Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


246782322_3a2a98b8a6_zThe topic of domestic violence has been much in the news this week: consider the video showing an NFL player knocking his fiancée unconscious in an elevator, not to mention the trial of Oscar Pistorius, who was found guilty of culpable homicide for shooting his girlfriend to death through a bathroom door. The prosecution contended, but did not prove, that he shot her intentionally during an argument.

Writing in this week’s New Yorker, Charlayne Hunter-Gault said that this type of crime is so common in South Africa that it is called “intimate partner femicide.”

She writes—

The World Health Organization calls violence against women “a global health problem,” with its most recent statistics showing that thirty-five per cent of women worldwide have been victims of domestic violence, and thirty-eight per cent of murders of women were committed by an intimate partner. 

The New York Times, meanwhile, reports that

According to the U.N., “Up to seven in 10 women around the world experience physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime,” and “603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not yet considered a crime.”

In the United States, domestic violence is considered a crime, but it remains difficult to prosecute. Many problems stem from victims’ reluctance to prosecute—an issue hotly debated this week. (Other controversies include the NFL’s rather mild initial action—suspending Rice for just two games.)

Many are incredulous that Janay Palmer, Rice’s fiancée, went on to marry him after the incident in the elevator. How could she possibly have committed to him after suffering this kind of treatment? we are asking. This has opened up a national dialogue, with thousands of women weighing in on Twitter explaining “why I stayed” and “why I left.”

Last week’s post  in Women’s Voices about Ludy Green’s Second Chance Employment Services gets to one of the most important issues: empowerment. Many women feel trapped in their abusive relationships by economic dependency. Dr. Green’s agency finds jobs and new careers for such women, giving them a chance to support themselves and their children apart from their former partners.

This is a crucial issue, of course, and Dr. Green points out that economic dependence and psychological dependence are intricately linked. Not only do they foster each other, but the less independent a woman feels, the less confident she is, and this feeds right into the central problem in these cases. Domestic abuse wears away at the woman’s self-esteem, convincing her that since she is treated as garbage, then she must be garbage. Often there are predisposing factors, such as a history of prior abuse and/or childhood trauma—factors that the abusive partner instinctively recognizes and that serve to reinforce his ability to degrade her. A vicious circle ensues: the worse he treats her, the worse she feels about herself; the worse she feels about herself, the more dependent she is and the less likely to feel she can leave, and so on.

One of the mistakes friends, family, and even therapists often make (I learned this the hard way) is that when the victim confides in them, they exhort her to protect herself and leave. Often, however, she is not yet ready to do that, because she is still feeling trapped, and she is likely to go back to him in spite of these urgings. Then the next time he hurts her, she is less likely to confide in her support group because she feels ashamed that she has ignored their advice. This only serves to increase her isolation and, hence, her dependency on her partner.

What is a better way to help, then? Keeping this in mind, reassure the victim that she is not being judged. More important, try to understand her feelings of being trapped rather than arguing logistics (this can be hard when you see someone being hurt!) and propose steps toward empowerment—practical steps that can help her find a path toward independence and self-esteem. If you try to “knock some sense” into her, or bolster her self-esteem with words, you will fail. Remember, you have a powerful adversary who is systematically destroying her sense of self.

Of course, there are cases when the danger is too urgent and the victim must be exhorted to remove herself at all costs. This is especially true when there are children involved, for they can often get caught in the crossfire. But these principles also apply to less “violent” forms of abuse, such as men who repeatedly cheat on their partners or verbally abuse them. These behaviors, too, degrade a woman’s self-esteem to the point where she may feel helpless to act. If you know someone in such a situation, anything that might increase her feelings of independence and self-worth would be of value. Even volunteer work, which often makes people feel better about themselves, increases skill sets, and enlarges the victim’s social circle, can be a first step on the road out.

While I’m glad the Rice/Palmer incident has put this issue in the news, I found myself worrying about Ms. Palmer this week after Mr. Rice was booted off the football team and nationally scorned. Perhaps the outpouring of public support will give her the impetus to leave, but if she is still feeling degraded and dependent on him, she may not be able to leave. And by now he is probably really angry indeed—and, if he is like most abusive men, blaming his situation on her.

(Image above from Flickr via Beth Punch)


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