Victims of Abuse

I've been meaning to write a piece on this topic for a while, but, like most ideas I have, it's been repeatedly pushed aside to make room for everyday concerns. However, when stopped and really thought about it, I realized two things. The first of these was how lucky I truly am that "everyday concerns" can distract me from issues of domestic violence. For some people, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse IS an "everyday concern". This realization was followed by another, that I should make the writing of this essay a priority. I firmly believe that any individual can make a difference in their community, even by the simple act of speaking out. If this note makes any of its readers think about abuse, or question their own assumptions about it, then I will have accomplished my goal.

Imagine, if you will, that you are dating someone who seems perfect. The qualities of this individual vary - perhaps he or she is very intelligent, or funny, or charming. No matter their individual attributes, one quality stands out - that he or she seems completely devoted to you. You are, so they say, the only person they've felt this way about. Perhaps they say that you're their only true friend, you're the only one who understands them, you're the only one they can trust. They seem interested in where you are, what you do, and who you spend time with. This may be rather flattering - after all, who doesn't want to date someone who gives them a lot of attention?

Now imagine this person starts to put you down. He or she won't immediately start throwing insults like hand grenades, nor will they cackle in delight at the sight of your hurt. No, they will slip it in casually, sometimes in the form of a joke. This way, if you protest, they can blame it on you taking things too seriously. The abuser knows that he or she can't go for a big effect, at least not right away. You've probably heard enough about abuse from various sources (health class, TV specials, maybe even those god-awful movies on Lifetime) to know what constitutes physical abuse, and that it is not a good thing. Instead, they slowly and patiently grind down your self-esteem, gradually bringing you further under their control. Over and over again, under the guise of humor or not, you will hear that you are somehow unworthy: you are stupid, you are ugly, you are a slut, you are lucky to even have your abuser in your life. It may take time, but hearing yourself described in those terms over and over will gradually accomplish your abuser's goal: to make you believe them. It doesn't matter how smart, good-looking, or strong you actually are. You could be the most well-loved and worthy person on the planet. If the person you are supposed to love and trust above all others constantly tells you that you are in some way inferior, then you will begin to believe it. You will begin to doubt your own intelligence, your capability to make decisions, and even your worth as a human being.

People ask all the time why victims of abuse stay in abusive relationships so long. Although this is a legitimate question, and one which I feel needs to be answered, it still irks me that the blame for the situation so often gets shifted from the perpetrator to the victim. I have been asked that question many times in discussions with peers, but never have I heard anyone ask "Why doesn't the abuser just stop?". I have come to the conclusion that, when we place the blame for the behavior on the victim, we, often unconciously, are trying to distance ourselves from the possibility that we, too, could be affected. Saying that the victim was stupid, that he or she was "asking for it", or that there is no possible way we'd "let that happen" to us, makes us think that we are safe, that we don't have to worry, that this problem will not affect us. Well, I come bearing some unfortunate news: people do not become victims of intimate partner violence because they are unintelligent. They also don't become victims of intimate partner violence because they are naive, gullible, sexually promiscuous, looking for attention, or any other ridiculous quality one could arbitrarily assign. Like everyone does at some point in their life, they made the mistake of putting their trust in the wrong person. This makes them no more responsible for that betrayal of trust than you would be if, for example, your best friend came over to your house and stole all of your money.

So, why don't they just leave? The short answer is that, for many reasons, they feel like they can't leave. Firstly, by the time the victim realizes that he or she is indeed being abused, the process previously described has worn down their self-esteem to the point where they start to question their perception of everything. Abusers are very good at shifting blame onto their victims ("I wouldn't have to hit you if you didn't flirt with other guys", "You're just making a big deal over nothing", etc.). Often, the victim internalizes this and starts to feel that he or she deserves the abuse. They may feel that they could not function without their abuser, or, heartbreakingly, that jealous and controlling behavior is a mark of "true love".

Secondly, victims of abuse may feel that they have nowhere to turn. Abusers try to isolate their partners from their friends, family, and anyone that could be another influence in their life. Abusers want to set themselves up as literally the only person in their victim's life. If the abused partner has lost all close friendships outside of the relationship, he or she may not feel capable of escaping without help and support. Also, the victim may assume (correctly or incorrectly) that he or she would not be belived, would be encouraged to "talk it out" with their partner in place of disciplinary action (which is completely useless when one person uses force or coercion to get their way), or may even be blamed for the abuse itself. Different age groups face different forms of this: minors may worry that their parents would punish them or take away their independence, while older victims who are married to their abusers face pressure not to "break up the family". Calling a hotline or law enforcement may be too scary, especially in a society that distrusts police. When it comes to matters of domestic abuse, this distrust is often for good reason. In her essay entitled "Social Change on Behalf of Battered Women: Reforming the Criminal Justice System", Susan Shechter writes the following:

"At the beginning of the [battered women's] movement, battered women complained frequently that the police simply would not come when called. If they did come, they would refuse to arrest, saying: "There's nothing we can do. It's a family matter; go to Family Court tomorrow." Or they would side with the husband, walking with him around the block or joking with him about the violence. Police refused to escort women to hospitals or to wait and protect them as they gathered their children and clothing. Continually looking through sexist blinders, the police failed to acknowledge that this victim was often frightened and intimidated because she lived with her assailant."


Finally, a victim of abuse may fear that, should she attempt to leave, her own life or the lives of people or animals dear to her would be in danger. When they feel their control over their victim slippng, abusers often try to scare them back into submission. This can include threats to harm or kill the victim, or the victim's family members, children, or pets. Equally traumatic is when the abuser threatens to kill him or herself. This serves multiple purposes: it scares the victim and makes them feel guilty, but it also makes them feel important and needed. They may feel that it is their duty to care for their abuser, and that they would be responsible for his or her suicide should the threats be carried out. Threats of violence are particularly effective in a relationship that has already progressed into physical abuse, as the victim has proof that their abuser is capable of carrying those threats out. Ultimately, if the victim percieves a choice between an abusive relationship and a violent death, they will probably pick the former. In that situation, almost every person on the planet would chose the same.

My intent in writing this piece is simple: to raise awareness of the unique challenges faced by victims of intimate partner violence. When so much energy is focused on judging the victim and blaming them for the abuse, the message being sent to all victims is that they can not tell anyone what has happened to them, or they will be blamed too. Ultimately, what needs to be understood is that people do not knowingly enter into abusive relationships. Neither do they stay in them because of stupidity or personal weakness. They are gradually conditioned to accept the abuser's domination by a slow but thorough process of wearing down their self-esteem. Therefore, by the time the abuser commits his or her first violent and heinous act, whether it be assault, rape, or even attempted (or successful) murder, the victim truly feels that they have no way out.





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