My interest in working with victims of domestic violence came when I met a woman who had experienced severe abuse. We had met at a collaboration conference for counseling and told me her story. It was “typical” domestic abuse beginning with control of money and transportation, isolation from friends and family and ending with broken bones. One thing she said to me was that her husband had been arrested and ordered to anger management classes but had beguiled the anger management course instructor and eventually became co-leader of the class. Everyone thought her husband was amazing and he would come home and laugh about it as he beat her senseless. This is where I began to think how can we make this change? How can we make a difference?
My thought was rather than have the abuser go to anger management classes, which have been proven to be mostly ineffective, how about we have the victim go to classes where she can learn about the cycle of abuse, the patterns and maybe even speak to other women who have gone through or are going through the same thing. When I approached the woman I met at the conference with my idea she was honest and said that she could not be positive but did believe that it would have helped her. That perhaps if she had been properly educated and supported, she would have left her situation sooner. She had expressed hopelessness that when the courts and police were involved he had pulled the wool over every professional’s eyes and led them all to believe he was a changed man. She did not believe there was any hope. This is how my main interest came about in working with victims of domestic abuse.
There are so many forms of domestic abuse. While the abuse of the woman described above was severe—leaving her with a broken jaw, broken legs and fingers and concussions in the hospital—more often it can be less obvious, taking the form of verbal or psychological abuse. Oftentimes verbal and/or psychological abuse are dismissed as not being a big deal, but over time they can wear on self-esteem creating depression and feelings of worthlessness. Verbal and emotional abuse are forms of abuse, as much as physical violence is. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes and ears can help, a fresh perspective, someone who understands the cycle of abuse and can help educate people who have been in the situation so long that it has become the norm. Once the problem has been identified then work can begin either through individual counseling or couple counseling to rebuild things to a healthier relationship for both parties.
The statistics are frightening. Domestic violence does affect 1 out of every 3 Michigan families during their lifetime. In 50% of the homes where domestic violence is occurring, children are also being abused and are more likely to become abusers themselves as adults because they have been exposed to it. There are also the psychological effects that abusive households have on children—including social withdrawal and/or violence directed at fellow students or teachers. Women on average will leave 7 times before they finally leave for good. This is too many times for any person experiencing abuse, whether male or female. Often in severe situations the most severe danger occurs when the victim finally does leave their abuser. That is when stalking and abuse can worsen. It is important to consult a knowledgeable therapist before this stage. I can do an assessment to help identify the potential risk for lethality. I can help create a plan of safety and I have resources of safe places for victims to go to where they will be safe.
If you are reading this wondering why in the world anyone would stay in a situation like this, there is no simple answer. I use the term women mainly because it is most often women who are victims, but just know that there are men who are abused as well. Every woman and situation is different, but for the most part the situation is very gradual. Would anyone stay with a person who broke their finger on the first date? Absolutely not! But first, we fall in love. The honeymoon phase of any relationship is usually fantastic and abusers are no different. The change tends to be gradual so that over a period of years, a woman who is intelligent and had previously been self-sufficient may find herself eventually staying at home with the kids, with a spouse who gives her an allowance to spend on groceries and household needs and who also expresses displeasure at her having friends and spending time with family outside of him. It just can be so gradual that women may not even really realize that they are in an isolated, abusive situation until they feel it is too late to change it.
Other reasons may include guilt. Such as guilt over breaking up a family, guilt over breaking vows, guilt over giving up—that maybe if she tried a little harder her husband would change. Belief that the other person can change or will change is often a factor, and sometimes the abuser does change—for a short time. Even if the woman is able to really convince herself to get away there are other factors that make it a struggle. Lack of money and not wanting to be a single Mom or not having anywhere to go is another reason why some women stay. Negative response from friends and family complicate the decision to leave. If she has become isolated over time she may be feeling the effects of not having close friends or family to help her. Depression and lack of self-esteem also can play major factors in staying in an unhealthy relationship rather than leaving. Maybe the woman has not had a job in several years and does not feel she can support herself or her children. Perhaps the spouse is mentally ill and there is a sense of obligation to stay and help.
No matter the reason, whether it’s financial, lack of social support, guilt, fear, depression, love, etc. there is a better life. Over years a victim is broken down emotionally and psychologically. Regaining self worth and self love is not an overnight process, but it has to begin somewhere. Take the first step today.
Crystal Pasciak, LPC