When I was in high school, some of my friends used to play a card game in which one had to learn the game by playing it and no one could tell you the rules. I think they made it up, but I don't know. I didn't play it. They would all sit in a circle laying down cards, and stating phrases like, "and now for something completely different..." I never did learn the rules of the game, and I imagined I would be very frustrated if I were to attempt it.
Lately, I have been doing some research on domestic violence for a workshop I am putting together, and it occurs to me that being in that kind of a relationship must be something like a much more violent and threatening version of that game. It seems like only one person in the relationship knows what the rules are, and the other person keeps trying to figure them out and getting abused for their ignorance. (Please note, I am not calling them "stupid" -- which implies inability to learn -- but "ignorant" -- which implies not knowing.) Sadly, the one rule is that the one being abused cannot win. This rule, however, is never communicated, and the person being abused is left trying fruitlessly to "get it right" so that the abuse stops.
The phenomenon of domestic violence is not new. It has probably been around as long as people have been pairing up. Like most trauma, however, we often don't want to believe it exists. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, approximately 20 people per minute are physically abused by a partner in the United States. This does not include verbal abuse, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, or financial abuse. Too often, people are ashamed to talk about what happens behind closed doors, and that shame is often reinforced by questions from others like, "Why don't you just leave, then?' or "What did you do to piss him off?" If only things were that simple.
By and large, domestic violence relationships don't start out the way they end. The abusive partner often starts out very charismatic and attentive. He or she lavishes gifts, praise, and compliments on the intended partner. They frequently move the relationship along quickly, leaving the partner little time to think. Slowly but surely, they begin crossing the partner's boundaries and cutting them off from their support system. ("Do you really have to go see your mom today? I was hoping you could come to the new exhibit at the art museum with me today. You can always go see her next week, right?" "You know your dad's against me. I don't want you spending time with him." "I don't like how your friends dress. You can do better than them. Let's go out to dinner together instead," etc.
Gradually, things shift so that the abuser is finding little flaws in the partner (whether or not they exist) and begins creating the belief that the partner needs to fix these things, and then things will be fine. The failings and flaws generally become greater and more numerous, and the punishment becomes more vicious. Frequently, the abuser would say something like, "If you hadn't done X, I wouldn't have had to do Y. You know I don't like doing that to you. Why do you make me do that?"
The above is not a universal pattern, but is representative of what often does happen. There is a concept known as the Cycle of Domestic Violence that describes the typical pattern:
We start in the honeymoon phase. All is sweetness and light, and the abuser is loving and attentive. Gradually, we enter the tension building phase. The abuser has become more critical, angry, and degrading. The tension builds until the violent episode or explosion occurs. The explosion can be physical, emotional, sexual, verbal, or any combination of the above. After the explosion, we go back to the honeymoon period in which the abuser is giving apologies (while blaming the abused), giving gifts, and making promises. Thus the cycle repeats.
By the time most people are ready to get out of the relationships, their self-esteem is all but obliterated, they have little or no support system, and they may have no access to resources. Abusers often take control of the household finances and may even have control of documents such as birth certificates and Social Security cards. All the while, the person being abused is conditioned to believe that the problems are all his or her fault. Furthermore, the abuser may threaten the abused with physical violence (toward the abused or others), lack of access to children, lack of access to needed documents (including passports or green cards for those not from the U.S.), interference with work or other relationships, even death. Getting out is not simple.
Furthermore, just getting out does not bring safety for the abused. The first 72 hours are especially dangerous and the most likely time frame for the abused to be attacked or killed. Once they do get out, they have to find someplace to stay. They may be afraid to go to family either because of the separation that has been created with them or because they fear harm to their family members if they are found there. Guilt and shame may also play a role. If they have no money and no documentation, it will be difficult to find shelter, employment, or even transportation. When the stress becomes too much, many will return to their abusive homes due to lack of options and face even greater danger and abuse. Even if they do get out and stay out, the recovery is just starting, and much difficult work lies ahead. The person coming out very often does not feel much like the person who went in.
All of this sounds very dour and dire, and it is. People's lives and livelihoods are threatened this way much too often. Much of the abuse is kept hidden, and those abused are riddled with guilt and shame. Abused men, in particular, can have a difficult time seeking and accepting help because of the assumption that men should be able to take care of themselves. There is hope, however.
Most states have domestic violence hotlines available. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is : 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE). In my state, Georgia, the hotline is 1-800-33HAVEN. These hotlines have trained therapists available to help abused people find resources and make plans to get out safely. When possible, it is helpful to have a plan in place and to have whatever resources possible available before someone tries to leave. Many organizations exist to help those who have been in abusive relationships, and they can help with finding safe housing, getting employment, and providing needed support in legal proceedings.
A trained therapist can also help. Some can help with finding a way out, and others can help once someone has gotten out to help that person regain a sense of self and safety. There are support groups available as well. It takes time to move from being a victim to being a survivor to thriving, but it can happen.
If you believe someone is being abused, try not to judge them. Listen to them and let them know that you are there for them. You can help connect them to support through a hotline or a therapist. They may not feel comfortable calling a helpline themselves because their partner monitors their calls or does not allow them to make calls. Remember that leaving without a plan is not recommended and that they may need time to be able to leave. Let them know they are not forgotten or alone.
If you are being abused, I hope you will contact one of the above numbers or speak with a trusted friend who can help you. You are not alone. It is not your fault. You cannot change your abuser, so focus on doing what you can to take care of yourself.
Purple is the color of domestic violence awareness. I hope this post has helped you better understand some of the dynamics and issues of domestic violence. I am not an expert, but I am learning more every day. This post is not at all exhaustive of the available information or the issues inherent in domestic violence, and I hope you will do what you can to learn more. Volunteers are always needed. People escaping abusive situations need food, clothing, shelter, and housing supplies. They also need support, understanding, and patience. I hope you will give what you can. I thank you for letting me make your understanding a little more purple. If you have been hurt by domestic violence and need someone to talk to, I hope you will find me. I believe in hope and healing, and I would be honored to help you find yours.
(Statistics cited from NCADV. (2015). Domestic violence national statistics. Retrieved from www.ncadv.org)