A common social problem that exists at many levels and can probably be found anywhere in the world is domestic violence. Women and children tend to be the most likely victims but males are not immune to domestic abuse.
In the worst cases physical abuse is severe enough to necessitate medical treatment or even hospitalization. Death at the hands of a loved one, also an occasional outcome of domestic violence, exemplifies the ultimate betrayal of love and trust. Less visible but no less traumatic are the effects of verbal and emotional abuse that is heaped on members of many families.
Ironically, domestic violence crosses all classes and cultures; level of education, income, and career do not exempt one from becoming abusive or from being abused. A well-known family therapist several decades ago regularly beat his wife. In fact, probably all of us have unknowingly been acquainted with an abuser or victim of domestic violence.
A physically violent relationship is dangerous. No one should remain in a dangerous environment. However, escaping may involve greater danger, even death, leaving helpless women and children entrapped. So frightening are some abusers that even the thought of getting away brings terror. Paralyzing fear is one of the major reasons women stay in abusive relationships.
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? And 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 often too ashamed to admit it to anyone.
The most obvious signs are bruises, but generally abused women are skilled at finding plausible explanations. However, if there is a pattern of frequent bruises, wearing sunglasses indoors, or avoiding social events with flimsy excuses, physical abuse may be a problem.
If you suspect something is amiss, and you have a trusting relationship you might ask your friend 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 be a ray of hope to a desperate victim. 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 yourself for advice.
Part of the difficulty in leaving an abusive relationship is that the abuse often occurs in cycles. The violence begins with verbal or emotional abuse that gradually worsens, culminating in physical harm. Physical abuse may escalate gradually until it reaches a dangerous level at which point remorse sets in. Then the abuse stops, with heartfelt, loving promises never to hurt the woman again. She is so grateful and relieved she believes him and a honeymoon period follows. She has been given a reprieve from the role of “bad” person and is now adored, but only temporarily. Her esteem is totally dependent on how her partner treats her. Sooner or later the cycle repeats itself, sometimes for years or until serious injuries or death result.
Not all abuse is physical. Verbal abuse in the form of criticism and putdowns 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 sometimes 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, hopelessness and helplessness set in as they perceive themselves to be as bad as the abuser’s constant criticism asserts.
Children are always victims in abusive families, either by inclusion or witnessing violence. Many of my clients suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because they were either abused also or witnessed varying forms of abuse between their parents. In some cases a parent has been hospitalized for days, weeks, or months from injuries inflicted by a significant other.
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. She has more than 30 years of experience as a therapist, in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. She graduated from Boston College and University of Rochester, and is certified as a clinical specialist by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Elinor is trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and is a certified Imago Relationship Therapist. Comments and questions are welcome and may be submitted by e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 394-2861. See her Web site at etseven.net.