October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As a therapist who has worked extensively with children and adults that have been affected by domestic violence, I felt it important to shed some light on this taboo subject. It is frequently referred to as a relationship issue, a secret, or private matter between partners. This is NOT the case- it is a crime and a societal issue that needs to be address within the community.
1. Abuse knows no gender, ethnicity, culture, or socio-economic-status.
People assume that men are the only ones that can be abusers, and this couldn’t be further from the truth. Abusers can be from any gender, race, socio-economic-status, or faith. This is not an issue that is confined to one group of people and the perpetuation of this belief makes it much more difficult for those abused by someone “outside of the ordinary” to come forward or be believed.
2. Physical Abuse is NOT the only kind of abuse.
There are many different types of abuse. One of the most common forms of domestic violence is emotional abuse which includes but is not limited to: name calling, degrading the person, making that person feel crazy, and humiliation. Emotional abuse is so dangerous because it can be dismissed as a “he said/she said” issue or opens the door for the abuser to dismiss the abuse as them being too sensitive. Isolation is one type of emotional abuse; this type of abuse is often used to “justify” jealousy and limits the interactions with outside support structure of the abused. Using threats or coercion is another type of emotional abuse. For example, female abusers of men will often threaten to call the police and claim the man is the abuser, stating things like “do you think they will believe I hit you?” Finally, the abuser may minimize, deny, or blame the person in order to justify his/her actions to self and others.
Economic and financial abuse is a powerful type of exploitation. This means the abuser controls the credit cards, bank statements, and it impacts the ability for the abused to leave since they have no financial freedom. Sometimes the abusers won’t hold a job themselves but instead give an “allowance” or deny access of family income to the victim.
Lastly, male privilege can be a type of abuse. Some men will place a disproportionate amount of responsibility on the woman in their relationship because they do not feel they need to contribute to tasks that aren’t “men’s work”. There are so many different types of abuse that don’t include physical harm. Frequently, people believe that if there is no physical harm it’s not abuse- that is false. Mental and emotional abuse can leave scars too.
3. At the center of the abuse is power, control, and entitlement.
While there are many explanations in popular media for the motivation of abusers, there are three driving forces behind all abusers – power, control and entitlement. The abuser is gaining or wants to gain the control to effectively increase his/her power over the other person. The abuser often thinks he or she deserves to be the one “at the top.” Healthy relationships require equality and healthy boundaries. In abusive relationships there is always imbalance of power and the abuser will do whatever they can to maintain control of the dynamics of the relationship.
4. Don’t tell someone they “Should just leave.”
When most people hear stories of someone in an abusive relationship the first reaction is to ask “Why didn’t they just leave?” It is not always safe or manageable to up and leave all of your possessions, especially when children are involved. Leaving an abusive environment has financial, legal, familial, and personal safety implications for the abused and leaving without the proper safety net in place can place them in a worse situation.
By telling a friend what they should do and examining the issue in such a black and white way, you run the risk of further alienating a friend, relative, or co-worker who is in an unhealthy situation. The abused person statistically is at a higher risk for physical harm right before or after they leave. Having a safety plan in place is critical to the person leaving successfully.
5. Know the signs and resources
Now that you understand some of the complexities of an abusive relationship, how can you help? The first step is to recognize the signs of abuse.
If a friend, family member, or co-worker who once was active in the community is now withdrawn or you don’t hear from them in a while this could be a red flag. An abuser will often isolate their partner and keep them from speaking with their friends or family. A person in an abusive situation might feel like they have to “walk on eggshells” all the time. If your friend or family member rearranges things to make the other person happy or so they won’t get mad, this is also a sign.
How can you spot an abuser? An abuser will often blame others or the partner for his/her problems. The abuser can act hypersensitive and have their feelings hurt very easily. For instance, everything will feel like a personal attack on them even if it has nothing to do with the abuser. They often have unreasonable expectations of the relationship and will put blame on the partner for the abusers actions. Frequently, abusers are very charming and witty in public. They don’t look like “bad people.” The charming person and the person at home are often two totally different people. The abused person can often sense when the “switch” occurs.
What can you do? The best thing to do is provide the friend, family member or coworker with some resources. Leaving right away may not be the safest thing for them. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233. There are many local agencies that specialize in domestic violence and often provide shelter, counseling, childcare, job training, etc. Counseling is recommended for those affected by domestic abuse. The violence is often times a cycle that affects not just the recipients of the abuse but everyone in the environment. In order to break the cycle, learning about healthy relationships and boundaries are imperative. There are also BIPP (Batterers Intervention Prevention Programs) for the abuser. This is a societal issue that needs to be stopped from all angles. Learning some of the basic principles of this complex issue can help save a family and stop a multi-generational issue.
Sara Passero sees clients in our Denton, Lewisville and Farmers Branch offices. Supporting and empowering survivors of family violence is one of her specialties.