DOMESTIC ABUSE - an overview
What is Domestic Abuse?
Domestic abuse or domestic violence is the term used to describe any abusive behaviour within an intimate relationship between two people. Generally, people will first think of physical violence, such as hitting, beating and slapping, but domestic abuse also covers emotional, mental, verbal, sexual and financial behaviours perpetrated by one person on another within an intimate relationship. Abusive behaviour is used to exert control within a relationship.
Very rarely is one form of domestic abuse found by itself. Generally where one form of abuse exists, it is within the context of other forms of abuse. Hence a perpetrator of physical violence will also subject his victim to emotional and verbal abuse. Abuse rarely stays the same, but usually increases both in severity and frequency over a period of time.
In severe cases, domestic violence can lead to the victim of abuse being killed by the abuser. In other cases, the constant emotional and verbal abuse can slowly erode the victim’s self-confidence and self-esteem. While physical abuse can, and often does, cause serious physical harm, often requiring medical intervention, emotional abuse hurts us deep inside and can leave permanent psychological and emotional scars.
Many people experience abuse within the so-called cycle of abuse or cycle of violence, in which periods of comparative calm or peace (known as the ‘honeymoon stage’) will be followed by a build-up toward an abusive episode. Though it may appear as though these periods of apparent calm are non-abusive, they are in actual fact simply part of a manipulative cycle, in which the abuser feels in control of their partner and situation, may show repentance for pain caused, even promise to change. Often it is these periods of apparent calm, which give the victim of abuse the hope that change can be achieved, and the abuse will stop, and keeps them locked in the abusive relationship.
The victim of abuse
Domestic abuse affects people from all social, racial and financial backgrounds.
It affects men and women, old and young, heterosexual couples and homosexual
couples alike. It may start almost immediately, or only after several
years of being in a relationship. Though both victims and perpetrators
of abuse come from all backgrounds, the shock, pain, confusion, feelings
of guilt and betrayal of trust experienced as a result of being subject
to domestic violence is common to all.
Above all, it needs stressing that the victim of abuse is not responsible for the abuse and violence, but is being manipulated and coerced by the perpetrator.
Some long-term effects of abuse
While it seems obvious that physical violence can result in long-term effects and even disability (if not death), the consequences of suffering ongoing emotional abuse are often overlooked or minimised. As stated earlier on, emotional abuse can affect us deep inside and leave permanent emotional and psychological scars. Those who have been abused often experience long-term feelings and reactions, which can cause a lot of distress, including flashbacks, sudden feelings of anxiety, an inability to concentrate or feelings of unreality. These reactions and feelings are a normal reaction to a traumatic event and in their extreme form – especially where accompanied by depression and suicidal ideation – be considered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which requires medical assistance and support.
Even where the abuse does not have physical long-term effects or result in PTSD, the survivor of an abusive relationship will often suffer low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. Survivors commonly comment on feeling somehow ‘different’ to their peers, as though their experiences have in some way set them apart from the rest of society. Due to the controlling aspects of an abusive relationship, the survivors may find it difficult to make personal decisions and easily feel overwhelmed by everyday tasks. Throughout the abusive relationship, the victim of abuse will use various different coping mechanisms to survive emotionally and physically which are a necessary strategy while in such a situation, but can be debilitating in a non-abusive environment, and these have to be unlearned. Since abuse and violence within an intimate relationship are also a huge betrayal of trust, the survivor of abuse will often also have difficulty learning to trust someone else and open up emotionally for fear of being betrayed again.
Why are some people abusive?
It would be nice to know that all abuser walk around with a big A for 'abuser' on their forehead, are easily discernable by anyone 'normal' and always comply with the stereotypical image so often portrayed in the media. In actual fact one of the main problems encountered by victims, friends, family and various agencies dealing with the consequences of an abusive relationship, is how 'normal' the abuser seemed. Many victims of abuse comment on how their partner is like a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ – seems fine and lovely one moment or in public, but presents a completely different personality in private or at a different time. Often the victim of abuse will spend hours trying to work out what is causing the abuse, what makes their partner abusive.
Some people believe that abuse is only a case of bad anger management on the part of the perpetrator, and no doubt in some cases the abuser does have a problem dealing with anger in a non-destructive manner, but on the whole the reasons or causes of abuse are much more deep-rooted and complicated than a problem with anger or bad moods. There are various theories which try to explain why abuse takes place, including the theory that abuse is due to our living in a patriarchal society in which men perceive themselves as having a born right to control women and believe them to be their inferiors. This however, does not explain why abuse should occur within homosexual relationships, nor why in some cases it is the woman who is abusive toward her male partner. Another theory holds that abuse is a learned behaviour, i.e. that children who witness abuse at an early stage, will automatically go on to be abusive themselves, and while this does hold true for some perpetrators, the majority of abused children do not go on to abuse their partners in adulthood, nor does it explain why some adults from apparently non-abusive homes should carry on to become abusive themselves.
What is clear is that most abusers do not have feelings of either good self-esteem or self-worth themselves and feel the need to control their environment to feel in control (safe and secure) themselves. Where their attempts to control another person are successful, this abusive behaviour and belief in the ability to control their environment is increased – hence the chances of them changing is theoretically decreased the longer the abusive relationship continues.
In some cases abusive behaviour can be the result of mental illness, for instance someone suffering from schizophrenia may be violent toward their loved ones or destroy their belongings. Someone suffering from a dissociative disorder (DID) may also act out in a violent manner or be emotionally abusive. While the effects on the victim can be equally damaging or lethal, this abuse has to be considered within the context of the illness rather than specifically within the context of an abusive relationship as such.
Is it possible to spot a potential abuser?
While not all abusers act in the same way, it is sometimes possible to predict the likelihood of the person you are currently or are about to become involved with being abusive, since many, if not most, display some common tendencies. These may include excessive jealousy, controlling behaviour (often disguised or excused as concern), quick involvement and pressuring their boy/girlfriend to commit to them early on. They may have unrealistic expectations from either their partner or the relationship itself, may try to isolate their partner from family, friends or other social interactions, and are often hyper-sensitive, getting easily hurt or offended. Very rarely will an abusive person accept responsibility for any negative situation or problem, but will tend to shift the responsibility onto other people or situations in general. In a similar way, abusers will shift the blame/cause of their feelings outside of themselves, seeing their emotions as a reaction to other people or situations rather than stemming from themselves.
Other warning signs may include cruelty toward animals and/or children, the ‘playful’ use of force in sex, threats of violence or punishment, a belief in rigid stereotypical gender roles in a relationship, force used during an argument, and breaking or smashing objects.
While these potential warning signs may be helpful, the best defence against ending up as a victim of abuse may be to maintain a strong sense of self and ones’ personal boundaries, while at the same time realising that if one does find oneself in an abusive relationship, it is not ones’ own fault, and there is help available to escape.
How to help a friend experiencing abuse
If a friend confides in you that they are experiencing abuse, there are various ways in which you can help them. Here are a few suggestions:
|© Lindsey Mason 2004
This page was last updated September 2004