Battered spouses and/or victims of domestic violence, more times than not, find themselves floundering as they desperately try to understand and identify how they got to such a place. Too often victims of spousal battery or domestic violence find themselves being blamed for the whole mess, or worse, blame themselves for what has become of their life. How often did voices in my head ask, “What did ‘I’ do to deserve this?” “How did ‘I’ get ‘myself’ into this mess?” Too often judgment is misplaced. At that point, emotional wellbeing is practically nonexistent. I often wondered where the REAL “me” was lost along the way.
Let me help you understand how a vibrant, bright, happy woman becomes a depressed, guilt-ridden, confused victim of spousal battery or domestic violence by reminding you of a simple scientific experiment. Remember the one where you put a frog into a pot of cool water, place the pot onto the stove and turn on the burner? As the heat gradually increases, the frog just stays put and becomes acclimated to its surroundings. It’s a slow process, but before the poor frog realizes it is in hot water, the boiling begins and he’s dead. That’s how spouse abuse works. It begins slowly and almost innocuously, becoming more and more intense. The victim gets accustomed to an environment of total dysfunction, and without realizing it, sees it as the norm for their life. When it reaches the boiling point, they may even be numb to the whole escapade. Then, like the frog, they stay in “the pot” too long, and they die. RAINN details descriptions and identification of “Battered Woman Syndrome” on their website.
It isn’t easy for those who have not been exposed to spouse abuse, domestic violence, child abuse or the accompanying statistics to understand the mechanics of how all this works. You think it’s easy for a woman to “just leave” or “just kick out” her abuser? There is nothing just about being a battered spouse. What happens when a prisoner on a road crew escapes? They are hunted down, punished severely, placed into a more restraining prison facility or room and reassured there will be hell to pay if they ever attempt to escape again. Their sentence is usually extended, as well. Compare that to a depressed, confused mother who is trying to figure out a way to keep her children safe, yet clothed, fed and under a dry roof, all while she is being threatened that if she considers leaving, there, too, will be hell to pay. And, she is convinced her abuser has the capability to back up his threats. Fear—what a powerful weapon. When we were young we were told if we were bad the devil would “get” us, so out of fear we did our best, usually, to behave well and keep ourselves safe from his pitchfork and torment. We feared going to hell, so we followed the rules. There are rules that abusers commonly set for their victim to follow. Even in the midst of facing involuntary rules and restrictions, the victim’s primary goal is to escape. Some of these inexcusable rules are:
REMAIN SILENT. Under no circumstances speak out, whether you are a child being abused or molested, or a spouse living with consistent verbal and emotional threats and turmoil. Speaking out may result in the perpetrator being confronted, arrested or incarcerated, and they will do everything within their power to avoid that—everything! Intimidation, control, manipulation and the victim’s silence are some of their best-forged weapons. Did you know as a battered spouse, child or parent, you may file an immigrant visa petition under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)? Go to their website for more information.
IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT. It is not often that a perpetrator is willing to take responsibility for his/her own actions. It’s much easier to point a finger at the victim, to convince them they are severely defective, and therefore to blame for what is happening to them. They begin to believe they deserve it. “You drive me to drink. It’s all your fault.” “If you hadn’t run your mouth I wouldn’t have had to hit you. It’s all your fault.” “Maybe if you’d keep the house cleaner I wouldn’t have to curse at you all the time. You bring it on yourself. It’s all your fault.” There are other “trespasses” the victim commits, such as the weight gains, hair cuts without permission, visits with friends… it’s an endless list of what sets the abuser to casting blame, rather than taking responsibility.
YOU WILL LOSE. The loss may be your children, your home, your financial stability, or it may be fear of losing your life. There were many slaves who chose to remain on the plantations after the Civil War, determining at least they had familiar surroundings and lifestyles. At least they would have a home and food, whatever condition they might (or might not) hold. So, rather than choosing freedom that was a total mystery to them, they stayed in the slavery with which they were all too familiar. In a sick sort of way, sometimes you feel more capable dealing with the familiar than the unknown, regardless of the potential danger or harm.
WHAT WILL OTHERS SAY? What about all the guilt, the shame, the humiliation?! A victim of abuse or domestic violence often asks themselves, “How will I explain to my friends and family members that I was too “stupid” or too “weak” to walk away from such mistreatment and danger? What will others think of me?” How will you account for your failures in keeping your marriage and/or family together? You are certain you will be seen as a disappointment—perhaps a stupid, emotional basket case of a failure. As Dr. Seuss wrote, “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” It’s a great time to find out just who your REAL friends truly are. Stop taking so much credit for another’s actions. The one person you are justly capable of making happy is YOU. The rest of the world is not your own private “assignment” to repair, fix or make excuses for. Find inner happiness, empowerment and ability. It’s got to come from the inside to make it to the outside.
So, next time you ponder how you got into this predicament, remember the frog… and jump from the water before it begins to boil. Just be sure not to jump from the frying pan into the fire. It’s a general tendency to go from one abusive relationship to another, because you have learned how to do dysfunctional all too well. I often said, “I could have done dysfunctional standing on my head with both hands tied behind my back, blindfolded.” How very sad. What a terrible trap to find yourself caught in, seeking any possible means of escape.
And if you DO decide it’s time to make that escape, to leave the abuse and/or violence, BE SAFE! That has to be your primary focus. There are agencies and organizations, such as Family Justice Center Alliance or the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) who offer plans for victims to make safe retreat from their abuser. Visit websites, read books, use wisdom to remain safe while you work a plan. Don’t become an unnecessary statistic. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline. KEEP THIS NUMBER HANDY: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
Visit this blog regularly. There will be many posts sharing safety plans, signs of domestic violence, links to agencies and other means of assistance, as well as messages of education, encouragement and empowerment. Be smart – be safe! I can reassure you of this—being verbally, emotionally or physically battered or abused is NOT normal, it is NOT acceptable, and it does NOT have to be your life sentence.