I was married for a week the first time that my husband showed signs of violence. It was almost nothing, anger accompanied by a chair kicked in my direction. He said that I imagined it, and since we dated three years before the wedding and I never once saw him lose his cool, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Still, I said that it couldn’t happen again. But it did. Then again. And until I left the relationship two years later, these episodes grew in frequency and brutality.
What constitutes domestic violence? A lot of things. It looks different case by case, but boils down to a pattern of control within an intimate partner relationship where one uses a variety of tactics to establish and maintain control over the other. Brenda Chrystie, who is the Development Director of Domestic Abuse Women’s Network (DAWN), told me that physical violence – things like punching, slapping and beyond – is the least of it.
“A lot of it is emotional abuse, destroying property, threatening to take the children, threatening pets, public and private shaming, sexual abuse, reproductive coercion like manipulating the birth control, financial abuse… anything and everything.”
National statics show that about one in three women and one in seven men experience domestic violence during their lifetime, most of which (60 percent) happens at home. And that’s only the cases that are reported; most are not.
When I eventually spoke up, my friends and family were shocked. I didn’t fit their stereotype of a victim since I was educated, successful at work, more confidant and independent than most, and had a big group of friends. But domestic violence is a problem that crosses all races, ages, backgrounds, socioeconomic status, sexes and sexual orientations.
Though women remain the primary victims, Chrystie says that more male and LGBTQ survivors are coming forth now that six agencies in King County are partnered in a national pilot program that extends access to the LGBTQ community. The National Center on Domestic Violence’s 83-page report concentrating on the LGBTQ community says that “same-sex abusers use a form of abuse similar to those of heterosexual batterers, but they also have an additional weapon in the threat of ‘outing’ their partner to family, friends, employer and community.”
The reasons to leave an abusive relationship are obvious. No question. But there are usually conflicting motives that make survivors think twice – not knowing where to go or how to support oneself (according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families), fear of a violent reaction or losing the children, love for the abuser or hope that they will get counseling and change, religious or personal convictions about marriage, being unsure if the relationship fits the definition of “abusive,” protecting the abuser’s reputation, embarrassment, and on and on.
For me, it was most of the above.
In the majority of cases, domestic violence builds over a long period of time, to where the survivor becomes desensitized to their home life. And, typically, the situation is most dangerous when the survivor chooses to leave the relationship.
“We know that the rate of lethality increases a couple of months before a survivor leaves, to up to a year after,” Chrystie said. (Of female homicide victims, one in three is murdered by her current or former partner.) “When the abuser gets wind that they’re going to lose control, that’s when things escalate.”
For that reason, it’s important that survivors set up a “Safety Plan” before leaving a violent relationship. Chrystie recommends that survivors call the DAWN hotline (425-656-7867), which will connect them with an advocate that will help organize a safe escape.
“There is a need to keep things very discrete. I have heard survivors say that they couldn’t talk to an advocate when their children are around, because an abuser will use the children.” Chrystie said. “An advocate will talk with a survivor and find out if there is someone safe – outside of family and shared friendships – who can hold a copy of personal documents like a drivers license, social security card and birth certificate, a change of clothes, some extra cash, and an extra set of keys. Things like that.”
Organizations like DAWN can connect survivors with services like legal help, emergency shelter, housing, immigration, accessing public benefits, and emotional support. Advocacy with children is included, too, since a child exposed to domestic violence is (not automatically, but) more likely to grow up and be an abuser or a victim of domestic violence.
“We have partnerships with Sound Mental Health and YWCA in our children’s domestic violence response team,” Chrystie said. “These organizations get together with the non-abusive parent and children to work on their relationship and rebuild their trust, and also address the child’s behavior, what they witnessed.”
And while leaving an abusive relationship is one side of the coin, the other is abuser rehabilitation so that violent party’s bad habits don’t transfer to their next relationship. Many abusers are surprised and frustrated by their violent reactions and feel like they’re beyond their control. Many want help. This, however, an abuser needs to receive alongside a professional, not a romantic partner.
If you’re in an abusive relationship or think that someone you know is, visit dawnonline.org or call the hotline (425-656-7867) for help or to learn more. If you’re an abuser and would like to stop your behavior, find help at www.seattle.gov/humanservices/domesticviolence/forabusers/. An updated list of batterer treatment programs in Washington State can be found at http://www1.dshs.wa.gov/pdf/ca/perplist1.pdf.