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.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
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.
AS A SURVIVOR OF INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE:
• 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.
AS A FRIEND OF A SURVIVOR:
• 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?