I told my son I was writing a blog post about intimate partner violence, and he informed me that he had just developed an anti-domestic violence campaign ad as part of his advertising portfolio which can be viewed here. The above photo is part of it, illustrating that things can look perfect on the outside but be chaotic within. I might be biased, but I think he nailed it. He and his team actually made the series of cross stitches themselves, which I find impressive, having completed a few myself.
This topic makes me sad, but it’s necessary to address. I would much rather be writing one of my usual light, self-indulgent posts. However, I want to be clear that any abuse is unacceptable. I worry most about the abuse that doesn’t leave visible marks.
My first exposure to therapeutic services occurred in the context of domestic violence when I was a volunteer in a women’s shelter before I ever started graduate school in the late 80’s. I’m old enough to remember when Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology was studying abused women and coined the term “learned helplessness,” to describe people in abusive situations. Domestic violence was one of my early areas of research interest. About a decade later, I led therapeutic programs for court-ordered domestic violence perpetrators.
Over the years, I have been amazed at how similar so many abusive situations look across the board. Now commonly referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV), I still worry about the number of individuals who endure ongoing manipulative control from domineering partners. They either don’t know how, don’t think they can, or believe they don’t deserve to get out. Here are some questions to ask yourself if you think you are being abused.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) supplies a standard definition of IPV. Basically, intimate partner violence occurs in the context of a couple attachment relationship. It includes any physical, sexual, and psychological aggression toward one’s partner. It occurs across economic and educational levels. Fundamentally, it is characterized by one partner exerting control over the other continually.
“He doesn’t hit me.” That’s a common phrase I have heard from women over the years who are in psychologically abusive situations, but don’t think they have the right to leave because there is no physical aggression. There is plenty of research indicating that emotional and/or verbal abuse can be just or more damaging than physical abuse. People put up with it too long because it is insidious and sometimes difficult to identify. No one deserves to be in a relationship where basic human dignity is repeatedly threatened.
Some of the common reasons why people stay in unhealthy IPV situations are that they are embarrassed, they don’t want to break up their families, they don’t know how to leave, they don’t trust anyone to help, or they are afraid they can’t survive alone. Often, the controlling partner makes the other partner feel crazy, so they don’t have confidence that what they are experiencing is really abuse.
Here are some common characteristics of abusive partners, and it’s important to realize that they can be very charismatic and charming in public and when they aren’t being abusive. That’s one reason why they get away with it:
- They isolate their partners from seeing family and friends.
- They control all of the finances.
- They make threats.
- They throw things in an argument, which often escalates into physical violence which includes but is not limited to pushing, shoving, kicking, slapping, punching, biting, scratching, pinching, choking, burning or hair-pulling. This is criminal behavior and should NOT BE TOLERATED UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.
- They keep partners from leaving, using any means necessary, such as hiding the car keys, locking a partner in a room, use physical force to restrain partner, etc.
- They make ongoing accusations against partners, driven by jealousy and possessiveness.
- They humiliate, ridicule, or embarrass their partners in front of other people.
- They demand that their high, rigid expectations be met and basically throw tantrums when they aren’t.
- They can be sexually coercive.
- They engage in a cyclical pattern in which tension builds, they aggress on their partners and then have a “honeymoon period,” in which they apologize and are extra conciliatory until the tension builds up again. This is precisely why so many people stay. They think because the abuser is being charming now that the abuse won’t happen again.
Leaving an abusive situation isn’t easy. It’s common for abusers to become more aggressive when their partners try to leave. In extreme circumstances, this is the point at which a partner is at risk for being murdered.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has an entire section on their website dedicated to teaching victims how to get help, including how to prepare to leave and create a safety plan. If you or someone you know is in this situation, please access this resource.
Men are also victims of IPV but are often embarrassed to access any resources. Here is a fact sheet about male victims of IPV.
On several occasions, I have counseled with women who realized they were in abusive situations and left but went back. I sometimes ask, “Where did you learn that you deserve to be treated like that?” Often, they can identify abusive patterns they experienced in their homes, but not always. Sometimes part of the shame is knowing that they shouldn’t be treated like that, but they feel stuck. For anyone in an abusive situation contemplating leaving, an important question I ask is “What do you want your daughters to learn about how they deserve to be treated by their husbands and what do you want your sons to learn about how to treat their wives?”
Even though many competent and educated women and men end up being victims of IPV, it’s hard for me to imagine putting up with it. Realize that abusive patterns aren’t acceptable. Some people just think it’s a normal part of a relationship. It is not. I literally never heard my father use a four-letter word, much less direct one aggressively at my mother. I don’t even remember him raising his voice at her, and I can’t imagine him throwing anything or getting physical. I don’t remember him criticizing her ever about who she was. My parents had normal levels of conflict, but there was a strong foundation of basic respect. If we children sassed my mother, he always stood up for her and told us to be respectful. That was my baseline expectation for marriage, and my husband has been a lot like my father. We often marry people that are like our parents. You do not have to accept abuse as part of an intimate relationship. If it was modeled for you, break the chain.
If you are a member of a religiously conservative congregation and your marriage has religious importance, abuse is still unacceptable. I shudder when I hear of any ecclesiastical leaders minimizing abuse. My father led ecclesiastical congregations from age 29 until his death, in administrative and spiritual capacities, and he had no tolerance for any kind of abuse.
I have a sister 14 years older than I who was in an emotionally abusive first marriage, and my father encouraged her to leave and she was divorced before they had their second wedding anniversary. Fortunately, because she got out, she was able to marry again to someone much kinder. My sister is literally one of the nicest, most generous, guileless people I know. She’s one of those people that you wonder, “Are you for real?” because she is so giving (not sure how we can share DNA). Sometimes those individuals attract abusers because they can get away with it. Her life would be completely different today had she stayed in her first marriage. It’s likely that staying would have worn down her self-esteem, which would have been terrible because she is brilliant. Instead, she is spending her retirement years with her spouse traveling, going on cross-country Harley adventures, skiing, and working on getting her pilot’s license (I wish I were that cool).
My heart is heavy as I write this because I know that even though resources are available, many people still won’t get help, but I can at least know that I made this information available. Please know that you can call a shelter and get protection, therapy, basic needs and support to access community resources. There is no reason to stay in an abusive situation now. There are more resources than ever.