Ending Domestic Abuse

There are many reasons why people hurt the ones they love. They may lash out because they are unable to communicate their anger in any other manner, or because it’s their only way to feel in control. Still others may be genuinely sociopathic.

What happens to the kids in the aftermath of domestic violence?

Whatever the reason, the definition of abuse is always the same, be it physical or emotional, from a husband, a wife, a lover, or a child: any behavior that is exceptionally possessive, jealous, threatening, critical, isolationist, controlling, or violent is abusive. Abuse within families is not limited to any age group, class, race, or gender. It can happen anywhere, and it is all dangerous.

The good news is that we are more aware and better equipped to handle domestic abuse than ever: victims currently have more escape routes, policing has improved, and domestic-homicide rates have fallen by 30% since 1976.

The struggle to understand and predict abuse is complicated by the fact that no two abusers are exactly the same. There is evidence from two Canadian economists, Audra Bowlus and Shannon Seitz, that men who observed domestic violence as children are 348% more likely to abuse their own wives than men who grew up in (relatively) non-violent homes. Yet according to both the American Psychological Association (A.P.A.) and Statistics Canada, emotional abuse remains the leading risk factor and predictor of physical abuse. Neglect, bullying, narcissism, public humiliation, and controlling behavior are only a few examples of emotional abuse. Results from the 1993 Violence Against Women Survey in Canada found that 35% of Canadian women who were married or in a common-law relationship had been emotionally abused by a partner, while 29% said they had suffered physical abuse.

“There is nothing more demoralizing than having someone try to deny your true self. It’s exhausting,” says Patricia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive Relationship (Adams Media, 1996). Be it incessant name-calling or constant criticism, Evans describes verbal abuse as a weapon used by people to deny the reality of the other. “Telling someone to shut up isn’t about communicating, it’s about the speaker trying to control the situation, to perpetuate their own fantasies,” she says. According to Evans, verbally abusive people are generally very insecure, controlling personalities whose sense of self is so fragile that they must shut out anything that would conflict with their own visions of themselves.

The damage inflicted by emotional abuse to a victim’s self-esteem and general health can be just as permanent as physical scars. A 1997 study published in the Journal of Family Violence concluded that victims of emotional abuse will leave their partner five times (on average) before ending the relationship.

Spousal Abuse

While 92% of domestic incidents reported in the United States are committed by men against women, women are not the only victims.

Steve* grew up in a fairly typical suburban home in the 1960s. His family raised him to respect women and to never, ever lash out at them, either verbally or physically. He married Cheryl* shortly after college. “I felt like I had married Dr. Jekyll and woke up with Mrs. Hyde,” he says.

He was shocked by her explosive temper and the vicious things she’d say when she was in a bad mood. Then she began punctuating her comments with an occasional slap, digging her fingernails into his arms until she’d drawn blood, or hitting him in the head with whatever was handy. “I didn’t know what to do about it,” he remembers. “Of course I was hurt, angry, and horrified, but I was also embarrassed – I couldn’t tell my friends and family that I was getting slapped around by a woman a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than I am.” Fifteen years and two kids later, after Cheryl grabbed a kitchen knife during an argument, Steve knew he couldn’t deal with it anymore. “I backed away from her and out of the house,” he recalls, “and I never went back.”

When he sued for custody of his children, his years of silent suffering came back to haunt him. “I had no proof that she had been abusing me, and frankly, the judge didn’t believe me.” Ten years later, Cheryl is still hauling Steve into court on one pretext after another. “It’s her way of trying to control me, and there’s nothing I can do about it,” he says bitterly.

It’s the lack of institutional resources that hurts abused men the most, says Philip W. Cook, author of Abused Men: The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence (Praeger Publishers, 1997). Men are victimized by the same type of abuse and behavior as women are, yet they rarely receive the same type of attention and support women do. “The average person just doesn’t believe that women beat up men,” Steve asserts. Ironically, abused men now inhabit the same space women did 30 years ago. “I’ve never found a man yet who doesn’t want to talk about his experiences,” says Cook. “The problem is no one asks – not doctors, not friends, not police.” The experience of abuse is complicated even further for men with children, who must not only confront their own fears but also overcome systemic barriers such as judicial and police prejudice in pursuit of custody.

* All names and some details have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals who spoke with us for this article.
“Steve” is a composite of two male victims of spousal abuse.

Responses to Violence

Police response to domestic violence has come a long way since 1985, when Tracey Thurman successfully sued a Connecticut police department for refusing to protect her from her abusive husband, despite his repeated public threats against her life.

In Canada, the 2000 inquest into the murder of Gillian Hadley by her estranged husband produced several changes in policing, including more training, notifying victims of when their abusers are up for bail, and enabling officers to file complaints without needing evidence from the victim. In states such as Florida and New Jersey, legislation such as Bill 741 and the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act actually proscribe how police officers are supposed to act when called to a domestic scene.

Sergeant Kimberly Ingram of the Miami-Dade County Police heads an investigative unit that conducts follow-ups on domestic-crime charges, ensuring that where charges have been laid, abusers have been arrested. Last year, her department handled 7,000 cases. “Bill 471 tells us that if there is reasonable proof of abuse, whether by damage or by injuries, we can arrest the abusive partner and lay charges without ever having to ask the victim what they want. It eases the burden on the victim,” Sergeant Ingram said.

Passed in 1992, New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act makes it very easy for victims to get a temporary restraining order. “In fact,” says family lawyer Steven Enis of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, “it mandates the police to offer it to the victim, regardless of whether it is the victim or the police filing charges.”
Everywhere, the emphasis has been on integrating police responses with victim services in hopes of making it easier for victims to access shelters, counseling, medical aid, legal information, translators, and transition services.

Sergeant Lorna Kozmik is the domestic-violence coordinator for the City of Toronto police. Nine people died in Toronto last year due to domestic violence, a tragedy that she says is preventable. “If we can get to them, we can help them. But the problem is that it usually takes 30 to 40 incidents before a victim will call the police. And tragically, in more than 95% of the domestic homicide cases, it is the first time the police have been called.”

The number of intimate partners killed in domestic disputes fell dramatically between 1976 and 1996 in the U.S., although those numbers have since stabilized. Kozmik remains optimistic, pointing to the success that cities such as San Diego, Boston, and Calgary have had with Family Justice Centers. One-stop-shopping centers for victim services, legal aid, and social assistance, these centers are growing in popularity as a way of making services easier to access.

Abuse and Divorce

The options available to victims vary depending on the severity of the abuse and on their family and financial situation, but many are getting help and getting out of abusive relationships. In her 2001 study of abuse and divorce, Canadian sociologist JoAnn Kingston-Riechers found that as the severity of abuse increases, so too does the likelihood of divorce. Whereas 53% of divorced women had experienced one or more instances of abuse, she found only 14% of still-married women had, meaning that many abused women are leaving their partners.

Divorce is not the solution for everyone, but for some, it may be the best choice.

Kathy*, a stay-at-home mom, has been married to Jay* for ten years. They have a home in New Jersey and two children. Jay has been verbally and physically abusive for years and refuses to attend anger-management classes. Kathy has no independent source of income, but she wants out of the marriage.

Assuming that Kathy and the kids are not in life-threatening danger, her best option, agree Enis and Mari J. Frank, a professional mediator in Orange County, CA, may be a divorce. “In a situation where one party doesn’t have an income and will be dependent on spousal support, pressing criminal charges can hurt both parties,” says Enis. “A criminal record never helped anyone get a job.” Once saddled with a criminal record, the wage-earner may have problems keeping or getting a job that will provide adequate spousal support.

Beyond avoiding the potentially damaging/costly effects of a criminal suit, filing for divorce may reduce the risk of violence to the victim. A 1997 study by the U.S. Department of Justice said that women separated from their spouses had a victimization rate one-and-a-half times higher than separated men, divorced men, or divorced women. The fear, Frank says, is that because abuse has so much to do with control, a restraining order or a sudden departure will only provoke a greater sense of helplessness and anger in the abuser – anger that will ultimately be directed at the victim.

* All names and some details have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals who spoke with us for this article.

Can Mediation Help in Cases of Domestic Violence?

Mediation has become a common option for divorcing couples. In situations where abuse has occurred, however, many therapists and lawyers disagree over whether mediation is appropriate. Without an even playing field or trust bond between partners, Enis fears that the emphasis mediation puts on legitimizing both parties’ perspectives will only reinforce, if unintentionally, the patterns of abuse.

Feminist psychoanalyst Virginia Goldner disagrees. Her work at the Ackerman Family Institute in New York has led her to believe that the emphasis mediation places on personal responsibility can empower victims by forcing them to confront their own passivity.

According to Frank, there is a middle ground.

Bob* and Cassandra* were in the midst of a tumultuous divorce. Bob, who had previously been sober, had begun drinking again to deal with the stress. In an alcoholic rage, Bob hit Cassandra. Their house was for sale, but until it sold neither could afford to move out. With the help of a mediator, they were able to draw up a mutually-binding behavioral agreement that outlined limits for both. Under its terms, Bob was forced to return to A.A. and take anger-management classes. Cassandra went into therapy and made sure she took the kids out of the house on Saturdays. Thanks to their agreement, they were able to successfully continue living together without further incident until the sale of the house.

While not ideal, this type of situation is possible, says Frank. Given that neither party is in a life-threatening situation, a voluntary commitment can be more effective because it provides the abuser with a sense of control and can make custody battles easier.

Since 1994 most states have adopted the recommendations set out by the National Council of Juvenile and Family-Court Judges, who advise that custody be given to the non-abusive partner. Visitation rights can also be amended to include supervision and third-party facilitators, so that parents do not have to see each other. Co-parenting in instances where abuse has occurred is rare. “Moving divorced parents from conflict to collaboration is hard enough when partners trust each other,” says Irene Schatz, a co-parenting specialist from Miami, “but in a situation where one has been abused, it is almost impossible.”

* All names and some details have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals who spoke with us for this article.

Domestic Violence: No Class Distinctions

Susan Weitzman’s book Not to People like Us (Basic Books, 2000) is a study of domestic violence in upscale families. Abuse crosses all socio-economic boundaries, and Weitzman exposes the desperation and disbelief of affluent individuals trapped in abusive relationships, whose stately homes have become palatial prisons. If a well-heeled abused spouse does not have access to funds or people willing and able to help them, their situation is not so different from their blue-collar cousins’.

“For the majority of our clients, divorce is a luxury they can’t afford,” says Alice Cranker, a staff lawyer at Toronto’s Barbara Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which provides counseling, legal, and support services for abused women, many of whom are new to Canada. What is most urgent for many of these women, Cranker says, is establishing custody, child support, access schedules, and restraining orders. Many of the women the Clinic helps directly are either ineligible for legal aid or require specialized legal assistance directly related to the abuse issues.

“It’s very important for women who are fleeing from violence to hold onto some assets if they can,” says Cranker. “For example, a woman may have a little money invested in an education fund for her children. This money could be used to fund a lawyer, but it would cost her that safety net. Through our legal support, she would not have to liquidate this meager asset.”

Speaking out

“At first, the hardest thing is opening your mouth and talking about being abused,” says Steve. “But if somebody’s hurting you, it’s wrong – and against the law – and it doesn’t matter who they are: husband, wife, or parent.” He adds that victims often go to great lengths to try to make their abuser happy, hoping that the violence would stop if they could say and do exactly the right things. “But that doesn’t work because nothing you did caused this person to abuse you. Get help now, because abuse always escalates.”

Domestic Violence Quiz

Does your partner:

  1. Embarrass you with bad names and put-downs?
  2. Look at you or act in ways that scare you?
  3. Control what you do, who you see, or where you go?
  4. Shove you, slap you, or hit you?
  5. Blame you for provoking them or deny that the abuse took place?
  6. Tell you that you’re a bad parent or threaten to take away or hurt your children?
  7. Threaten to commit suicide?
  8. Destroy your property or threaten to kill your pets?

If you checked even one of these, you may be in an abusive relationship. If you do these things to your partner, you should get help immediately.

– Reprinted with permission from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

How to Help

Here are some tips on how to help a friend/family member who’s in an abusive relationship.

  1. Remind them it’s not their fault. You can never make someone else hurt you.
  2. Help them build a support system. Encourage them to call you regularly, to talk to someone at a crisis center and to their families.
  3. Help them develop a safety plan for both inside the house and for when they leave.
  4. Don’t blame or attack the abuser. It will confuse her/him and make them defensive.
  5. Be patient. Self-empowerment may take longer than you want. Go at the victim’s pace unless the danger is imminent.
  6. Educate them and yourself about what shelters, resources, and legal aid is available.

– Adapted with permission from the San Diego City Attorney’s Domestic Violence Unit website.


Finding help

In the U.S., call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE or (800) 787 3224 (TTY). Website: www.ndvh.org

In Canada, call the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence toll-free at (800) 267-1291. This is an information line only; check the pages on inside cover of your local telephone book for crisis line listings. Website: www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hppb/familyviolence. Canadian children can call the Kids Help Phone at (800) 668-6868.

css.php Skip to content