Many people are surprised by how long victims of abuse stay trapped in their relationships. There are many explanations. It is very instructive to hear the women speak for themselves as Stacia Friedman does here. Whether it is fear of retribution, learned helplessness, “Stockholm Syndrome” (where the victim identifies with her aggressor), or addiction, the ties are very hard to break.
HBO is airing a dramatization of a very popular novel called “Big Little Lies.” Nicole Kidman plays a character, Celeste, who is the envy of her very affluent community. A brilliant, beautiful former lawyer, she is married to Perry Wright, (Alexander Skarsgard), also brilliant and beautiful. They are very rich, have a fabulous house on the ocean, and adorable twin boys. Early on, though, Celeste hints that something is amiss.
As the story unfolds we witness Celeste and her husband having numerous fights that include physical abuse. They end in aggressive, passionate sex, though, and she is left with a confusing message. In the aftermath Perry is always very contrite and apologetic. “He worships me,” Celeste tells the therapist she consults, from whom she initially hides the full extent of the abuse. When confronted by the doctor who suggests she leave before she is seriously hurt, Celeste pushes back very hard, saying they are “madly in love.”
This series is an excellent example of the addictive power of these relationships, and how hard it is to persuade women to leave. HBO also made a good 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. However, 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 women feel they are at fault — their partners teach them they are responsible for their own “punishment.”