Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day: a day for honoring sweethearts with expressions of true love. It’s also the day of One Billion Rising, a worldwide movement to end all forms of violence against women, recognizing that one in three women on our planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime, and usually by someone she knows. It’s inconceivable that two polar-opposite ways of treating women – assaulting and honoring – should fall on the same day. Or is it?
What’s the core factor that changes a Valentine sweetheart into a victim of intimate partner violence? The abuse of power and control. It extends well beyond physical and sexual abuse: words, money, technology, religion – anything can become a weapon in the hands of an abuser. He may call her names and threaten to destroy her/hunt her down/take the children away if she leaves. He may slowly, insidiously take control of all of the joint assets. If he is technologically savvy, he may install spyware on all of her electronic devices. Slowly but surely, her sense of autonomy, safety, confidence and freedom will get worn away; and no matter how nice it looks on the outside, her home, which should be her sanctuary, turns into a cage.
The MeToo and TimesUp hashtags have been trending lately with the sexual harassment and assault revelations of various movie moguls and celebrities. Time magazine proclaimed the “Silence Breakers” of the “Me Too” movement, who spoke out about sexual violence and harassment, as its Person of the Year. Time’s Up is a call for change by women in entertainment to improve laws, wages, employment agreements and corporate policies for women everywhere – from boardrooms to movie sets, farms and factories.
Even children – the most vulnerable segment of our society when it comes to abuse of trust and power, the ultimate hidden victims of abuse – are breaking the silence, announcing the atrocities committed against them by trusted medical professional Larry Nassar, the physician for the U.S. Olympic gymnasts.
Women of all ages, races and occupations across the country are rising up, gathering together in a tidal wave of rebellion to hold predators accountable.
What do these movements have in common with the domestic violence movement? They all arose in response to that same core factor: the abuse of power to induce fear, shame, silence, secrecy and ultimately submission. And whether it happens at home or in the workplace, it’s a form of oppression.
For those experiencing domestic violence, this form of oppression is dangerous and often life-threatening. This kind of threatening, frightening behavior is so different from the man who won her heart – the man who, in the beginning, made every day feel like Valentine’s Day. Now it seems little more than a mask he wore for the outside world – pleasant, accomplished, charming – revealing a much darker, more threatening side at home, behind closed doors. The outside world would never believe what he does to her – and that’s what he tells her: “Nobody will believe you.” “You’re crazy.” “I didn’t trip you, you fell.” “Never happened.” “Never said it.”
When this is all she hears, she can begin to doubt her own sanity, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder – a common consequence of chronic abuse – begin to emerge.
Slowly she begins to realize that she fell in love with Dr. Jekyll and then met Mr. Hyde.
The abuse survivor can only take effective action to permanently leave after she is able to give up the dream that she has the power to change him. She is not responsible for his behavior – he is. And when she decides to leave, it takes courage, a thoughtfully considered exit plan, thorough safety planning and typically a lot of help from a domestic violence program, skilled attorney, support group – her own army of allies. As hard as it is to live with an abuser, it’s almost impossible to leave without outside support.
The TV series “Big Little Lies” tells the story of domestic violence in a very affluent community. In our own community, there are real-life variations of that story unfolding every day – women like Nicole Kidman’s character, struggling to find a way to break free from their own gilded cage.
On Valentine’s Day, will you take a moment to hug the partner who holds you tight and makes you feel safe, cherished, respected, honored – the hallmarks of true love?
Can you take a moment to consider those women who are trapped in a different kind of relationship?
Leaving an abuser is a most dangerous time, one when most acts of domestic violence occur. Why? Because he is losing control and will often do whatever it takes to reclaim it. If there are children, and they end up with shared custody, he may hurt them to hurt her.
So please don’t judge her. Domestic violence can happen to anyone, in any neighborhood, any profession. Be kind. Show her compassion, understanding, support – and love.