I had been working with “Nicole” for almost a year. She had made remarkable progress in her efforts to overcome the abuse and neglect of her childhood and wanted to draw on her newfound insights to improve her relationship with her husband. Gradually, she was making connections between the attachment deficits from her family of origin and the “disconnects” within her marriage. But then some things started surfacing: how her husband “Jeff” controlled all the finances and made her ask for money; how he would get sullen and sulky for days when she made plans that didn’t include him; how he would start an argument with her just before she was leaving to go out with her friends, usually ending up with Nicole giving up and staying home; how he made light of her pursuit of a college degree and insisted she take out student loans in her name rather than use his income to pay for her books and tuition.
As a therapist with more than seven years experience working with partner violence perpetrators and victims, I recognized the red flags. As her husband’s controlling ways became more apparent, our work focused on her managing this relationship rather than enhancing it. Not surprisingly for someone raised in an atmosphere of authoritarianism and abuse, Nicole never equated her husband’s “tantrums” or “selfishness” with partner abuse. She did what most victims and perpetrators do—she minimized it, made excuses for the abuser, blamed herself, justified it, or just flat out denied it. We explored ways of empowering Nicole to set boundaries, be assertive, expand her social support system (like many abused partners, she had become isolated) and build self-confidence and self-esteem. Leaving Jeff was the last thing she wanted to talk about. There were just enough “honeymoon phases” to allow her to believe that he would change, that it could work, that it would all be okay. And he talked about attending couple’s counseling just often enough to keep her hopes alive.
Through all this, Nicole maintained that Jeff had never physically abused her; no, not once had he raised a hand to her. She hated the manipulation, control, and the temper tantrums, but she did not feel physically threatened. She insisted that she did not need a safety plan, and anyway, where could she go? Her parents were as indifferent as ever, her favored sister was off in her own world in happily-ever-after land, and Nicole had no money of her own. Besides that, she feared that she would not be able to afford the vet bills for her beloved dog, Cleo.
Then, the flags started getting redder. It seemed that Jeff had taken to checking her cell phone. His temper tantrums increased and the insults became more biting. As Nicole was getting healthier, Jeff was getting more fearful and controlling.
And then came the day I got the panicked phone call from Nicole. She had to leave, now. Jeff had gotten physical with her the night before when they got into an argument. They were in the car at the time and he began driving recklessly on the rain-slicked road. Nicole was terrified. She was eventually able to jump out of the car at a stoplight but as she tried to run away, Jeff chased her and tackled her to the ground. He started to choke her, but stopped himself. He got into the car and left her outside in the rain. The argument had started when Jeff found a text about him while checking Nicole’s phone.
I helped her make a safety plan over the phone and Nicole got out safely. While Jeff was at work, she stuffed her clothes, schoolbooks, and CDs into garbage bags, grabbed Cleo, and went to the home of a classmate. She has been on her own ever since, struggling to live and finish school.
Nicole is one of the lucky ones—she got out safely without being stalked or threatened (with physical harm, anyway) and she never had to go to a shelter. Jeff filed for divorce and got a lawyer to help him protect his assets, including their home and furnishings, his $100K salary, 401K, and some investment accounts that he tried to hide from Nicole. The only thing Nicole asked for was Cleo, whom Jeff also fought to keep out of Nicole’s reach despite never showing much interest in the dog before.
When Nicole and I first sat down together all those months before and began charting a path to wholeness and healing, neither of us would have predicted this outcome. Could I—should I have seen this coming? But then, why had Nicole not mentioned the times Jeff threw things across the room during his temper tantrums? Why didn’t she tell me that he regularly called her “stupid,” “crazy,” and “white trash,” or that he coerced and shamed her into having sex when she did not want to? Was she frightened? Protective? Ashamed?
Perhaps all three apply, but the most significant and surprising thing I have learned in working with individuals caught up in partner violence is that more often than not, they do not recognize abuse for what it is. Their defenses go into overdrive: “He didn’t hit me; he just put his fist through a wall.” “She has a really bad temper when she gets mad.” “Yeah, she hits me all the time—but she’s 5’ 4”, it’s not like she can really hurt me.” “I just grabbed her by her arms to get her attention, you know, to let her know I was serious.” “I warned him not to piss me off.” “If I didn’t control all the money, she’d put us in the poorhouse.” And my personal favorite, “She bruises easily.”
I’ve heard every one of the above statements, and many more, by people who literally do not know that they are in an abusive relationship. Sadly, what they also do not know is:
- It does not matter if there are no physical injuries: abuse is abuse
- Emotional abuse has longer-lasting and more devastating effects than most physical abuse
- Partner abuse is a progressive dis-ease, like alcoholism, and can be fatal
- It undermines self-confidence and self-esteem and makes it harder to make healthy decisions in all areas of their lives
- Their children know what is going on. Even if they’re not there, asleep, at Grandma’s, etcetera, children sense the tension and hostility and begin to equate those feelings with love
- Children who grow up with partner violence are more than twice as likely to abuse or be abused themselves
- Violence can escalate dramatically when a victim leaves or attempts to leave an abusive relationship
- Women and men have been shown to be equally likely to be the initiator of physical violence
- There is a high correlation between controlling behaviors and violence, whether by a male or a female
- Lesbian and gay partners are just as likely to be abusive and violent as their straight counterparts
Because most abused and abusive people don’t know these things, it is important that those of us in the helping professions do. When our clients can put the proper name to their experience, they have taken the first step to safety and healing. Often, we must spend a great deal of time helping our clients see the sad reality of their circumstances before they are able and willing to move forward. It can be frustrating to see our clients return each week with another horrendous story of pain and humiliation, or with bruises and abrasions (or worse), and still not call it what it is. We must have the patience to witness their pain and fear without judgment, without demands or reproaches for “allowing” this to go on. We must acknowledge our own feelings of helplessness in order to better understand their helplessness and despair. And we must be watchful of our own indignation and anger toward the abuser.
(Some of the above data is from Domestic Violence Resource Center, www.dvrc-or.org)
© Copyright 2010 by Leslie Larson, LPC-S, therapist in Austin, Texas. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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