This year’s Australian of the Year award recipient was Rosie Batty, a woman who has helped raise the attention we give to domestic violence in our society. This got me thinking a lot about the issue, and in fact it drove me to watch a TED talk on domestic violence by Leslie Morgan Steiner, herself a domestic violence survivor. I strongly recommend you watch it if you haven’t already. What it did for me is it helped me answer - and ask - some questions I hadn't even thought about before. Leslie found herself in love with a man who was charming and wonderful and worshiped her. This was the same man who later beat her several times a week. The questions domestic violence pose to me are 1) how does it happen, how does an intimate relationship become abusive? And 2) why do people stay in those relationships?
You know, I realised something recently and that is that a lot of us don’t know much about domestic violence. In Leslie Morgan Steiner’s talk she pointed out that this was true of her situation – and she didn’t realise that there are warning signs and patterns to the abuse. She speaks of one of the things her ex-partner did from the start of the relationship, and that is to make her believe that she – not he – was the dominant partner in the relationship. You know the type, “he wouldn’t hurt a fly”. In fact, he’d been the victim of physical abuse as a child, he told her. He made it clear that she, not him, was the strong one. I think this is an interesting point for another reason too, and that’s because one thing I remember learning a little while ago is that victims of childhood abuse (be it sexual, psychological, or physical) are predisposed to becoming either abusers themselves or the victims of abuse again – and usually this will be with their intimate partner.
The second step to coming to be in a domestically violent relationship is to “isolate the victim”. Now this is another interesting one because it can come in the shape of being so in love that you want to spend every minute of every day with your partner, of wanting them all to yourself; but then becomes obsessive in wanting to increasingly (it’s always in small increments) dictate exactly who you speak to, what you wear, who is allowed to be your friend, where and how you can work and live, etc. It’s easy to disguise a controlling nature in the guise of “it’s because I love you so much and I am trying to protect you” or “it’s for your own good”.
Then comes the part where they test you out. Subtle threats. Small violations. Then an apology, of course. There’s always a reason why it happened, and they love you, and they promise it won’t happen again… Then increasingly bigger violations. Most of us have seen the pictures of the “cycle of violence” that occurs in domestic violence situations: violent episode, followed by the remorse, pursuit, and honeymoon phases… until the tension builds up again and culminates in a another violent episode – and the cycle keeps repeating.
|In case you haven't seen it. www.psychology.org.au/publications/inpsych/2011/feb/weiss/|
One very powerful point that Leslie Morgan Steiner makes in her talk is this: “Why did I stay? The answer is easy. I didn't know he was abusing me”. But surely she must have known, right? Surely people know when they are being physically, emotionally, financially, or sexually abused by their intimate partner, right? Not necessarily, because of the often gradual nature of how abuse escalates. You know what this made me think of? The little cartoon in that Al Gore documentary where the frog who goes from room temperature into boiling water immediately realised the threat and jumps out of the pot, but the frog placed in water at room temperature and then the heat is gradually increased will stay calmly and passively until the water boils him to death.
Leslie Morgan Steiner gave a second interesting reason of why she stayed in an abusive relationship: because she believed she could help her abuser. She loved him. She knew him. She understood him better than anyone else. She knew he was a good person who was just troubled. I mean, shouldn't good people who love each other be self-sacrificing and help each other out? Isn't this particularly more applicable if the abusive partner has a mental illness or a troubled past or is “going through a rough patch”? Shouldn't we stick by them at all costs? Shouldn't we keep giving them another chance? (to repeat the cycle?)... However, there is a flaw in this logic because it puts a greater emphasis on one person’s satisfaction and happiness at the expense of the happiness and right to be free from abuse of the other partner.
Of course, the final reason people stay in abusive relationships is because they know how dangerous their abusive partner is. Indeed, another thing I learnt from the TED talk is that the period after a relationship has ended is when the threat is greatest for those who have left their abuser. The abuser now has nothing to lose, they are both enraged and empowered. And often they do act with disastrous consequences. This is when we as a society need to step up and stop asking questions like “why doesn't she leave?” in the tone of “well, it’s her fault for staying”, and instead make sure we are educating people to recognise and avoid these situations, and protect victims of abuse from further harm through adequate judicial systems.
Now, one last question I want to go back to is does the fact that the abuser was perhaps affected by mental illness, was “going through a rough patch”, or had a childhood that was prejudicial and unfair excuse the damage they inflict on their partner? Does it make the bruises any lighter? Does it make the torment any easier to bear? Does it make the children, like Rosie Batty's son, who get caught in the path of an abusive relationship any less dead? No. There has to come a time for a victim of domestic violence to realise and acknowledge that they have at least an equal worth to the person whose abuse they continue to tolerate. For some victims it is one final beating that nearly kills them that makes them ‘snap out of their denial’. Denial of the fact that no amount of love will make the relationship good again. That no amount of wishful thinking will make the other partner be nice to you again. That if nothing changes, nothing changes. That you, in fact, are worthy of better than to suffer or die (physically or emotionally) at the hands of someone who you have given your all to. We have to be careful that when we're looking for reasons for why domestic violence happens, that they don't become excuses. We have to focus on prevention before it happens; and support and adequate protection when it's already established.