Emotional Health · Relationships & Dating

Domestic Violence: Home Is Where the Hurt Is

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and HBO has released a new documentary called Private Violence to help illustrate this complex issue. For those of us who are lucky enough to have no direct or indirect experience with this problem, it is sometimes hard to understand how women get trapped in violent relationships. It is even harder to understand the complexities the victim faces when trying to escape.

I learned this the hard way when, early in my career, a young mother, “Karen,” came to see me. She was clearly in an abusive marriage. After she detailed the various ways in which her husband was hurting her, like most everyone else in her life, I urged her to leave him as soon as possible. But Karen wasn’t ready to leave yet. After each attempt to get out, she returned. Because I took such a strong position, the effect was that Karen “left” me instead. She was afraid that I, like others in her life, would judge her because she kept returning to her marriage. As a result, she became more and more isolated, which exacerbated the control her husband had over her. What I realized, too late, was that my job was to help her understand why she felt trapped, and over time empower her to leave. Simply telling her what to do was not helpful: I needed to help her get there.

Doing so requires patience and the ability to endure the anxiety of waiting while someone is stuck in a dangerous position. “Leaving an abuser is not an event; it’s a process,” said one abuse survivor in the documentary, who now works as a counselor. Friends, family and other people get tired of the woman leaving and going back but this is typical. The abuser (almost always a man — up to 85 percent) has psychological power over his victim. Often the woman feels she is at fault — her partner teaches her that she is responsible for her own “punishment.”

In Private Violence we follow one case in particularly close detail, giving the viewer the benefit of understanding how the power of fear drives the victim. Subject to fits of irrational jealousy, the husband beats his wife until she “confesses” to cheating. Hoping to stop the beating (and protect her toddler who is witness to it all) she makes a false confession. This just enrages him further until he beats her so severely she almost dies.

In this case the beatings took place on a cross-country trip that the husband, a truck driver, forced his wife and child to take with him. When he is finally prosecuted, he is charged with kidnapping and federal charges of violence that help ensure that he receives a longer sentence. But the tragedy is that many men are not brought to justice, and some who do go to jail return and kill their victims after they serve their time.

But bringing these men to the attention of the law is a fitful process. Remember, the abuser is in control of the situation. Even if the police are called, it’s not uncommon for the police to arrive and leave without making an arrest. The victim is in a state of terror. Sometimes and the abuser needs only to stare at the woman, or give her some other kind of silent warning that if she talks there will be more abuse later. Another problem is that the victim of abuse is convinced that she is unworthy: she has no reason to think that the police are on her side.

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  • Holly October 22, 2016 at 10:21 am

    Thanks! I think there are also parallels between these women’s silence and those who have been sexually assaulted/abused. Even when you are the victim, the shame of it stays with you.

    Reply
  • Alex MacAaron October 20, 2016 at 3:05 pm

    Thank you for writing about this, Dr. Ford. It’s such an important topic and so misunderstood. A few years ago, I saw this Ted Talk about it, and it really helped me understand the question we all ask, “Why doesn’t she leave?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1yW5IsnSjo

    Reply
  • Anonymous October 20, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you, Women’s Voices, for bringing attention to this important film. The issue of domestic violence deserves our attention.

    Reply