Domestic abuse is a topic rife with stigma. This terrible phenomenon is all too common. If you know 10 men, and 10 women, you will know (on average) 4 people who have been the victim of domestic violence. That statistic covers sexual and physical abuses, but does not include financial, emotional, or social abuses.
What this comes down to is simple. You know someone who is at risk, or who is (or was) the victim of domestic abuse. There is much to know, but here are the ten facts everyone needs to know. As I cover each point, I will recount the experience our family had between 1999 and 2006.
- The most basic strategy of an abuser is to remove their victims from their support network. This comes in multiple forms, including alienating family, convincing their victims that their families and friends don’t care about them, or even moving them to an isolated location. Dirk, my mother’s husband, moved us to a tiny town in Arkansas. I still don’t know why my mother assented, but we were suddenly 250 miles from everyone we had ever known. We had nobody to talk to, nobody to trust.
- Abusers are jealous and possessive of their victims. This jealousy quickly results in a lack of friends for their victims, as the abuser “protects” their victim by keeping them from forming meaningful relationships. This can also include requiring the victim to share internet passwords, or inspecting their texts to prevent their victim from finding help. Dirk constantly accused my mother of trying to cheat on him. He made her feel guilty every time she talked to someone new. He trained her to feel ashamed to talk to people in the grocery or to participate in school functions.
- Related to the previous point is criticism and humiliation. The abuser insults and humiliates their victim(s) in order to feel justified in their behavior, and to make their victims feel like they deserve the abusive treatment. Dirk often called us “greasy headed punks” or “nasty insects” and reinforced this by restricting our access to basic hygiene care. We always had soap, but often didn’t have toothpaste, shampoo, or even laundry detergent. He convinced my mother that she was stupid, and that her lack of friends was a failing on her part.
- Abusers will often destroy the property of their victims. When Dirk moved us to Arkansas, he inspected our things as we packed. He took art, toys, dishes, clothes, furniture, and other possessions, and destroyed them as “garbage” or forced us to leave them behind as “useless” and “excessive.” By the time we made it to our new “home”, we had a fraction of our possessions. It later came out that he had also taken photo albums, and other memorabilia out of the truck after we were done packing, and threw them away.
- Abusers also restrict access to basic amenities including money and transportation. At one point, my mother got a job behind Dirk’s back by riding the school bus to our school, and working at the cafeteria. This didn’t last a terribly long time. Dirk began “needing” an assistant, and forced my mother to work for him so he wouldn’t have to “spend the family’s money” paying a trained assistant. She worked for him for five years, with only a couple of breaks where she got jobs, and then lost them because of his abuse. He’d refuse to take her after assuring her that he would, forcing her to be late for work.
- Abusers are masters of denial. It’s the thing they do best. They blame others for their abusive behavior, and are quite good at lying to themselves, as well. Dirk would tell my mother that she wasn’t abused, and that she was spoiled by being a stay-at-home mom when she wasn’t working. He blamed us kids for being sick, insisting that our “dirty habits” were to blame, rather than our moldy and collapsing home.
- Abusers also use children and animals as leverage. Threats to children’s safety, health, education, and diet are very effective at keeping an abused spouse under control. No parent with a healthy relationship with their children wants them to suffer. They will do anything to protect their children, often without realizing that their own behavior is reinforcing the problems. My mother’s slight control slipped away as she focused more and more on protecting the youngest children, resulting in the elder kids’ direct abuse. Dirk also used threats of separation of the children to keep us protecting him from discovery. He used our desire to remain with our family to keep us attached to him.
- Abusers also seed the relationship with hope. Making the victim believe there is a chance for change, acceptance, love, and forgiveness is a powerful tool. Often, abusive partners will propose marriage, or plan an extravagant vacation. These “honeymoon moments” seed the relationship with enough hope to string the victim further down their path. After learning that my grandmother was going to visit, Dirk convinced my mother to marry him by convincing her she’d better do it before her mother died. When her mother came, he insisted on them getting married right away, and we had an impromptu wedding. My mother hadn’t ever been married before, and she mistook this situation as a sign of change, rather than a new shackle.
- Addiction is a devastating factor in any life. When an abuser introduces a partner to addiction, they guarantee an extra layer of dependence. Dirk hooked my mother on meth, and then forced her to keep it a secret. He convinced her that she’d never be able to live clean, and then made sure she could only get the drug through him by making connections and buying when she wasn’t there. He used strategies listed above to keep her from considering options for getting clean, and getting her kids out of the situation.
- Finally, sexual abuse is a devastating part of any abusive situation. As I got older, I started noticing a heartbreaking behavior my mother used to keep men attached to her. She would get pregnant on purpose. She lied about birth control, focused on an active sex life, and used sex to placate her men. Each time she had a new child, she gained a permanent link to her partner. Thankfully, she had a tubal ligation surgery, in order to prevent future pregnancies, but her other sexual behaviors continued. Other forms of sexual abuse in a relationship include rape, forced abortion, forced participation in watching or making pornography, and intentionally introducing STDs.
A bonus point in that, as you can see, is that abuse can go both ways. Many abusive partners do not realize they have begun abusing their partner. Others reciprocate in kind. They return the abuse, ensuring a continuation of the abuse cycle.
If you think (or know) someone needs your help, please reach out. Contact the hotline below to secure help for men, women, children, and individuals with disabilities.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline:
Advocates are available 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) in over 170 languages. All calls are confidential and anonymous.
Deaf services: Contact 24/7 at 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) or use Instant Messenger (DeafHotline) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.