Giving Voice to a Silent Epidemic
No one goes out and gets into a relationship intending on being abused. Yet it is an epidemic. An incredible number of women (and increasingly men) become involved in physically dangerous relationships every year. Part of the problem is that abusive relationships typically develop over time. The behaviors are often incremental. They start out so small that they are hardly noticeable or can be easily explained away. He just grabbed your arm for a second in the heat of an argument and quickly let it go. You can’t see a reason to leave a guy you are crazy about for that reason alone. Sometimes it is a sudden act under pressure that you see as an aberration. She screamed at you about being five minutes late, but, after all, she’s had a tough week. An apology and an explanation usually come with the territory. The apology can be heartfelt and sincere because that is truly how the person feels at the time. Or it could be a well-practiced response learned over time.
I sat on a municipal court bench for eight years and saw thousands of domestic violence cases. Many abusers knew what they did wasn’t right, but at the time they were unable to act in accordance with what they knew because of how they felt. Others felt justified and saw the legal interference as usurping their rights. To them, I was a mouthpiece for an over-active and intrusive government that really did not understand the depth of their spouses’ failings or stupidity.
Sometimes abusers are hard to recognize because signs of their insecurity, which can ultimately cause them to abuse, may come off as romantic in the beginning. He needs to talk to you every hour because he is just that much in love. It is flattering at first but could be a sign that he needs to have access and control, and that usually doesn’t get better. In fact, as he becomes more emotionally invested, it tends to get much worse.
The problem with recognizing abuse arises because it is often a process and not an event. It can start with all manner of minor behaviors and small hints of what might be. One by one, signs appear but each one is apologized for or explained away. There is often a slow, subtle but consistent shifting of blame that occurs from the abuser to the victim. “I would not have done that if you had answered my call.” That presents the victim, who is often by this time in love, with a false sense of the importance of the abusive behavior and the notion that it can be controlled. It’s a small thing, she thinks. He apologized and I can make sure it doesn’t happen again if I answer his calls right away. What gets missed is the disproportionate response to something that is really not important. What gets misinterpreted is that his desire to know where you are is not a function of the overwhelming nature of his love but of his incredible insecurity.
Domestic violence is about power and control. Fear, shame and a sense of helplessness all contribute to making this shadow epidemic underreported. Even if we don’t consider the abusive situations that go unreported, the numbers are alarming. And domestic violence against men—though not nearly as common—is clearly on the rise.
Don’t say it could never happen to you. Don’t think that you don’t deal with the kind of person who is an abuser. Look at the numbers, accept the possibility and make sure you are aware of the signs. Then don’t fool yourself into believing that the rules that apply to the rest of the world do not apply to you.
Here are some of the signs of a potentially abusive relationship. It is not an exhaustive list but it’s a place to start. If anything here sounds familiar or you have other concerns take the next step and the next step and visit a domestic violence website like TheHotline.org.
- Volatile relationships in the past
If the person you’re with has left a whole stream of messy relationships in his or her wake, take heed. Don’t let him get away with telling you that a restraining order or a domestic violence charge was all the other person’s fault. Also watch for people who have great anger at past partners that they can’t quite seem to let go. If someone she used to date is now afraid of her, you don’t want to take that person’s place.
- Too much too soon
If you met him on Tuesday and by that Thursday he can’t live without you, that’s not love, that’s unusual. People with great insecurities and jealousy often do that kind of thing. In people like that, it is a precursor to a need to possess—and that you do not need. So keep you antennae up if something like that goes on. Watch to see if in a couple of weeks s/he starts needing to know exactly where you are all the time. Ignore statements like “It’s just because I love you so much.” That’s not true; it is because he is insecure. Get your tack shoes on and hit the road. It only gets worse from there.
- S/he gets mad easily over small things
Just because someone who gets angry a lot at others has yet to get angry with you does not mean that you are the one person in the world she can really get along with. What it means is that while she is in the process of seducing you, she is focused enough to stay in check. But a hothead is a hothead, and once you are no longer new and shiny, you will not only lose your exemption but you will become her easiest target.
- S/he tends to blame others for his or mistakes and problems
If the person you are dating blames everyone around him for what is going wrong in his life, scrutinize that tendency and make sure it makes sense on an objective level. Don’t get sucked up into his explanations; think it through for yourself. If she’s a blamer and cannot take personal responsibility for anything she does, once you get involved the easiest and most frequent person to blame for what happens to her will likely turn out to be you.
- S/he comes from a home where people get hit
People tend to do what they know and see, especially if they have been around it for a long time. Not all people who are raised in abusive situations become abusive themselves, but if you see that dynamic don’t ignore it. People default to what they know when emotions become involved. If they were raised in a place of violence that may very well be the script they read from when things get a little hairy.
- S/he tries to isolate you
Your lover should not get angry when you want to spend time with your friends and family. If he starts telling you that he is all you need, and does things to cut you off from people you love, that is a bad sign. Isolation is an abuser’s best friend. If she cannot tolerate anyone else having any input or positioning in your life, that is a means by which to garner control—and is a drop kickable event.
· Lots of criticism
Part of the process of abuse involves dehumanization and erosion of self-esteem. It is easier to command and control someone who doesn’t think much of herself. If you are with someone who tends to devalue everything you do, criticizes you, says you are crazy/stupid/ugly/a failure and that no one else will want you, that’s a power move that can change who you are. Run from it; it only gets worse.
- Unwelcomed physicality of any sort
Pushing, shoving and grabbing, or spoken reminders that s/he could do any of those things, are all signs of violence you do not want to ignore. Someone who loves you should not restrain you, adjust your position, or move you from where you are to a place he or she wants you to be. Yet again, we have drop kickable moment here.
They may be sorry. They may say they’ll never do it again. My experience is that is not the case. To my kids I’ve said “One blow. You go”. You do so intelligently, having gotten in touch with organizations that understand the complexities and dangers of leaving, because lethality often goes up when the victim decides to leave. But you go.
from Making Marriage Work