An Introduction to Abusive Relationships
BY ANITA MARTIN
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reports that one in three American women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in her lifetime. However, women are not the sole victims of relationship violence. One in seven men will also experience a form of intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. A woman’s first exposure to violence often occurs in childhood as either physical or sexual assault. In fact, sixty-nine percent of female victims first encountered relationship violence prior to age twenty-five. For adolescent girls, dating violence silently reinforces early experiences of abuse. By the time some young women enter adulthood, intimate partner violence has been endured repeatedly and often without intervention. As multiple assaults occur, a cycle of violence is established and a false belief that victimization is deserved may take root.
Abusive relationships have many faces, but relationship violence is never acceptable or warranted. A relationship may be emotionally violent, but not physically so. However, a relationship that is physically abusive is maintained by repetitive emotional violence. Those who have shared their stories reflect that the physical wounds usually disappear, but the emotional scars do not. The very nature of emotional abuse is that it becomes embedded with the victim’s identity, his or her beliefs, and perceived self-value. Emotional wounds leave behind a relentless history of devaluation, worthlessness, and guilt. Physically abusive relationships enforce emotionally violent messages. It is these beliefs that must be deconstructed. Ultimately, deep healing begins when the emotional messages are untangled, challenged, and truth is realized.
In casual conversation about abusive relationships, I’m often asked why victims stay. There are no easy answers. For many victims, leaving is the more precarious option. Why? The most dangerous time for an abused woman is when she leaves. The complexity is magnified when she is faced with difficult choices. Her children need a home, but she lives with her abuser. She wants to work, but is lacking marketable skills and her partner refuses to allow it. She has no transportation. He controls the money. Her family believes he is wonderful. He’s threatened to kill her. She doesn’t know how to stay safe and protect her children. These are the realities that victimized women face. The long term consequences of abusive relationships are significant. And, sustained recovery requires substantial financial, medical, social, and mental health resources.
Domestic violence happens daily to our mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, and friends. It happens to our fathers, uncles, brothers, and sons. None of us is untouched by abusive relationships. Every day, the news brings stories of suffering from all over the world, but people with whom we cross paths at work, the grocery story, the mall, and at restaurants may be living with the realities of a violent partnership. While progress has been made, more education, discussion, and problem-solving remains. Wherever you are this October, have a conversation about these unhealthy relationships. In doing so, you may be a lifeline to someone existing under the silence and shame of abuse.