Recognizing domestic partner abuse
Domestic abuse. Battering. Intimate partner violence. These are terms
that make us wince. And they should: The phenomenon is widespread in
the United States, and its effects can be long-lasting and life-threatening.
Breaking the pattern of domestic violence can be extremely difficult
and may take a long time. It requires courage, planning, and a support
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines domestic violence
as “a pattern of assaultive and/or coercive behaviors…that
adults use against their intimate partners to gain power and control
in that relationship.” It includes not only physical and sexual
abuse but also emotional abuse. All can have serious health consequences.
Domestic violence affects people of all ethnic backgrounds; it occurs
among the poor and the rich and among the well educated and the poorly
Women don’t consciously choose to have an abusive partner. In
fact, the abuser may be charming and well liked by most of the people
who know him, but at home he shows a different side.
Changes in the relationship can be difficult to see at first. The abuser’s
need for control often begins to show itself in little things he says
and does. He may criticize the way his partner acts or looks. He may
say deeply hurtful things, such as accusing her of being a bad mother.
Over time, the abuser’s words can chip away at a woman’s
sense of herself.
Control and power
At the center of domestic violence is the issue of control. The abuser
is intent on gaining and maintaining power over his partner through fear
and intimidation. Abuse doesn’t necessarily involve physical harm.
Threats can also be highly effective and should not be minimized.
The abusive partner uses various tactics to achieve control. He may
intimidate and demean his partner by constantly criticizing her, monopolizing
household finances, or telling her what she can wear, where she can go,
and whom she can see. He may play “mind games,” such as suggesting
that she’s hypersensitive, hysterical, or mentally unbalanced.
Often he isolates the woman from family, friends, and colleagues. Abuse
may also take the form of pathological jealousy, such as false accusations
of adultery. Soon, the woman may find that she’s cut off from all
outside connections, no longer in touch with the people and services
that could help her.
Isolation may also disconnect her from a sense of what’s normal.
She may not even think of herself as a victim of domestic violence. After
an incident, the abuser often apologizes and tries to placate his victim.
There may be periods of relative calm. It may take a victim a long time
to recognize that her partner’s behaviors aren’t random but
form a pattern of abuse.
Intimate partner abuse is a health issue
Intimate partner abuse can have profound effects on a woman’s
health, both physical and mental. Physical harm, including fractures
and lacerations, is one obvious effect. Intimate partner abuse is also
linked to chronic health problems and even death — from either
suicide because of depression or murder by the partner.
The intense, ongoing stress may result in chronic pain or gastrointestinal
symptoms. Victims of domestic abuse are more likely to have arthritis,
neck pain, pelvic pain, and migraine headaches. They also have an increased
risk of menstrual problems and difficulties during pregnancy, including
bleeding, low birth weight, and anemia.
Walking away from an abusive relationship is a process more than a single
action. Women usually make several attempts — five, on average — before
they leave the partner for good. Isolation and fear may prevent a woman
from leaving, even when she knows it is probably for the best. Community
support can be crucial, although a woman in an abusive relationship often
has difficulty taking advantage of that support. The abuser may track
her computer use, looking for visits to Web sites and evidence of keyword
Care for the children
Many women stay in an abusive relationship because they think
it’s best not to disrupt the children’s lives so long as
they’re not being abused themselves. But children who live with
domestic violence are at serious risk for behavioral and cognitive problems.
In later life, they may suffer depression and trauma symptoms, and they
may tolerate or use violence in their own relationships.
What can I do to help?
You suspect that your friend is in an abusive relationship. Here
are some things to consider:
- Think about your relationship with your friend. When and where
might you talk with her safely, and what could you say?
- Ask questions that let her know of your suspicions and concern.
- When she talks about the situation, believe what she says and
validate her concerns.
- Help your friend make use of local resources.
- Work with your friend to develop a personal safety plan.
- Help her prepare to leave if the danger and abuse escalate.
October 2006 Update
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