Domestic Violence: Power Struggle With Lasting Consequences
Domestic violence is a pervasive, too-common form of abuse.
Posted May 27, 2011
Any situation in which one partner wields power over the other repeatedly can fall under the umbrella of domestic abuse. The United States Office on Violence Against Women (the O.V.W.) defines domestic violence as "a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner." 4
The OVW reports that a woman is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds in the U.S. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in this country, and every day at least three women are killed by their partners in the U.S. 4
But the truth is, women are not the only victims of domestic violence. Similar to child abuse, domestic violence allows an abuser in a position of power to prey on the person in the relationship who has less power. In a man/woman relationship, this is often the woman, but it's important to note that all types of people (men, women, straight, gay) can be abusive...and can also be abused.
Batteredmen.com claims that 835,000 men are abused each year, and offers a comprehensive website full of resources and information. In my own practice, I have counseled several men who were victims of abuse in their relationships.
Regardless of their gender or sexual preference, those who experienced abuse as children are more likely to become abusive themselves in adult intimate relationships. Lenore Walker's theory of The Cycle of Abuse explains how patterns of abusive behavior endure:
- An initial abusive incident occurs (sexual, physical, or emotional).
- Tension builds, with the abuser trying to quell their violent tendency and the abusee trying to "keep the peace" until, finally, another incident happens.
- Make-up: The abuser apologizes, often promising never to do it again or, conversely, trying to shed blame by saying that the victim "asked for it" or is "making a big deal out of nothing."
- Calm: Both parties act as if nothing is wrong, and do their best to ignore the mounting problem.
This cycle can repeat itself endlessly, with the victim playing a prescribed role that is just as predictable as the perpetrator's. Eventually, the "Make-up" and "Calm" stages get shorter and the abusive stages get longer. After a period of time, it's not uncommon for victims of domestic violence (like victims of all types of abuse or trauma) to develop the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And because studies have proven that those who suffer from PTSD can be inclined toward violence, the cycle of abuse repeats itself through generations and is hard to break. Victims for whom domestic violence leads to PTSD struggle with a long-term psychological disorder that can be challenging to diagnose and conquer.
According to the report "Women, Domestic Violence, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)" by Margaret J. Hughes and Loring Jones, "The severity of the violence, the duration of exposure, early-age onset, and the victim's cognitive assessment of the violence (perceived degree of threat, predictability, and controllability) exacerbate the symptoms." This report also found that women who resort to taking refuge in shelters as a result of domestic violence are at a higher risk for PTSD than other victimized women. In any given shelter, they found, 40-84% of the residents are victims of domestic violence.1
A.A.R.D.V.A.R.C. — An Abuse, Rape, and Domestic Violence Aid and Resource Collection — lists battering as the single major cause of injury to women. Domestic abuse is more prevalent than even injuries sustained in accidents.2 Domestic violence tends to be repetitive and endurance-based. The physical effects of this type of trauma on victims is often obvious and acute: lacerations, bruises, broken bones, head injuries, internal bleeding, chronic pelvic pain, abdominal and gastrointestinal complaints, frequent vaginal and urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV.3 But it can also manifest over the long term as chronic physical problems like arthritis, hypertension, and heart issues. Existing medical conditions can similarly be aggravated by sustained physical abuse.
And often, it's the emotional component of domestic violence that leads to a chronic state of PTSD. Being abused by someone who should be trustworthy and be nurturing leads many women to feel abandoned, betrayed, or even crazy. Depression is by far the most common symptom of domestic violence, and it's also one of the chronic effects of PTSD caused by abuse. The feeling of helplessness and hopelessness to which many victims fall prey has a profoundly undermining effect on their mental and emotional well-being.
And because abusers often exacerbate the harmfulness of their abuse by refusing their partners access to adequate medical and psychological care—and even withholding such care as a further form of abuse—it is often extremely challenging for victims to escape the cycle of abuse. Even those of who have managed to move on from crippling abusive relationships can suffer the aftershocks of abuse—in other words, PTSD—for many years. PTSD from abuse is characterized by symptoms such as flashbacks, intrusive imagery, nightmares, anxiety, emotional numbing, insomnia, hyper-vigilance, and avoidance of traumatic triggers.
Extracting oneself from a domestic violence situation can be extremely challenging.
If you are a previous victim of domestic violence and you suspect that you are suffering from the delayed symptoms of PTSD, I encourage you to contact a psychotherapist who specializes in domestic violence. If you are in a situation in which you are currently experiencing domestic violence—or even if you are unsure and want to learn more—a great place to start is The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) (Anonymous and confidential help 24/7.)
Jones & Horan, 1997 and Bohn & Holz, 1996