Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Domestic Abuse: You Can Live Through This

(Names are changed) 
How many of us think we could never be a victim of domestic violence? What is domestic violence? In this article, I interview Áine, a survivor of intimate partner violence. Domestic violence is not just physical assault, it can also be threats thereof, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, controlling behaviour, manipulation, intimidation, stalking and economic abuse. It is often associated with alcoholism and mental illness.

Áine is a young woman whose ex-partner subjected her to physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse. Only Áine’s closest friends know that she has been a victim of domestic violence. “I can’t tell anyone because I fear they will think it wasn’t ‘real abuse’. He never actually punched me. He shoved me, he picked me up and threw me back down, he grabbed me so hard that he bruised me, but he never punched or slapped me – so is that ‘real domestic abuse?’ After I left, my friend and housemate told me that he wasn’t trying to hurt me, but that he was restraining me. I asked her in what situation does a grown adult need to be restrained? She didn’t have an answer for that, but she still took his side. He turned all my friends against me. I also don’t tell people that I was raped because they might think it wasn’t ‘real rape’ as the perpetrator was my boyfriend.” Abuse does not have to be physical. Trust your gut – if something feels wrong, it is.

Nobody thinks that they could 'end up' in an abusive relationship. How many times have you heard a woman say that she wouldn't 'let' that happen to her?  Being abused is not a choice, and the victims of domestic violence cannot control the actions of their partners. Victim blaming is a huge issue in society surrounding rape and domestic violence. It's painful to hear someone saying 'She is asking to be raped,' referring to a women's choice of dress. Áine says, 'my so-called friends blamed me for what he did to me. They thought that there must be something I had done to incite such a reaction from him. There is nothing in the world I could have done to deserve that treatment. My friends told me they were worried about me, that I was mentally ill and I needed to be sectioned. I didn't. My abusive boyfriend threatened to call an ambulance whenever I tried to leave, he made both me and my friends believe that what he was doing was for my own good.' This is due to something called the 'Just-World Hypotheses'.

The Just-World Hypothesis is a common cognitive bias. We want to believe that victims of misfortune did something to deserve it. According to Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez, “people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve.” If someone believes that you must behave in a certain way in order to be domestically abused, then they can rationalize that it could never happen to them as long as they do not make this mistake.

Abusive partners are extremely manipulative. Áine and her aggressor lived together with friends of hers who saw and heard the violence take place, but blamed her. “I was so traumatized while the abuse was taking place that I withdrew. I stayed in the bedroom most of the time towards the end of the relationship, when the abuse reached its peak. He was constantly downstairs, talking to our friends. He was telling them that I had become mentally ill and he was trying to stop me from hurting myself. He convinced them that I was delusional, that I thought he was abusing me, and not to believe anything I said. He was a master manipulator. They truly believed that everything he did to me was for my own good. They still do. They don’t speak to me anymore, but now I realize that I’m better off without them.”

Women need to stand up and say ‘I was victimized.’ “When I left, my family told me to keep quiet as he threatened to sue me for slander. I wish I could stand up and say ‘I was abused’ and campaign against it. I wish I could go to court to seek justice for what he did to me, but the thoughts of having to re-live every horror are overwhelming. I have nightmares about him almost every night. I just want to move on with my life.” The stigma, blame and shame surrounding domestic violence needs to be dissolved. The more women who talk about it, the more society will understand.

Áine’s abuser didn’t always treat her badly. “He used to be a nice guy. For a long time, we were genuinely happy together.” He only began to behave violently towards her when he started to abuse alcohol and drugs. “I don’t know what triggered it, but he started to get drunk or take drugs, every single night. He started off with cannabis, then very quickly moved on to drugs like DMT and ecstasy. I never really thought drugs were that bad, and I didn’t have much against them. I think it’s socially acceptable to use certain drugs. Now I would never touch them, because I’ve seen what they can turn a decent person into. The man I first fell in love with no longer exists, he is a completely different person now. He didn’t just abuse me when he was drunk or high, these substances changed his entire personality forever.”

Many women who are lucky enough to never have been victim of abuse wonder why these women do not simply leave. When Áine is asked why, she gives a number of reasons. “When it first started, I made excuses for him. I loved him so much, and being with him was all I ever knew. I thought he was just having a bad day, that it was a once-off, and that he would soon go back to his old self. As time passed, I began to wonder whether I was overreacting. He told me it was my fault in various ways, and he was very convincing. I thought that if I could just do what he says, if I could just agree with what he does, the torment would stop. It only worsened. I went to the local Garda station to tell them what happened, but they couldn’t do anything for me, and when I returned, I suffered the consequences. He told me he’d kill himself if I left him. I finally tried to leave one night, but he caught me running down the road and dragged me back, kicking and screaming. He was much taller and heavier than I and I was powerless to escape. He severely injured both of my wrists in the process, and they still haven’t fully recovered. I don’t think they ever will. When he returned with me to the house, he told my housemates that I was running away to commit suicide, and they watched me 24/7. When he went out, he took my phone with me so I couldn’t call for help. He even took my money. So the answer is, truly, I couldn’t leave, even if I wanted to.”

So how did she eventually get away? “I called my parents. That worked for me. There is always someone you can call, be it a person or an organization. I told him they were picking me up. In reality, I was taking the bus, but I believed that he wouldn’t try to stop me if I told him I was being collected, and miraculously, I was right.” Domestic abuse can happen to anyone regardless of race, age, sexual orientation, religion or gender. Nobody is immune. Domestic abuse does not have to be physical. Domestic abuse can also consist of threats, endangerment, criminal coercion, kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, trespassing, harassment and stalking. By leaving, you are doing the right thing.

How do you recognize that you are in an abusive relationship? If you feel you love and hate the person at the same time, you are angry with yourself or them, or you feel trapped, depressed or worthless, the relationship is not good for you. Áine’s advice is to leave, because “No matter how bad you think life will be without them, it will be better than with them. Nobody should have to be afraid in his or her own home. Life will change for the better.” 

Does your partner put you down verbally? Does he isolate you from friends and family? Does he wrongly accuse you of being unfaithful or of doing things you haven’t done? Does he make you account for every penny you spend? Does he prevent you from going to work or college? Does he shove, slap, hit or undermine you in front of your children? Has he ever destroyed your property or threatened your pets? Does he insist that you have sex even if you don’t want to, or insist that you do things with which you are uncomfortable? Does he threaten to commit suicide or kill you if you leave? If you have experienced even one of the above, you could be in an abusive relationship, according to domesticviolence.ie.

How can you get out? If you can’t leave yet, at least have a plan in place. Keep a bag packed and hidden, ready to go. Pack important documents such as your passport and birth certificate, along with some money and, if possible, another mobile phone. Keep the number of the local Garda station in your phone. Remember that you are not to blame – you can never control or take responsibility for another person’s actions. Find out where your local refuge is and contact them. Women’s Aid provide such services as counseling and court accompaniment. Ring the Women's Aid National Freephone Helpline on 1800 341 900. The Helpline is open between 10am to 10pm, every day of the year, except Christmas Day.

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