The story took my breath away: While voting in favor of not increasing the penalty for domestic violence, which causes many thousands of injuries and deaths annually, Mark Warden, a Republican New Hampshire state representative, remarked that "Some people could make the argument that a lot of people like being in abusive relationships. It's a love-hate relationship....People are always free to leave."
The truth about abusive relationships is much more complicated.
But one thing is certain: no one likes being abused.
So how and why do people get caught in abusive relationships that they find so hard to leave?
There are a number of reasons.
It isn't always easy to anticipate or to recognize abuse: It's pretty clear that there is abuse when there are physical bruises, broken bones, knocked out teeth.
More often, however, abuse can be chronic and low-level -- a shove here, a slap there, tears, apologies and then the cycle repeated.
Sometimes the abuse is emotional and perhaps so subtle, yet so pervasive, the spouse can't link her growing feelings of worthlessness and depression to abuse. This is when seemingly minor criticisms, inattention, disrespect, sharp contradictions, dismissive words and gestures, disinterest, discounting, isolation and possessiveness can all add up to the crushing of a spirit.
The emotional abuser may withhold affection or attention, pouting or maintaining an angry silence for hours or days at a time. He (or she) may slowly, but steadily, isolate the victim from family and friends, discouraging visits and phone calls, reading and criticizing emails and texts. The abuser may humiliate the victim -- making fun of him or her, constantly criticizing and correcting, controlling with threatening or contemptuous looks, gestures or body language. Abusers often blame their victims for their own setbacks or unhappiness.
It isn't always easy to recognize abuse in these behaviors, especially when it all starts slowly and builds momentum. The victim, particularly when blamed, may try desperately to please or to soothe the abuser. And when the abusive behavior occurs in an endless cycle, despair and hope are so intimately entwined. Following abuse, the abuser often expresses feelings of love and remorse. He promises that life will be different. Then tensions rise and the abuse occurs again. But the hope that grows during the times in between abuse can keep the victim from seeking help or making life changes.
Escaping abuse isn't as simple as walking out the door.
Sometimes, the abuser has so battered the victim's self-esteem and initiative with fists or with words, that he or she feels powerless to change. And if someone has been controlled over time, she may lack the financial or emotional resources to leave and start over.
Sometimes, a battered spouse is fearful of the violence escalating if she tries to leave -- a realistic fear in many cases. Studies have shown that the time of greatest peril for a victim of abuse is during and just after leaving the abuser.
Abuse of any kind-- physical and emotional -- can lead to hopelessness, fear and inertia. The abused spouse walks on eggshells to avoid further violence, either physical or verbal.
Sometimes a moment of truth comes when the focus shifts: one former patient of mine said that she found the energy to leave her husband when a friend asked her how she would react if, instead of beating her, her husband were beating their 5-year-old daughter. The friend then asked how she felt the violence at home was affecting her daughter. "I couldn't seem to stand up for myself," she told me. "But I felt I had to protect my daughter!"
Abuse can be devastating, even when it doesn't leave visible bruises.
Although physical abuse is what most often comes to mind when one thinks of domestic abuse, verbal/emotional abuse is much more pervasive. It is more subtle than physical abuse, but can have devastating results. It is, in a very real sense, a form of brain-washing that causes a person's sense of self-worth to disintegrate.
. Abuse can be cyclical -- with phases of hope and reconciliation. From a distance, such hope looks like delusional, wishful thinking. Up close, it can be like sunshine after a storm.
. Abuse can be emotionally disabling: It saps hope and confidence. It can put one in a financially and physically vulnerable position that makes escape seem impossible.
. Abuse can be isolating. One aspect of abuse is to isolate the victim from family and friends and make the person feel even more alone, more hopeless and less inclined to reach out -- because she feels that no one is there for her and that she has no options but staying put.
. Abuse can cause tunnel vision: the focus is on the needs and wishes of the abuser. The victim may feel guilt over the thought of leaving him or her, putting herself last, believing the abusive blaming comments that are hurled her way.
What can you do when someone close to you is feeling trapped and abused?
1. Offer an empathetic ear and emotional support, even if your friend seems resistant to change.
The first step toward positive change is not running out the door but recognizing that what is happening is abuse.
It can help to reassure the victim that she is loved and valued and that she doesn't deserve to be treated abusively.
It can help to suggest supportive counseling (and help her find low-cost or no cost services).
It can also help to offer respite: an hour, a day, a weekend in a setting where she is treated with love and respect. Such respite can help to heal a crushed spirit enough to imagine that life could be different.
It's also important to encourage your friend to put herself first. This can mean refusing to engage the abuser by begging, arguing back or apologizing. It can also mean stating firmly that she will not be treated with such disrespect and to walk away. She needs to hear over and over that she is not to blame, that she doesn't deserve the abuse, that her life can be better.
2. Explore ways of escape and encourage a step-by-step process (unless there is an immediate threat to her life). It's important to know that the time of leaving and separation can be the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship. She may need to go to a safe home/shelter where the abuser wouldn't know to look. In the meantime, she can prepare quietly for escape: gathering essential items in one place, saving up cash, having a packed suitcase hidden in the home or car or at a friend's house, keeping the gas tank filled and/or the cell phone charged, having numbers at hand to call for help.
3.Understand that simply saying to a friend "So get out! Leave him!" may be asking too much, too soon, and making your friend feel judged. Be supportive of emotional realizations, baby steps toward freedom and new resolve after backsliding. A pattern of abuse that has taken place over a long period of time has an impact on the victim that can be slow to change. A victim may leave her abuser, only to return -- once, twice, many times -- when he promises to change.
Do abusers ever change? Only if they deeply desire to do so and engage in intensive therapy to discover and deal with the difficult issues from their own past that are leading to the abusive behavior. Some abusers have personality disorders that are deep-seated and hard to treat. The abuser has to want to change his abusive behavior, not just to change the consequences of that behavior -- e.g. being left by a spouse. It may take some time before the victim recognizes that the abuser may not be willing or able to change and that the only way to make a positive difference in her own life (and the lives of her children) is to leave.
It's so important that we make an effort to understand the complicated nature of leaving an abusive relationship. One friend told me 25 years ago that "I'm going to die if I don't get out of this relationship" yet was unable emotionally and financially to escape until three years ago after two previous unsuccessful attempts to leave.
4. Know that your friend is trying to make a decision about a major life change under a great deal of stress and with diminished reserves. This may take time to accomplish. On one level, people are free to leave. On another level, it isn't that simple.
We need to learn how to support friends and family facing abuse in ways that are truly helpful to them. We need to understand the price they may pay for leaving -- and for staying put. We need to understand the heartbreak of hopes dashed, of love turned ugly, of the fears and dreams of new beginnings.
Sometimes a new beginning is quite literally a lifesaver. And sometimes it comes too late.
Personally, painfully, I know this well -- which is why a chill ran through me when I read the New Hampshire representative's words "People like being in abusive relationships.....They're always free to leave."
My father never hit my mother. But he maimed her spirit with emotional abuse throughout their 38-year marriage. She dreamed so often of how life might be if she could leave and start anew. But she always put others first: she worried about his health and that he couldn't manage without her and worried that her children would suffer in a divorce, even though we begged her -- from our childhood on -- to leave. As time went on and his health worsened, she quietly began to hope for a better life after his death.
Her new beginning came suddenly when our father had a heart attack one hot July afternoon in 1980. But by that time, our mother's spirit was too crushed to enjoy her new freedom. She died of a heart attack four months to the day after he died.
One moment still stands out from the days of grief that followed: Aunt Evelyn, my mother's closest sister and her life-long best friend, squeezed my hand as she looked down with anguish at my mother in her coffin. Her voice low and uncharacteristically harsh, she said, to no one in particular, "He killed her. He killed her as surely as if he had put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger."
And, sadly, she was right.
I gave Aunt Evelyn's hand a squeeze in return. "I know," I said, as tears glistened in our eyes. "I know."