Emotional Health · Relationships & Dating

The Power of Domestic Violence: Why It’s Hard to Leave

There is the mistaken impression that domestic violence is limited to poor or uneducated families. This is an issue that cuts across all class and racial lines.

In “Private Violence” we follow one case in particularly close detail, giving the viewer the benefit of understanding how the power of fear drives this victim. Subject to fits of irrational jealousy, the husband beats his wife until she “confesses” to cheating. Finally, 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 ultimately 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 that do go to jail end up returning and killing 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 the abuser only needs 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 the police are on her side.

In many states, the laws are inadequate, and abusers who nearly kill their victims are charged with “assaulting a female,” a misdemeanor (a sample sentence: 150 days in jail).

The only weapons many victims have legally are “restraining orders.” They are not very effective. One expert referred to them this way: “They should be renamed the ‘last will and testament,’ ” as she pointed to a stack of them taken out by women who were later killed by their partners. . .in just the way they predicted.

Why don’t the women run away? Many women are too frightened to leave. They fear they will be found (one recounted that her husband was “trained by the U.S. Marine Corps to hunt people down”). If they leave and are found, the retaliation will escalate. After a prolonged period of abuse, the victim feels helpless and unworthy.

Many victims are also greatly weakened and damaged as a result of repeated beatings. Often they suffer the effects of traumatic brain injury, or TBI. In an article in The New Yorker the writer discusses:

how the emotional component of T.B.I. in cases of domestic violence complicates the lives of survivors. Veterans, for example, have the benefit of a support network when they’re injured. Family, friends, medical personnel, and fellow-survivors are all explicit supporters of the injured party. But domestic violence continues to be seen as a mostly private issue. One woman I spoke with, whose ex had been found guilty of torture and was given a life sentence, talked about the shame she felt knowing that she’d ended up in an abusive relationship. “I was profoundly embarrassed,” she says. “You think of someone who’s poor, who’s uneducated, who doesn’t have resources. I thought if I could get him to change back, I wouldn’t have to tell people about it.” …..this emotional component can haunt victims for years. “That trauma of knowing someone you love is willing to take your last breath,” she says. “How do you live with that?”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, more than 1 in 3 women (35.6 percent) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5 percent) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and an estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. And nearly half of all women in the United States (48.4 percent) have experienced at least one form of psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime, with 40.3 percent reporting some form of expressive aggression (e.g., their partner acted angry in a way that seemed dangerous, told them they were a loser or a failure, insulted or humiliated them), or some form of coercive control (41.1 percent) by an intimate partner.

There is the mistaken impression that domestic violence is limited to poor or uneducated families. An audiotape is played in the HBO documentary of a prominent doctor beating his wife and daughters that belies this notion. This is an issue that cuts across all class and racial lines. And as the general prevalence of sexual assault has been highlighted in the national conversation this month, let’s hope that the vulnerability of women and girls will stay in the spotlight. One of the ways to help other women fight and escape all abuse is helping the many victims find their voices. There is power in numbers and we can use it.


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  • Emily April 3, 2017 at 10:58 am

    I was married to an emotionally abusive husband for 16 years. I held the same belief as physically abused women have that ” it was my fault and if I could change myself it would stop”.
    Psychological abuse is a hidden form of control but just as fearful and paralyzing.