emotional abuse includes negativity, but is complicated by manipulation and mind games. Again, self-esteem is seriously impaired after years of emotional abuse. As self-esteem is eroded, so is the ability to leave the destructive situation.
Not only women are abused, men are also victims. More often, men are emotionally or verbally abused, by virtue of differences in size and strength between men and women. The issues for abused men are no different than for women. Self-esteem is lost and hopelessness and helplessness set in as they perceive themselves to be as bad as the abuser’s criticism asserts. Although I have seen a number of men in these relationships, they seldom seek professional assistance, due to the depth of shame they experience.
In healthy relationships, people love and respect each other. If you or someone you know is not being treated well, seek professional help or encourage it, because abusive relationships are very difficult to escape.
Elinor Stanton is a psychiatric nurse practitioner on Marco Island, with 33 years experience as a therapist, both in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. She graduated from Boston College and the University of Rochester, and is certified as a clinical specialist by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Stanton also is certified in Imago Relationship Therapy and trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Comments and questions may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org or 394-2861.