As a therapist, I regularly work with perpetrators and victims of domestic violence. Recently within our community I have heard, overheard, and read comments regarding domestic violence that range from concerned to judgmental to misinformed. So many have involved common questions and misperceptions about domestic violence and its consequences that I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to share some of what I have learned over years of working in this arena.
While both men and women experience domestic abuse, statistics show women are the vast majority of victims (approximately 85%), and they suffer significantly more physical damage from abuse than men. Domestic violence is experienced by 1 in 4 women, is the leading cause of injury to women (1 out of 3 women’s emergency room visits), and resulted in almost 180 deaths in Connecticut alone from 2000-2011. It occurs among women of all ages, races, and income levels.
As highlighted in the 2/21/13 Darien Times editorial, domestic violence is one of the most underreported crimes. Male victims often do not report abuse due to societal pressures and gender expectations, but women significantly underreport as well. It is estimated that only 25% of physical assaults against women by intimate partners are reported. Reasons for not reporting include fear of retaliation or judgment, desire to protect the offender or avoid police contact, and feelings of embarrassment, guilt, or shame.
Some ask why an abused partner doesn’t just leave the relationship. This speaks to the complex nature of domestic violence. When emotions, families, and interdependence are involved, it is not easy to walk away. A woman may stay because she doesn’t want to break up the family, because she thinks she can change things, because she is dependent on her partner’s support (emotionally, financially, physically), because he threatened to kill or “ruin” her if she leaves, because she loves him and he promised to change.
Some say, “When I was growing up, conflicts in the family were handled in the family. It was nobody else’s business.” or “My parents always fought, and nobody ever called the police.” But that’s just not true anymore. Recent decades have seen dramatic changes in domestic violence laws in response to the severity of domestic violence incidents. And outside observers are more likely to make a call.
“But it was just an argument, it didn’t get physical,” clients say. Many are surprised to learn that the definition of domestic violence includes emotional and verbal abuse as well as physical violence. Arguments that involve raised voices, aggressive tones, name-calling, cursing, or smashing things create an environment of intimidation. Yes, most couples argue sometimes. But most arguments do not escalate to the point where somebody (inside or out of the house) feels fearful enough to call the police. If one does, then it might just be that police involvement stopped “just an argument” from becoming something more.
After an arrest, one may wonder about the need for a protective order. After all, “…it was just one time” or “…the victim asked for it to be removed or changed” or “…it’s so hard on the children.” The reality is that no judge can predict without fail whether an offender will commit another violent act, or whether a victim has recanted accusations out of guilt or fear, so the court errs on the side of safety. Of course, not everybody will comply with an order of protection (it is estimated that 50% don’t), but many may be deterred by it. It may force a necessary cooling off period for both sides, and likely has protected further violence in many cases.
Often perpetrators of domestic abuse will point at the victim. “She made me do it,” “She pushed my buttons,” or “What else could I do?” are common excuses, but the truth is that using violence is a personal choice, and never the only option. It is also often a choice made when our judgment is clouded by anger or stress, or compromised by alcohol or drug use.
Many clients say that they were never taught skills to build healthy relationships and manage conflict in a non-violent way. That is a major focus of my counseling work with couples and individuals. To learn to communicate clearly and respectfully, manage frustration while staying calm, and be tolerant of disagreement. To identify “red flags” in one’s own or another’s behavior that indicate significant differences in values, expectations, and conflict-resolution styles. To learn how to recognize abuse of power, how to walk away, how to ask for help.
No relationship will be conflict-free at all times. But the bottom line is that everyone has a right to feel safe in their homes. Seek counseling or crisis services if you need them, and be supportive, not judgmental of others who are in need.
If you need help or someone you know does, please call the Domestic Violence Crisis Center’s 24-hour hotline at 888-774-2900. Rebecca Martorella, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.