Domestic Violence: Living On the Edge of Fear
By S.B. Morris, Special to AOL BlackVoices
Helen Hall, the operations director of the Domestic Violence South East Intake Center in Washington, DC, uses this scenario in her outreach programs: Imagine you're at the dinner table with your significant other of many years. Both of you are talking about your hectic day. The conversation turns heated. Suddenly you're arguing, and then, out of nowhere, your mate goes off, slapping you in the face for the first time.
"What's your next move?" she asks.
According to Hall, most women would waste valuable time trying to rationalize this violence and questioning themselves. Did I bring on this attack? Will it happen again? Did I miss the warning signs? Should I stay or leave? Are my kids in danger, too?
"Too many women wait too long to leave abusive relationships," explains Hall, who is herself a survivor do domestic violence. The intake center may be a domestic violence "emergency room," referring victims to city resources such as shelter, food, legal services and counseling, but it unless women take the first step and walk in there's not much Hall or her staff can do. "Unfortunately, they accept make-up flowers and it'll-never-happen-again promises until it occurs repeatedly and more violently."
The result of these rationalizations and temporary truces? An act of domestic violence occurs every 18 seconds, according to the National Network for Family Resiliency. Not only are women five to eight times more likely than men to experience violence at the hands of intimate partner, but they are also more likely to be killed by a partner, according to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, with an average of three women being murdered by their husbands or boyfriends daily in the United States. The organization reports that domestic violence is the most common (but unrecognized) killer of women in this country.
"It appears that African American women are at an increased risk of intimate partner homicide," said Dr. Carolyn West, editor of 'Violence in the Lives of Black Women: Battered, Black and Blue' (Haworth Press, 2003) and associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, Tacoma. "One predictor is having a partner who is unemployed. And, since African American women and men of color are disproportionately represented among the under-employed, with easier access to weapons and drugs, it makes sense that domestic violence cases would be higher, too."
While domestic violence -- an act of abuse, both physical and non-physical, between intimate partners or family members -- isn't restricted to any particular gender, economic, racial, class or religious group, the rates of severe partner abuse are higher among blacks. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that black females experience domestic violence 35 percent higher than that of white females, and about 22 times the rate of women of other races. Black males experienced domestic violence at a rate of about 62 percent higher than that of white males and about 22 times the rate of men of other races.
"Same-sex [male intimate partner] violence is a growing issue, too. It can get very violent. Since many times the same dynamics apply [as in heterosexual relationships], there's usually one that's more controlling and one who's more passive," said Hall.
Hall advises that if you experience any of the following warning signs in your mate, whether male or female, please proceed in the relationship with caution. "We have a lot to teach ourselves as a culture about loving ourselves, so that we can keep from settling for some of these relationships that we know aren't right. We know we see signs from the very beginning, but we settle for them," said Hall.
Don't trust partners who want to know where you are 24-7 daily, keep you from socializing outside of their watchful eyes or ostracize you from family and friends. Most abusers start by trying to control you emotionally and financially, and graduate to physical abuse as the relationship proceeds.
"If you have a person who has a history of abuse in their background, I would definitely be asking them a lot of questions, too," said Dr. West, a college professor who teaches courses, counsels and consults on family violence issues. "This too could be a potential problem if they haven't learned how to handle conflict."
Don't ever make excuses for abusive behavior, warned Hall. Domestic violence isn't caused by alcohol or drugs, problematic childhoods, war flashbacks, work stress, physical illness, jealousy or insecurity, racism, poverty, an inability to express feelings or financial problems. It's about power, control and dominance. It's an aggressive choice the abuser makes to overpower victims through violent behavior. The behavior is reinforced every time the abuser gets his/her way through violent actions.
"There's a tendency among women to want to rescue men, particularly among Black women because [they] perceive that there's a shortage of Black men, and a desire to protect them from the legal system," said Dr. West.
There are many reasons why women and men stay with abusive partners, including any or all of the following: Waiting for change, kids are involved, threats of more violence, the abuser controls the finances, the abuse is infrequent, spanning years in some cases, personal beliefs about marriage or the victim's childhood experiences with abuse (her mom was abused by her daddy).
"People assume that the children don't see it or suffer the impact. [Domestic violence] can have a profound impact on children. They may have difficulty in school, suffer from depression, low self-esteem or a broad range of other symptoms," said Dr. West. While the child may not grow up to be an abuser, the emotional impact may be present in some form, she said. Unfortunately, most battered women and men make several attempts to leave without success. For many women, they don't summon the courage to leave until their children show signs of the impact of domestic violence.
"It's best to believe an abuser the first time he shows his or her true self and just walk away," said Hall. "Talk to an advocate to find out as much as you can about [your rights]. There are people at the court whom you can talk to. If you have access to a computer do a search online and use [the resources]."
If you or someone you know is being physically or emotionally abused, there are many organizations that can help you quickly, safely and confidentially. Contact the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence for assistance finding resources, or in a time of crisis call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.
If you are ever in immediate danger, call 911.
About the Author
S.B. Morris is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C. area who specializes in health and medical issues.