“My abuser threatened to hurt me if I left or if I told anyone I was being abused,” said "Karen," a domestic violence survivor whose real name was not used to protect her identity. “I believed the threats that I received, and lived in fear that another family member would be harmed if I left. I felt powerless in my life, and leaving didn’t seem to be an option or even possible. I didn’t overlook what was happening and I wasn’t in denial that it would never happen again, but I hoped and wished it would get better.”
Domestic violence is a complex and multilayered issue impacting every social class, religion, ethnic group and age group. In the United States, statistics show 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men will experience domestic violence at some point in their lifetime, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control. Abuse can be verbal, sexual, physical, emotional, mental and/or financial.
To better understand, let’s take a look at the patterns of behaviors and strategies that an abuser will use to gain total control over another person (including children and family members). Most often they include imposing fear, guilt, minimization, blaming, feelings of shame, financial restrictions, isolation, and intimidation. More often than not, abusers threaten to hurt their victims in some way. This threat can include hurting other family members or even a pet.
Click here for a visual example created by survivors of domestic violence of behaviors used by their abusers.
Anxiety, numbness, embarrassment, hopelessness, nightmares, inability to concentrate, low self-esteem, depression, anger, withdrawal from friends and family, unexplained injuries (bruises, burns, broken bones, scratches, etc.), social isolation, and major unexplained changes in behavior or personality are symptoms of domestic violence.
Domestic violence victims often accept blame for the behaviors and violent actions inflicted upon them by their abuser and will often alter their behavior and actions in order to please that person. Victims tend to believe that if they follow certain rules and make sure the abuser is happy, they can prevent being hurt; it rarely works. Domestic violence is about power and control and is a learned behavior. Abuse is the result of a deliberate choice of the abuser, and not the victim.
“Abuse is hard to understand when you haven't been through it yourself,” Karen said. “It changes how you think, how you feel and it consumes you. I was terrified to leave. Even when I finally escaped, I didn’t know how I was going to live without this person in my life.”
Many people have difficulty understanding why individuals stay in violent relationships and ask “Why stay if someone treats you abusively?” Unfortunately, there are many reasons why someone stays with an abusive partner. Here are a few of the most common:
- For the sanctity of marriage and the family.
- Limited financial options or housing.
- Fear or love.
- Believing the threats to harm.
- Religious or cultural reasons.
- Lack of supportive relationships.
- Self-blame; denial.
- Believing the abuser will change.
- Sometimes it is difficult for individuals to even recognize that emotional or psychological violence is occurring.
“When considering the decision as to whether to leave or to stay, there is no substitute for discussing the situation with a trained professional like you can find at the San Diego Domestic Violence Hotline. This also applies to well-meaning friends and family of the victim,” said Robert Martin, chairman of the Operation for HOPE Foundation board.
You can help by showing your concern, being a good listener and encouraging the victim to talk with a victim’s advocate. An advocate can help create and develop a safety plan to fully consider the victim’s safety issues, understand the legal ramifications, and identify community resources (e.g., shelters, health services, sources of financial and legal assistance).
If someone is in immediate danger, call 911.
Some other ways to get help include:
- San Diego Domestic Violence Hotline at 888-DV LINKS (1-888-385-4657)
- National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 (SAFE).
- National Dating Abuse Helpline at 866-331-9474