“It never occurred to me I might be a victim of domestic violence. After all, I was never hit, there were no bruises or broken bones. It was only one day when I was talking to a couple about the effect of their domestic violence on their pre-school child it occurred to me that I too was a victim.
The child’s developmental timetable was not going to wait for them to sort it out. I didn’t have children and could deal with my unhappy situation according to my own schedule, and the shocking recognition of that situation as domestic violence.
I was not hit, but I was being subjected to psychological, emotional and sexual abuse that had been progressively escalating over nearly fifteen years. But were those behaviours domestic violence? Relationships are complicated and drawing the line between normal and OK behaviours and abuse is not easy. Not everyone considers threats and threatening behaviour to be harmful or ‘violence’.”
In 2012 the UK Government published a new definition that includes non-physical behaviours as domestic violence: “Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass but is not limited to the following types of abuse: psychological, physical, sexual, financial, and emotional. Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour. Coercive behaviour is: an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.”
“My experience fit that definition. My then husband punished me for not being a ‘good wife’, by his own definition which he refused to tell me, through sleeping in the spare room, and later threatening to leave. He cut me off from friends and associates by dropping out at the last minute from social engagements and events as punishment for my not getting ‘it’ right until I stopped making plans or accepting invitations, and forcing me to choose between him and friends because he believed they didn’t respect him. His mannerisms and voice were aggressive to me and others, although he insisted he was expressing frustration and not aggression. He told everyone he met I was having an affair (when I wasn’t). And he tried to surreptitiously force on me sexual practices I had explicitly refused.
My own behaviour was affected. I was ‘walking on eggshells’ and when I sensed the atmosphere change I tried to escalate things to get the next showdown started and over with. Typical behaviours of a domestic violence victim.
But he didn’t hit me: I had no reason to end the relationship, or so I thought, until the day he raped me. I found a strength and determination I didn’t know I had: miraculously I managed to get him to leave, resisted the suicide threats and became one of the rare group of women who don’t take several attempts at terminating a relationship (the average is 7). Perhaps because I had never been hit.”
Why don’t more victims leave sooner? Why do so many keep going back? Sarah Buel suggests some answers in her Fifty Obstacles to Leaving aka Why Abuse Victims Stay.
With psychological, mental and emotional abuse many may not even recognise what is happening. The destruction of self-esteem and self-confidence make facing the future alone that much harder. Family and friends often don’t understand: they can’t see the scars. And surely, if it’s all your fault, all your inadequacy, then shouldn’t you just stay where you are and try harder to get it right? The abuser is usually so reasonable, so plausible. They truly believe they are right to behave as they do.
It’s not enough to ask why victims stay. We need to ask why they leave. What is the ‘the final straw’? When all resources have been used up where does that spark to survive come from? We need better support for victims as they go through the stages to reach that final move. And we need better protection for those who are leaving or have left as this can be the most dangerous time. While professionals such as police, social and health workers have a role to play society needs to better recognise the power of domestic abuse and the difficulties victims face.