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In the beginning, I was so young and he was attentive. He said I was smart, funny, pretty and he made me feel special. It was only after we were married that the angry words, shaming and verbal tearing apart started. Next, he became easily angered and physically abusive. He would say I deserved it, that it was my fault… I would lie awake at night crying silently. Finally, one night as he was choking me, I broke free and ran out of the apartment, got into my car and left. I decided to never again live with that kind of violence and never again to be silent.
Two words, one big concept – domestic violence. Domestic violence is any kind of behavior that a person uses to control an intimate partner through fear and intimidation. It includes physical, sexual, psychological, verbal and economic abuse. Domestic violence is an epidemic affecting individuals in every community, regardless of age, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality.
Younger, unmarried women are at greatest risk of domestic violence. According to a U.S. government survey, 53 percent of victims were abused by a current or former boyfriend or girlfriend. One- third of all victims were abused by a spouse, while 14 percent said that the offender was an ex-spouse. Women ages 16 to 24 are nearly three times as vulnerable to attacks by intimate partners as those in other age groups; abuse victims between the ages of 35 and 49 run the highest risk of being killed.
Domestic violence in the military is a well-kept secret. Many military families live on one income; the only source of financial security for the family is the active duty service member. Due to concerns about promotion and advancement, spouses are reluctant to confide in someone as it might ruin the career of the military member causing more drama and abuse at home.
Domestic violence can manifest in many ways. Physical and sexual assaults, or threats to commit them, are the most apparent forms of domestic violence. But regular uses of other abusive behaviors by the abuser, when reinforced by one or more acts of physical violence, make up a larger scope of abuse. Although physical assaults may occur only occasionally, they instill fear of future violent attacks and allow the abuser to control the victims’ life and circumstances. A lack of physical violence doesn’t mean the abuser is any less dangerous to the victim, nor does it mean the victim is any less trapped. Emotional and psychological abuse can often be just as extreme as physical violence.
Violence against women in the home has serious repercussions for children. Over 50 percent of men who abuse their wives also beat their children. Children who grow up in violent homes are more likely to develop alcohol and drug addictions and to become abusers themselves. The stage is set for a cycle of violence that may continue from generation to generation.
Some who suffer from domestic violence are also victims of stalking, which includes following a person, making harassing phone calls and vandalizing property. Eight percent of women in the United States have been stalked at some time in their lives, and more than one million are stalked annually. Stalking is a unique crime because stalkers are obsessed with controlling their victims’ actions and feelings. A victim can experience extreme stress, rage, depression and an inability to trust anyone.
Domestic violence is shrouded in silence. People outside the family hesitate to interfere even when they suspect abuse is occurring. Many times, out of loyalty to the abuser and to protect the image of the family, even extended family members deny that abuse exists. Yet abuse and assault are no less serious when they occur within a family, you only have to pick up a local newspaper to read about the loss of lives due to domestic violence. Even when domestic violence is reported, sometimes there are tragic failures to protect victims adequately or to punish perpetrators.
Domestic violence is learned behavior. Men who are abusive believe they have a right to use violence; they have a right to use power and control in their intimate relationships. Abusive men come from all socioeconomic classes, races, religions and occupations. The abuser may be a “good provider” and a respected member at his work, in his church and community. While there is no one type, men who abuse share some common characteristics. They tend to be extremely possessive and easily angered. A man may fly into a rage because his spouse calls her family or friends too often. Or because she didn’t iron his shirt the way he wants it to be done. Many try to isolate their partners by limiting their contact with family and friends.
Abusive men often blame their abusive behavior on someone or something other than themselves. They deny the abuse is happening or minimize it. Often abusive men view women as inferior. Their conversation and language reveal their attitude toward a woman’s place in society. Alcohol and drugs may be associated with domestic violence, but they don’t cause it. They are two separate problems that must be treated.
So why do women stay with their abuser…fear. Some fear they will lose their children or that they will not be able to provide for themselves, let alone care for their children. When the violence first starts, many women believe their abuser when he apologizes and promises it will never happen again. But then it does. The women are told they are at fault and if they acted differently the abuse would stop. They are ashamed to admit that the abuse is occurring. Some women may not view the criminal justice system as a source of help. Immigrant women often lack familiarity with the language and legal systems of this country and may be threatened with deportation by their abuser. Women living in rural communities or in areas where public transportation may be inaccessible may have few resources available to them. Isolation imposed by lack of transportation and lack of financial resources often make it difficult for women to access information about domestic violence and assistance.
Ultimately, abused women must make their own decision about staying or leaving. Some abused women run the risk of being killed when they leave their abuser or seek help from the legal system. If a woman decides to leave, she needs a safety plan, including the names and phone numbers of shelters and programs. The National Domestic Violence 24 Hour Hotline is a free and confidential resource for those in an abusive relationship or family or friends who love and care about their health and safety. Hotline services include: crisis intervention, safety planning, information about domestic violence and referrals to local service providers, direct connection to domestic violence resources available in the caller’s area provided by a hotline advocate, including local military Family Advocacy Programs and domestic abuse advocates and assistance in more than 140 different languages.
I know it can be difficult to know when or how to reach out for help regarding a partner’s controlling or abusive behavior. Remember, speaking to someone about problems in your relationship doesn’t require you to make any immediate or significant decisions. It is a small step toward a better tomorrow, where you have the opportunity to feel safe and fulfilled, either in your relationship or outside of it.
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