Mind Matters — Domestic Violence Revisited

Perhaps, for once, some good has arisen from certain violent, abusive acts that, because of the celebrities involved, captured headlines and sound bites.

That is, of course, the story of football player Ray Rice punching his fiancé into unconsciousness in an elevator and later another football player castigated for beating his four-year-old with a switch.

We err greatly if we think football players have a monopoly on domestic violence, however.

The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that those who perpetrate family violence are a heterogeneous group. The common denominator among all socio-economic classes and ethnicities that leads to emotional and physical abuse of both children and partners is the power differential. That is, the perpetrator (or “batterer”) misuses power and authority to the disrespect and disregard of the other. The “relationship” is about domination and control. So partner violence occurs across age, ethnic, religious, gender, and economic lines, and among the disabled, the heterosexual, and LGBT communities, as well.

While men can be battered, as well as women, the statistics show that women, by and large, suffer the effects of partner violence to a far greater degree than men.

The APA notes that one in five female high school students reports being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner. Furthermore, interpersonal violence is the leading cause of female homicides and injury-related deaths during pregnancy.

Want more scary statistics reported by the APA? Nearly half the women in the US home experienced some kind of psychological aggression by an intimate partner. Every day, on average, three women are murdered by a husband or boyfriend.

Whether it is called battering, abuse or domestic violence, the bottom line is that such aggressive acts can be emotional or physical. In emotional abuse, the abuser demeans and humiliates the partner (or child!). this includes verbal insults, threats, social isolation, and economic hardship and more. Physical abuse takes the violence into the realm of bodily harm.

The Domestic Violence Roundtable of Massachusetts uses psychologist Lenore Walker’s cycle of domestic violence to describe the dynamics of violent relationships. Note that the cycle may happen in a day or may arc over weeks or even months. First is the tension-building stage. As tension rises over common concerns such as money, children, jobs, verbal abuse begins. The victim may attempt to placate or appease the abuser by avoidance or giving in. The second stage is when the tension reaches a level where physical violence starts. Some external event or the abuser’s own emotionally reactive state, or a combination thereof sets off the physical violence. Next, is the honeymoon stage where the abuser may express shame and remorse, or tries to minimize the abuse or blames the whole event on the partner. This might be the roses and diamonds stage where the abuser is loving and helpful and generous. There are even attempts to convince the partner that it will never happen again. The bond between the partners is (temporarily) repaired and the victim yet again feels no need to leave the relationship.

According to the Domestic Violence Roundtable, “This cycle continues over and over, and may help explain why victims stay in abusive relationships. The abuser may be terrible, but the promises and generosity of the honeymoon phase give the victim the false belief that everything will be all right.”

And yes, communities of affluence and privilege have their share of domestic violence. It may be even more difficult to seek help when the victims and abusers in such places are the “pillars” of such communities.

Perhaps now that domestic violence has hit the headlines, we will all see that it is not an issue to be kept hidden behind closed doors—elevator, or otherwise. Let us trust for the day that “domestic violence” becomes the oxymoron that it should be.