Saturday, February 12, 2011

Love Shouldn't Hurt: Recognizing and Ending Intimate Partner Violence

Hindsight is 20/20 – but what good does it do? Looking back, I can easily see the red flags in my abusive relationship, but at the time, I was blinded by the love I felt for someone who, in so many ways, seemed like the perfect partner. He was warm, kind, and caring. He listened when I needed to talk, and didn’t try to change me. I didn’t realize that all his empathetic concern was an act. Was it designed to fool me so that he could get close enough to hurt me? I don’t know for sure, but I doubt it. I think it was more of a mask that he wore with everyone – it was the way he wanted people to see him; when he became comfortable with me, he began to show me who he really was.

When I first became involved with my abusive ex-partner, the relationship seemed healthy and nurturing. We had known each other for a couple of years but had never been particularly close until I moved from my hometown after filing for divorce, and his was a familiar face in a strange environment where I didn’t have any friends or family. I was isolated, in a new place with a new job, and he encouraged me to rely on him for all sorts of little kindnesses that you miss when you’re alone. Our relationship felt mutually beneficial at first; I began to trust him more as he offered to babysit my children while I was at work and to take my car in for maintenance when I couldn’t take time away to do it myself. It seemed like we had reached a level of interdependency that was beneficial for both of us, and as my divorce finalized, we became closer. But even before that, things had begun to change. When we were together on weekends, he would spend hours in sullen silence, or worse, hours putting down people we both knew, or telling me why I was a bad parent and what I needed to do to change. Most of this was couched in psychological jargon and condescending monologues. He would tell me that he only wanted to help me be a better mother, or he just wanted me to understand what “those people” were really like.

I didn’t understand then that the cycle of abuse was building; we were in the honeymoon phase, but it wouldn’t last for long. He was having trouble finding a job and he spoke casually of suicide, often calling me at work and threatening to take his own life, then hanging up and then refusing to answer my calls for hours at a time. I spent my days in a storm of frantic anxiety, believing that he had actually carried through with his threats. Then, when I was finally able to reach him, he would be angry at me for “calling to check up on him.” He began blaming me for his failure to find employment, and for all the other stressors in his life, but I still didn’t get it – I loved him and I believed that the relationship was worth working for. There were a lot of reasons why I continued to stay even as things got worse, but the biggest one was that I just didn’t get it – until he threw the first punch, I didn’t realize that I was being abused. Don’t let that happen to you – learn right now how to recognize those red flags that I missed.

It can be difficult to recognize a potentially violent relationship. The truth is that abuse in relationships is often subtle and difficult to identify, until actual physical violence occurs. Even verbal abuse is difficult to codify since many people often lose their tempers and say things they don’t mean or wish they could take back. So what can we do? How can we recognize behaviors that cross the line or should cause alarm? Moreover, how can we help our friends and loved ones do the same?

We have to learn to recognize abuse in relationships. It may seem simple, but it’s harder than you think, especially since abuse doesn’t usually begin with battering. Here’s an example of some behaviors that should raise red flags:

WHAT HE DOES: He calls you in the middle of the night and won’t stop calling until you answer, or if you live together, he continually wakes you and keeps you talking for hours. He knows you have to get up and go to work the next day but he refuses to let you sleep.
WHY HE DOES IT: One of the easiest ways to wear down another person is through depriving them of sleep. Once you’re exhausted, you’re a lot easier to control. Maybe your abuser doesn’t consciously realize it, but somewhere inside, he knows that if you’re worn out, you aren’t going to fight him.

WHAT HE DOES: He makes it difficult for you to get to work on time or urges you to skip days. Maybe he wants you to give up working entirely or to take a job for less pay, and insists that if you don’t do it, you are showing him that you don’t trust him to take care of you.
WHY HE DOES IT: If you can’t support yourself, then you will be dependent on him – it’s another way to establish tighter control.

WHAT HE DOES: You exchange a friendly joke or laugh with someone of the opposite sex. When you get out to the car, your partner says that you flirt too much, or accuses you of having an affair.
WHY HE DOES IT: If he can convince himself that you’ve been unfaithful, then he has a good excuse to punish you for it. Also, it’s another way to control you – he doesn’t want you to believe that other men could find you attractive because he might lose you.

WHAT HE DOES: You’re half an hour late coming home from work because of road construction, but your partner refuses to believe your reason – he insists that you’re having an affair and starts calling your friends to ask them who you’re cheating with.
WHY HE DOES IT: Same as above – this is a culturally acceptable reason for him to be angry at you. And again, it’s all about control. Not only can he humiliate you by bringing your friends into the equation, but this also has the effect of making you think that he is hurt and you need to apologize.

WHAT HE DOES: You notice that every time you take a phone call, he listens in to see who you’re talking to and what you’re saying. As soon as you end the call, he wants to know what the other person said about him.
WHY HE DOES IT: He doesn’t want your friends telling you that his behavior is abusive, so he stays with you through the phone call so that you won’t really have the chance to tell anyone how he’s been treating you. And he wants to know what was said because he’s worried that others can recognize him for what he is, and he knows he may need to do damage control.

WHAT HE DOES: You are constantly criticized for not being “good enough”, or “thin enough”, or “smart enough,” or you’re blamed for everything that goes wrong in his life.
WHY HE DOES IT: He doesn’t want you to be confident. He wants you to be subservient; he needs you to believe that you can’t have a better relationship than the one you have with him. He wants to keep you feeling guilty and dependent so he will do everything he can to undermine your feelings of self-worth.

WHAT HE DOES: Your partner withholds sex and affection in order to make you behave the way he wants you to. He may promise to be intimate with you if you do what he wants, and then refuse to follow through, or he or she may tell you that you are too unattractive, too possessive, or too demanding for sex.
WHY HE DOES IT: The purpose of this behavior is to keep you in the supplicant’s position; the power of granting affection and physical pleasure remains with him. He wants you to be afraid of losing him so that you will comply with what he wants.

WHAT HE DOES: He pushes, manipulates, or coerces into having sex when you don’t want to. Your partner may threaten to harm you or himself if you don’t comply, or may use emotional manipulation and tell you that if you don’t give in, he will find someone else to have sex with, or that it means you don’t love him if you won’t have sex.
WHY HE DOES IT: Again, it’s all about control – when this behavior begins, the cycle is moving away from the honey-moon phase and into the violent one.

You have rights! You have the right to kind treatment. You have the right to be respected. You have the right to privacy. You have the right to have friends of your own. You have the right to your own ideas and opinions. If the person you are with is infringing on those rights, then the relationship is damaged. Something needs to change! It may be that the person you are with will not become violent, but whether he does or not, you deserve to have the kind of healthy relationship that adds to your life instead of detracting from it. You have the right to change your mind and to leave the relationship if it is hurtful or detrimental.

If your relationship has already progressed beyond the above stages of abuse to physical or sexual violence, you can – and should – take action to make your life better and to find safety.

• Know that you can get help, as hard as it seems. Your county health department is a good place to start. Nurses and staff there receive training to recognize domestic abuse situations and most health departments have brochures and literature available in their front lobby. You can also privately tell a nurse or nurse practitioner that your partner is hurting you and ask for help in reporting or finding shelter and safety. Your doctor can also help in this way.

• Have a safety plan. In abusive relationships, you are often in the greatest danger when you try to leave. If you are being physically harmed and you are fearful, have a small bag packed with necessary items like medications, ID, cash (if you have access to money), and clothing. Be ready to leave when you get the chance. Have a trusted friend you can count on to help you get to a shelter, or have other means of transportation ready. You don’t have to have this plan mapped out or written down, it can just be an idea in your head, the same way you’d go to the north-west corner of your basement if there were a tornado coming.

• Document everything. This may seem terribly hard, but it is best if you take photographs of your cuts and bruises; set your camera to use its date/time stamp, or if you’re using your cell phone’s camera, send the photo to yourself or a trusted friend as a text message, which will automatically save the date of the photo. The more proof you have of the abuse, the easier it will be to get an order of protection later on, if you find you need one. You should also keep a journal if you have a safe place and way to do so.

• Be careful whom you talk to. Mutual friends of yourself and your partner might think they’re doing the “right thing” by disclosing your plans. Even family members might believe it’s better for you to “work things out” with your abuser and might give him access to your location. Know that it is okay for you to keep your plans to yourself and to limit knowledge among your friends and loved ones! Your safety is your primary concern.

• Be aware that not all advice is good advice. Good friends, family members, even your pastor may think it is best if you seek out couples’ counseling and try to work out your problems. If you are being hit or physically threatened, the worst thing you can do is go to counseling together. It simply isn’t safe! You do not have to take ANY advice that seems harmful to you or that you know would only make the situation worse. It is okay to leave an abusive relationship, regardless of whether you have children together, are married, or have financial resources of your own.

• Remember, one in three women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime, so we are all potentially “friends of victims”. One of the best things we can do is be aware! Know the signs of domestic violence. Some of these are chronic lateness, unexplained bruises, not showing up to planned events, withdrawal from friends and family, personality changes, or other odd changes in routine behavioral patterns. These are the less obvious signs, so you really have to watch to notice them.

• 85% of reported victims of domestic violence are female, which means that 15% of reported victims are male. It can be especially difficult for men to come forward and speak out about the abuse, whether emotional or physical. If you have a male friend who is being abused, be aware that he may need help and support just as a female friend would.

• It is okay to let a friend know that you are worried about her. It is better to ask about the changes you are noticing than to ignore them! Your friend may be praying that someone will offer help or intervene on her behalf, but she may not know how or who to ask. Your concern may be just what she needs to help her find a way to a safer situation.

• Be supportive. Many people think that if a person is being abused, it is easy to “just leave.” But it isn’t – there could be many factors you don’t understand. Shared finances, fears about where to go, how to live, what will happen to children or pets, how to retrieve personal belongings, threats of physical harm or even death if she leaves…all these issues can make it very difficult to leave an abusive situation. There’s also the fact that often, abused women and men still love their partners, regardless of what has happened. Just being there and being willing to listen is helpful! Remember, you can’t solve your friend’s crisis – only she can do that. But you can love your friend and help find solutions that work.

Statistics show us that one in every three women will experience domestic violence. It is most often women who are harmed in situations of intimate partner violence. Almost one-third of female homicide victims reported to police were killed by an intimate partner. Only about twenty percent of those women who report domestic violence go on to obtain legal help such as an order of protection. And of that number, around half of those legal orders are violated, and two-thirds of the orders against partners who committed rape or sexual assault are violated. The violence is cyclic – boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to perpetuate that violence in their future relationships. If we are to end this epidemic of violence, we must be aware of it at every level, in every segment of society. Violence in the home respects no racial, cultural, or economic boundaries. It is not age specific. It is not even gender-specific – as stated above, at least fifteen percent of domestic violence victims are male; it is just as much of a tragedy when men are abused and harmed by intimate partners. It is up to each of us to understand the warning signs, to recognize abuse, and to take action against it. If we don’t, who will?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

December of the Heart

In the park near my home, there’s a special place where I like to go and sit. I look out over the river from this perch on top of a concrete culvert about ten feet above the water. In the summer, the place is screened by reeds, trees, and undergrowth. You could pass by it on the path less than six feet away and unless you came looking, you would never know it was there. Sometimes I climb down from the culvert, taking a narrow, steep path to the water’s edge. From there, I can walk along the bank and listen to the voices of the river as it washes over the shoals downstream. The liquid murmur is composed of notes that are constantly changing; a blended chorus of rushing, muted whispers with a music of its own. I sit there on the hard concrete, my legs dangling, and I lose myself in the peace of the moving water, the dancing leaves, the evening light. The culvert is not a thing of beauty – a hard, gray rectangle over three huge pipes gated with rusted iron bars, and a litter of leaves, twigs, and sometimes garbage that accumulates below. Still, the magic of the light and the music of the water transform this place into something more than it seems to be, something beautiful.

I walked there a couple of weeks ago, early on a Saturday morning, when the cold air numbed my face and took my breath. The reeds were dead and brown, their narrow leaves were brittle and they rattled as I pushed between them. The trees were naked and the underbrush was dead. The culvert was exposed; the mystery provided by the vegetation of summer had been stripped away. There it lay before me – a long, narrow slab of concrete, a tangle of trash down below eddying in the sluggish water. Clumps of bleached grass drooped toward the edge of the river. It was an unlovely place; even the stream’s voice bore no enchantment. It sounded like a tired sigh instead of lively chatter. I caught my breath, appalled by the change wrought by the season. There was no peace in the movement of the harsh light on the water or the rasping of the reeds as they trembled in the cold wind. The place felt barren and desolate.

I came away feeling bereft, even though I knew that spring would come and the sun would reawaken the leaves. Blended green-gold light would dance there again; the mingled notes of wind and water would sing. But I was not comforted by the promise of renewal, though I believed in its inevitability. Instead, the bleakness of my former haven left me with a feeling of sadness that I haven’t yet been able to shake. I have spent the days since trying to determine why. As I said, I believe with all my heart in the inevitability of spring and the returning of the leaves and the light. So why am I grieving?

Maybe…it’s because I recognize something of myself in the desolation of that place. It was never flawless, but a combination of factors gave it the illusion of peace and perfection. There was something about the quality of the light – green-gold and somehow alive – and the dancing of the water that made the tiny, hidden spot on the side of the river unique. The turning of the season from summer’s warmth to the harsh cold of January had stripped away that quality, leaving it withered and grey. There were moments of brightness but it was a hectic, brittle light. It had none of the gentle glow of those long summer evenings when I sat and wrote or drew in my journal, when I felt tears come as I thanked God for my escape and released the suffering accumulated during those long months of fear. The leaves and the brush behind me were my veil, my protection from casual, prying eyes. I was shielded from the world, free to mourn. Now there was no sanctuary for me in that place – it was open to the world, unguarded and vulnerable. I sometimes feel the same way – withered, dull, and grey, as if the blended radiance and song of my own spirit has been stilled and replaced by some frantic, glancing light that bounces in shards and slivers, throwing shadows with no substance, dazzling the eyes of my soul and leaving me blinded and groping to find my way. Like the desolation of my former haven, my heart feels empty, swept by cold wind and echoing to monotonous whispers that repeat the same poisoned words over and over – his words, spoken to rob me of my will to act, my will to leave, my will to live –


No matter what I did for him, it was never good enough. I cared for his children; I cleaned his house; I cooked his meals. I got up early and ironed his shirts before work. I came home late and spent the evenings cooking, cleaning, helping the kids with homework. I woke up in the night and rocked his baby back to sleep when she cried. I fixed plumbing, bought groceries, paid bills. I swept up broken glass and covered the holes in the walls he made with his fists and the things he threw at me. I was calm and patient as he screamed and railed and threatened suicide. There were periods of peace that soon dissolved to tension before they came back to the rage, the pain, the accusations. It was never enough; no matter how much love or obedience I gave, he always seemed to want or need something more. I could never be good enough to please him, though toward the end I believed that my life depended on it. The fear was overwhelming; it laid waste to who I was and left me weak and shaken. My ability to know myself was damaged; my belief in myself eroded away. Like the reeds in winter, I was bare and brittle – a stiff wind or a hard shove would put me on the ground. I came away feeling cold inside, feeling hollow. I was like a dead, winter garden; no seed sown in soil so icy would ever bear fruit.

Away from him, I worked to accept myself. I worked to believe that I was good enough, that the terrible things he said to me were not true. I tried to purge myself of the poison he left behind – I’m still trying. People compliment my work and my writing. The man I am with reassures me that I am worthy of love and that I deserve to be treated with respect. But I can’t shake the belief that I am simply not good enough – that everything I have worked to achieve is as insubstantial as summer sunlight through green leaves. I often wake up in the middle of the night wondering if this is the day when everything will fall apart and the rage-fear-pain will come rushing in because the life that I have built for myself is an illusion - how could someone as worthless as I am have anything good?

Somewhere inside, I know that I am competent, capable, and worthy of love and respect. I know that the sickness and the weakness were his, not mine. Just like summer will come and reawaken the beauty of my haven near the river, eventually a new season will dawn for me too, and the cold emptiness will be forgotten. Everything that seems dead in me will live again; the mingled light and music of spirit will warm and fill me and this December of the heart will pass.

I know that it is true. I believe with all my strength in renewal. I believe in the inevitability of spring. Like the poem by Albert Camus says, somewhere in the depth of winter, I will find in me an invincible summer. I believe these things. I just wish I could feel them, too.

God, the winter is so cold, so dark, so long…