“Domestic violence” can be an intimidating term that most people assume does not apply to them because their image of it is a woman who has been physically beaten, is black and blue with bruises, and may have broken bones and some teeth knocked out. Our image of the abuser or “perpetrator” is similarly extreme. You know the type—raging alcoholic, punching walls, yelling, swearing, making threats, scaring everyone, who then wakes up the next day and begs for forgiveness and apologizes.

Although the above description is real, many other types of victims and perpetrators exist. Domestic violence knows no boundaries; it crosses all economic and cultural lines. It is everywhere. It may or may not be apparent, from blatantly obvious to discreetly hidden behind facades of the happy couple or family. Note: Although we recognize that both men and women can be victims of abuse and that abuse occurs in both heterosexual and homosexual/lesbian relationships, we will discuss this topic with the woman as the victim and man as the perpetrator

Some women don’t even know they are victims

There are many types of abuse. Even though physical abuse is the most obvious; she knows she’s being hit or beaten, but she may not consider it abuse. Sexual abuse can be obvious or subtle. You know when sex is being physically forced on you, but what about when you agree to have it in order to calm him down or keep him from becoming angry? Verbal abuse may seem normal; something you’ve heard all of your life, or you may be aware that you don’t like it and it doesn’t feel good, but you may not have ever considered it abuse. Emotional abuse is even less tangible making it very difficult to identify. Usually it’s the result of verbal abuse; how you feel from being called names and told that you are worthless. It is also the result of being manipulated by guilt or fear. Basically, abuse leaves you feeling trapped without options, suffering in silence, ashamed with low self-esteem, like you are the crazy one.

It’s all about power and control

The abuser or perpetrator has the need to exert power and control over their victims. It is not just an anger management issue and even though it can be exacerbated by alcohol and drugs, they are not the cause. Usually the perpetrator was a victim of abuse as a child and learned such behavior and attitude is normal. Many children living in a home with domestic violence begin treating and talking to their mother the way they see their father treat her, and eventually they treat their girlfriends the same. This problem is passed on from one generation to another.

Cycle of violence

There are three stages; tension buildingexplosive or abusive episode, and the honeymoon period. Each stage can be as short as a few hours or as long as several months. This also depends on the type of abuse. Sometimes he “only” hits her or beats her up twice a year, which makes it “quite tolerable,” “the rest of the time he is so sweet and fun to be with.” With verbal and emotional abuse, there can be explosive sometimes rageful episodes where he yells and carries on for a few hours and even though they  don’t leave any visible bruises, the internal wounds take much longer to heal and are much more painful. The honeymoon period follows the abuse, in which he apologizes, insists that he didn’t intend to act that way, and promises he won’t do it again, then begs for forgiveness and tells you how much he loves you. These are the weeks or months that you enjoy him most. Then he starts to get more impatient, intolerant, irritated, tries to control any outbursts, but the tension is building until he finally loses control and BOOM, he explodes. And the cycle continues…

Why women stay

A common reaction is to question why they stay if it is that bad. One answer is that the abuse cycles; every day is not bad, in fact there may be many more good days than bad. Another reason is that you become accustomed to it, learn how to handle it and react to it; it becomes normalizedand you become desensitized. You also believe him when he blames you for how he treats you, for example, “it’s because I come home after working all day and the place is a mess and the kids’ toys aren’t put away,” or “you burned the dinner.” You think to yourself that he’s right and that you are a failure and deserve this. Among hundreds of other reasons, a few include financial dependence and subsequent inability to support yourself or children on your own, fear of what he would do if you did leave, guilt about separating your children from their father, and of course the belief and hope that he will change and things will get better.

Will he change and will things get better?

No. He will not change without professional help. Why should he change if he gets to have what he wants and continue to behave in an abusive way without any consequences?  He does not know any other way of being and may not realize that what he does is wrong or abusive. He has spent so much time defending why he’s that way and blaming everyone else for his behavior, that he has lost perspective. He easily justifies himself and desperately fears losing his power and control over you and so the intensity and frequency of the abuse progresses.

Reality check

Are you happy? Is this the relationship you dreamed of? Do you deserve a better healthier relationship? How are your children? What is the impact this has had and is having on them? What will be the long-term impact on them and on you? What needs to happen before you say “enough is enough!”? How bad does it have to get? In order to survive until now, you have learned to deny and minimize, to sacrifice yourself and your needs and desires, in order to keep him calm. There is help and there is a way out!

Written by: Giselle Belanger, RN, LCSW, CADC