This is the first in a five-part series on the effects of domestic violence.
Separating from an abuser is a process, not an event.
It happens in stages and can take many months, even years, to accomplish. Without adequate planning, the survivor may end up back with her abuser, without her children, penniless, homeless or dead. Although thorough safety planning can mitigate the risk, it is always dangerous to leave an abuser, and usually even more dangerous to return. Each time she goes back, the abuse typically gets worse.
There is hope and help if she decides to get out. There is freedom on the other side – but not without cost, not without risk. Because 85-95% of domestic violence victims are female, I will use “she” for victim and “he” for perpetrator in my columns, but it’s important to acknowledge that women can be perpetrators and men can be victims.
One in three women and one in four men will be a victim of abuse in their lifetime. If it hasn’t happened to you, it has happened to someone you know. Come along with me in the next few columns over the next few weeks as we explore the milestones a survivor passes on her own pathway to freedom.
The cycle of abuse
Domestic abuse survivors typically meet their abusive partner during the honeymoon/hearts-and-flowers phase of their relationship, when he is on his best behavior. What’s not to love at this stage? He is saying everything she wants to hear, seems sensitive, compassionate, caring and truly committed to building an intimate partnership.
Then once she has “fallen,” demonstrated total commitment and some instances of vulnerability, given up some of her autonomy (through moving away from friends and family to follow his career, giving up her job or staying at home to raise the children), the mask begins to slip.
She may begin to feel like she is walking on eggshells. Sometimes the most innocent remark is taken the wrong way, misinterpreted. If she dares to tell him that something he has done has hurt her or upset her, he will turn it back on her – she’s too sensitive, he didn’t say that, he would never do that, she’s the one causing the problem. She ends up apologizing or losing her temper or shutting down without really knowing why and walks away feeling confused, troubled, alone. Sometimes he goes back to being the man she fell in love with, which keeps hope alive, and so she forgives and tries again.
This type of partner typically doesn’t do self-reflection, feel empathy or remorse and is very good at blaming others, very good at playing the victim. Sometimes he even seems to almost enjoy causing pain or fear to the very people he should be protecting the most – his family. He is a master manipulator, consummate salesman. He lies easily and often, even when he doesn’t need to. He tells people what he wants them to hear to get what he needs. Attention, sex, money, status, revenge – these are his core values. That’s why therapy typically doesn’t work for this type of abuser, who is also often very successful, well respected, highly influential. He has too much invested in being right and maintaining his image, as well as the status quo.
For our survivor, the interval between becoming dimly aware that something is wrong and stepping onto the pathway to freedom can last for months, years, decades even. There are many milestones along the way. And it is not a linear path – she may move back and forth along the way several times before making her final escape. As long as he doesn’t find out, each step is reversible – up until she serves him with divorce or restraining-order papers, as long as he doesn’t find out. Because you don’t leave an abuser.
In part 2 of the series, Patrick will explore abusers’ attempts to oppress.