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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Why Victims Don't Leave - The Domestic Violence Stages

As my readers are aware, I'm the executive producer for The Kovacs Perspective. Regular readers will also be aware that I've had some experience with domestic violence, which is the topic for tonight's episode. What many people may not realize is what actually occurs in a domestic violence situation and household. If it has never happened to you, or you're in denial about your personal experiences, you may not have any idea what constitutes domestic violence. Well, here's what I know, based on my own experiences, as well as through the many hours of research that I've done in order to write about the topic from varying perspectives:
In any situation where your partner controls you in any way, you are being subjected to abuse.
Do not dismiss this notion, because at its core this is the absolute truth. We are all, every one of us, unique individuals who have the right to control every aspect of our selves. Why do I phrase it like that? What does that mean exactly? Answering those questions means jumping right into the initial stages of the abuse cycle.

Abuse begins slowly, and it begins in the most innocent-seeming ways. First it starts with suggestions about little things that you do. Maybe your partner doesn't like the way you wear your hair, or whether or not you wear make-up (along with how much you wear). Maybe they start picking on pieces of your personality, like how much you talk when their friends are around, or the things you might say. Maybe they start acting embarrassed when they're out with you, shaming you into changing small things about yourself, pushing you into the background of your own life choices.

You see, that's where the control starts. The first thing an abuser does, even if they're not doing it consciously, is convince you that you no longer own your own life. They convince you that they're the ones who should have a say, not you. There's no discussion, really. They just tell you, "I don't like your hair like that." Suddenly you're growing it out, dyeing it, or getting it cut. They say things like, "You should wear skirts more often," "You should get a toupee," "I don't like goatees," or "You look like a tramp wearing that much make-up." They make you feel bad about the decisions you made that day. They undermine your authority over yourself. The implied message is that they can fix you, that you're not good enough the way you are, and that in order to deserve their love you have to change.

Those changes don't seem like much. At first. Then the changes become more difficult to adhere to - after all, the new behaviour isn't your natural persona so you're suddenly putting on an act in front of everyone. Your new life is a mask, covering up the real you. However, in order to please your partner you submit to their wishes. Everyone wants to be attractive to the person they love, but what they don't realize is, if that person was really the right one for you, then they would be attracted to the real you. They would love that person, not the one they're trying to mold you into.

The more difficult changes that come can be anything from the type of job you have (especially if they feel threatened because you make more money, or maybe you don't make enough money), to the people in your life. Your friends and family are a threat to this person, because they know those people are important enough to you that you might actually listen to them over your partner. They get scared that one of them will tell you to leave. Isolation is the goal here, and it may not even be a conscious connection that the abuser is making. It would be hard to find out, even by asking hundreds of abusers, because they have a tendency to deny or justify their actions even to themselves.

So how do they get rid of your friends and family? Simple. They just make it easier for you to not see them. How? Imagine this: Every time you see your friend or family member you get into a fight with your partner. It doesn't even have to be a fight about that person. It can just be an associated feeling for you. You start to feel nervous every time you come home from being out with anyone who isn't your partner. You know, deep down inside, that there's going to be an argument the minute you close the front door behind you.

Sometimes it's more direct. There can be accusations about what you might be doing with those people, and there may not be any logic whatsoever to those accusations. Maybe the accusation are sick and twisted, like they accuse you of 'something funny' in your relationship with a family member. Maybe your partner believes what they're saying, and maybe they're just saying it to put you on the defensive. It's just as effective either way. You're defending yourself, which automatically puts you on the weak side of the argument.

So, you find yourself going out less and less often. Your phone conversations get shorter. It's just easier that way. You're trying to avoid the fights. It's still not enough, though. Your partner's insecurity is constantly lashing you. Criticisms spewed at you so that your partner can feel superior to you, and so they regain control. Without that control they're sure that you're not going to stay. That's not always the case, of course. Some abusers simply enjoy hurting other people, and that's because they're sadists. Those ones don't fear you leaving, but often they fear other people finding out their little secrets, and your leaving would mean you've gotten the upper hand with them. That's something a sadist will not allow. That behaviour may be rooted in insecurity at its core, but even insecurity has been bypassed by what is often sexual excitement.

There may be a great deal of time between these levels or stages of a person asserting their control. If there's a month between a criticism of your hair and a comment about your clothing, it's not going to seem all that controlling. It will seem like a suggestion at first, but then when you keep doing what they don't like they will express disappointment at the very least, and you will feel like you should be trying to please your partner. They will make it seem as though you're being petty and selfish, or you're unwilling to compromise for the sake of the relationship. Now it's suddenly your fault that the two of you can't get along. That blame will become a big part of your future, turning into statements like, "It's your own fault for pissing me off." Not only do they not realize they shouldn't even be asking you to change, but also that their response to their own emotions is not under your control in any way.

This is probably where I was lucky when it comes to my personal situation. Despite having a very rough childhood, or maybe because of it, I learned to take responsibility for my own actions. I've seen many cases where the opposite was true, however, and people blamed their actions on their childhood of abuse, never getting to the point where they said to themselves, "I'm now in control of my life, and from here on out I have a choice." So, when someone tries to tell me that their behaviour is my fault, I don't buy it. I can understand an eye for an eye, so if I had punched someone in the face I would expect someone to punch me back. However, if I haven't done that to a person, they have no business doing it to me.

People who remain in abusive situations, however,  have been subjected to behavioural conditioning. Much like Pavlov's dogs, they will react predictably to certain stimuli. In the case of the dogs they would start drooling at the sound of a bell. In the case of abuse victims they will start to feel debilitating fear at whatever they've learned as the signs of abuse to come. It could be a certain look, a phrase, or even their own actions that they know their abuser has reacted to in the past. It's not their fault or their responsibility to avoid abuse, however - no more than it's the responsibility of a rape victim to avoid being raped. It's the person committing the violence who is responsible.

It doesn't even have to be physical abuse, but verbal abuse is much more difficult to pin down and define - especially when it comes to a courtroom. Verbal abuse is grounds for divorce in many places, but courts have a hard time making consistent decisions about what really constitutes abuse. The second someone makes unwanted physical contact, that's a line that's been crossed that everyone is capable of seeing. Admittedly that line moves all over the place, because even courtrooms don't always recognize spousal rape. Small things like grabbing a partner's arm and pulling them where you want them to be - that's controlling, and it's abuse, because you're physically forcing someone to do something they're not willing to do on their own, and we simply haven't the right. We each own our own bodies. They belong to us and no one else. All decisions about that body should be coming from our own minds.

Of course, when the government clamps down and tells individuals what they can and can't do, for whatever arbitrary reason, it becomes a lot more difficult to recognize abuse in domestic situations. Rape goes unpunished, even when it's a teacher raping a student. Autonomy is undervalued in most societies. People are told they have no choices by the very governments and courtrooms that are supposed to be there to protect them. When it comes time for someone to stand up against an abusive partner, there's no fundamental legal support, despite the numerous laws that have been written. If the laws aren't enforced, abuse victims are left to fend for themselves. If they stand up and defend themselves against their abusers, however, they're often severely punished by lengthy prison terms.

Believe it or not, all of this is just the lead-up to the main event. An event which becomes the everyday life of the victim. We haven't really touched on the first time a person is hit, or their arm is twisted so hard that it breaks. We haven't even gotten to the part where their self-worth is completely stripped, so let's go over that. All human beings are susceptible to behavioural conditioning on some level, and that conditioning is what enables abuser to maintain control over their partner. The conditioning may be done gently or viciously, depending on what the victim responds to best. In most cases it's fear-based.

It may start out sounding like a joke, even. They might smile when they tell you, "If you ever left me, I'd have to kill you." Maybe something more subtle than that like, "I'll never let you go," or "I'd kill myself if you ever left me." How many people in this world would be flattered by that? How many people are flattered by jealousy in their partner? Even those who outwardly deny feeling flattered often feel all tingly inside at the idea that someone 'loves' them so much they can't live without them. The very things that may seem so loving and needy to a person seeking the love of their life, however, can be extremely dangerous. The healthy way to say those things would be more like, "I'd hate to lose you," or "As long as you want to be with me, I'll never let you go." Both of those things imply knowledge and awareness of the other person's right to choose.

Statements that imply the end of someone's life should the relationship end are a really big warning sign. "Until death do us part," a part of most wedding vows, becomes a lot more sinister in that context. In some cases there's a religious element, too, where a partner is controlled by their beliefs. That's true in Catholicism, certainly, where excommunication is an issue. Most people can't afford the $5,000 they can charge for an annulment. If you're an abused partner, hoping for support from your church, you may be correct in assuming that they will not help you leave your spouse.

Then there is the actual, hands-on, abuse. In many cases the first physical abuse may seem unintentional. For that matter it might well be an accident, but it can become a gateway to more intentional abuse. They might make it seem as though it was an accident, too. Victims of abuse aren't always sure they've been intentionally hurt by their partners. People brush off hurts and insults all the time in their daily lives. We have to in order to function in society. You can't react to every little thing, or people would be shooting each other more than they already are. Brushing things off becomes habitual, and quite often we're not sure when enough is really enough. For people who hate confrontation, the decision is even more painful, and people will question themselves and justify the behaviour of other people just to avoid that confrontation.

If you already fear a person's reaction, and are reacting to it yourself, you're being controlled by that other person's behaviour. Yes, you're choosing to let them, but it's usually because one thing is the lesser of two evils. When you have small children whose lives may be threatened by someone, you have no job, no driver's licence, no car, no friends and no family, the decision to leave is fraught with danger. One tiny mistake can mean a very heavy price to be paid. It's true that victims who are killed by their abusers are usually killed when they try to leave. It's a topic I've written about before, and probably will again. My aunt was shot and killed by her husband as she tried to leave. Their oldest son came in to wrestle the gun away from his father. The gun went off again and killed my uncle. Thankfully my cousin was not killed, but he lost both parents that day. The younger kids also becoming orphans. The police chose to write it up as a suicide, rather than subject my cousin to potential manslaughter charges. It might not have been strictly legal, but it was the right thing to do.

People who are in an abusive situation are at least subconsciously aware that leaving means putting themselves in mortal danger. They know it's going to be a triggering event if they don't get away cleanly. Many victims spend years plotting a way out. Sometimes there isn't one. Sometimes there is nowhere they can go, and no one they can turn to. Sometimes they don't have access to a phone, or their calls are all recorded and monitored. Internet access is checked. It's far too easy to keep tabs on the actions of a person who lives with you, and you legally have the right to access that information. After all, it's your phone and internet bill. There are no privacy laws to keep you from knowing exactly what your partner has been doing. So, the person being spied on can't reach out for help.

That may seem far-fetched to someone who has never been victimized by a partner, but it's actually very common. That level of insecurity is what usually leads to the abuse in the first place. The spying may start right from the beginning of the relationship. They read text messages from friends, looking for clues that their partner isn't being faithful. They go through e-mails. It's often very easy for them to convince a partner they should have all their passwords and the PIN from their bank card. "After all," they say in what seems a romantic fashion, "We're going to be together for the rest of our lives. There shouldn't be any secrets between us." This effectively removes all hope that a victim's actions will be able to pass under the radar of their abuser. Of course, it also means the abuser has access to all of the finances and can remove all financial independence or simply steal their partner's money.

It's similar to the argument people make against prenuptial agreements. They say there should be absolute trust, and everything should be shared in a marriage. Here's the problem with that: Just because someone gets married does not mean they lose their identity as an individual. We are not, and cannot be, half of a whole. The strongest, most successful marriages are those where both parties recognize the individuality of their spouse, and accept and support them as they are. Problem relationships are the ones in which one person has control over the other. That isn't trust, despite how much they talk about trust in general - usually in the form of expecting the other partner to trust them in every way, without giving back that same trust.

In that way it's also a lot like the age-old teenage attempt to convince someone to 'go all the way,' by saying, "If you really loved me, you would have sex with me," where the smart response would be, "If you really loved me you wouldn't ask me to do something I'm not ready for." When they say, "You should trust me enough to share everything," the best response would be, "You should trust me enough that you shouldn't even have to ask me for this stuff. You shouldn't have to have proof that I'm faithful." However, much like the teenagers, we often don't think of that when we need to. Then it's too late.

In my case my first husband ran up thousands of dollars in debt on my credit card that I didn't know about (and had to pay off when he left). He didn't ask anymore. He just took the card out of my wallet and felt entitled to whatever he spent. In a situation like that many victims are left not only without the immediate cash they need to survive, but also without any hope of borrowing the money to tide them over. Their credit is often destroyed, and it ruins their chances of building a decent future where they might one day buy a house. Instead their only options are the high-risk loans with interest rates so high that there's no way of keeping up with the payments. The financial impact can be very long-term.

There are three obstacles that come readily to mind when it comes to people leaving an abuser. First is the immediate physical danger of the victim and any children involved. Second, there are financial considerations - if you have no money there's almost nothing you can do, and a shelter is only an option if you have the means to get to it, and there's one close enough to you. Third, there are the pets in the home - shelters usually don't take animals, and pets that are left behind are often killed by the abuser.

So, why don't victims leave? If you haven't figured that out even after all this, you're not likely to understand unless it happens to you. When you get to a point where you feel like someone owns you, and that the person will kill you if you leave, a person you absolutely know in your heart will be able to find you no matter where you go, trying to leave is the scariest, most dangerous thing you will ever have to do in your life. When you feel like you're worth absolutely nothing in this world, and have no hope for yourself, you don't think it even matters if you get away. It's not the truth, but perception is everything in this life. What we feel and fear becomes our truth.

If you're in an abusive relationship, there is help out there. Tonight's guest, +Suzanne Perry will be talking about it. I hope you'll tune in. For your own sake, and for the sake of any other living beings in the house. Staying for the kids is a very bad idea. It's usually the kids that get hurt the most when we choose to stay. Get the help you need in order to leave in the safest way possible, and get it from someone who has really been there. Tonight at 7 PM eastern you can find out how at this link, and careful.