'Breaking the silence' may help victims of domestic violence deal with abuse

By Rebecca Hayman, LMSW

Domestic violence is a common and under-reported crime in the United States. Control is at the center of violent behavior. Abusive men use violence against women to exert and maintain control and power in the marital dyad. Abusive men feel entitled to express their frustrations or anger by being violent towards women. Although there is clear evidence indicating that women are, infrequently, the perpetrators of domestic violence, research findings prove that it is generally men who are the majority of the perpetrators.

Thousands of daily acts of violence throughout the country create a climate of fear and powerlessness that limits women's freedom of action and controls many of their normal daily activities. Race and class of women are correlated to domestic violence victimization. Individuals in positions of power (often white, affluent men) dismiss violence done to women of color as insignificant (Susan Griffin, "Rape The Power of Consciousness," San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979, p. 3.). Women of color, poor women, divorced women and lesbians, for example, are often believed and respected less than white, financially stable, married, heterosexual women.

Psychological and physical abuse accelerates when the initial controlling actions stop working for the abuser. Domestic violence has been around for a very long time. It is only recently that women have begun to speak out and report domestic violence in the home. The only way to effectuate greater awareness of domestic violence is for people to speak out. As long as women don't talk about this behavior, it will continue to occur (Susan Chessler, "Escape From Abuse," The Jewish News, October 2-8, 2014, p. 1 and p. 70.) FBI statistics indicate that every 15 seconds, a woman is beaten by her husband or boyfriend. Nearly one-third of female homicide victims are killed by their husbands or boyfriends (The Boston Women's Health Book Collective,1994). As one battered woman wrote of her husband's violence, "I may be his excuse, but I have never been his reason."

Battering takes on many forms. The majority of women who are battered are abused repeatedly by the same person. As time passes, these beatings often increase in frequency and severity. Psychological abuse is a component of domestic violence. What are the differences between physical and psychological abuse? There are obvious physical signs with physical abuse such as bruises, cuts and broken bones. These symptoms are more easily identified, and therefore, can corroborate claims of abuse. Some women are not believed by police when reports of domestic violence are made. This leaves many women as well as their children to remain in harm's way by the perpetrator, who continues the cycle of abuse.

Psychological abuse is much harder to detect, especially when the abuser is using passive-aggressive strategies to undermine the power and self-esteem of the victim. This experience can leave a woman feeling ashamed, embarrassed, and loss of sense of self (Welwood, 2006). A bruise on the body surface can heal, but the resultant psychological scarring can last for a lifetime. Psychological abuse includes name calling, withholding (i.e. sexual, financial), blaming or accusing, judging, criticizing or disparaging, trivializing, threatening, undermining, ordering, forced isolation, and stalking are examples of psychological abuse (Evans, 2002).

Another important issue is the need to educate young females. Learning from role models how to respectfully treat a female is essential for her overall well being as she grows into adulthood.

Boys must learn at a young age how to treat girls and the other females in their lives with respect. Adults have the responsibility to educate the younger generations about how to treat one another with kindness and respect.

There are a few to recommend to your clients that may help them detect potential abusers. The first is "The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists," by Eleanor Payson, M.S.W. Payson describes how to identify the traits of a narcissist. Additional resources include: "Deceived Facing Sexual Betrayal, Lies, and Secrets," by Claudia Black, Ph.D.; "Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand and Deal with People Who Try to Control You," by Patricia Evans;and "Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People," by George Simon Jr., Ph.D.

Suggestions for Family Law Attorneys

The legal and mental health professions should work together in order to gain an understanding of the effects of domestic violence and pertinent laws in order to effectively assist clients and their families.

Providing compassionate representation to clients experiencing domestic violence requires knowledge of the cycle of abuse. For example, how do men learn violence at home? It is often behavior learned by seeing violence and other abusive behaviors in the home during childhood.

Many domestic violence survivors remain in the home not only because the abuser impedes escape, but also because the survivor hopes the abusive behavior will change.

When addressing the topic of abuse, it is vital to better understand the magnitude of psychological damage to women and children. The severity and frequency, as well as the type of abuse (physical vs. psychological or combination of both) all determine the toll domestic violence has on its victims. The psychological consequences of abuse for adult and child victims include: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depression, Situational Anxiety, powerlessness, inability to be focused, and low self-esteem.

When a domestic violence victim seeks therapy to help her heal from the abuse, psychological testing is often necessary in order to thoroughly assess her mental condition. This would entail a referral to a Ph.D. psychologist who is experienced with screening for identification of the emotional aftermath of abuse. One example of a psychological test to measure the presence of strength of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality-2 (MMPI). A psychologist or clinical social worker can also evaluate the depth of depression and suicide potential, and treat the symptoms appropriately.

Referrals to psychologists are applicable to children affected by domestic violence as well. Selecting a clinician who specializes in treating children is imperative. An effective therapist will assist your client in learning coping skills, cognitive structuring, confidence building, desensitization and how to overcome fears (Jongsma and Peterson, 2006).

When talking with clients, it is important to empathize with their struggle to deal with the disturbing presence of abusers. Persuade your client to remain composed in the face of unreasonableness, which may help her identify the dynamic with which she is coping. It is advantageous to be able to predict the specific emotional trap being set for her, which is her passport to getting her own power back. Maintaining one's sense of self, as well as staying calm amidst the chaos are the goals to work towards ("The High Art of Handling Problem People", Marano, June 2012)

Finally, to heal the emotional scars of abuse, we need to tell our stories to people who understand what we have experienced. Talking to others in counseling, or support groups for individuals with a history of domestic violence breaks the silence, helps us gain perspectives and know we are not alone, and eases the pain. Women who utilize these tools feel healthier and stronger. It gives them hope for a better future. As a society as a whole, we must not look at domestic abuse as a male to female, or female to male issue, but rather as a collective problem of humankind that must be talked about more openly, and brought out of the closet of the secrets of abuse. Nobody is safe until we are all safe.


Rebecca Hayman is a clinical social worker/psychotherapist, and maintains a private practice in Farmington Hills. She is the author of "Alphabet Advice for Adults." The above article is published with the permission of the Michigan Family Law Journal.

Published: Fri, Aug 07, 2015