“Domestic Violence: Who Is at Risk and What Are the Signs?”

by Jessica E. Heller, MPS, ATR-BC, LCAT


October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in America, domestic violence (sometimes called Intimate Partner Abuse/Dating Violence) impacts 1 of 4 adult women (23%) and 1 in 7 adult men (14%) at some point in their lives. Domestic violence is a patterned behavior that occurs when a person seeks to assert power and control over another through physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abusive tactics.  This can occur between family members or in a marriage/cohabitation between current and past partners, both heterosexual and homosexual partners, on the part of either gender. Though, according to a report by the  U.S. Department of Justice, women are at a greater risk of experiencing violence in a partnership rather than men.  In spite of its prevalence, discussion of domestic violence continues to be taboo in many circles, and perceptions of who is impacted are often skewed.

WHO is impacted by domestic violence?

The media often reports domestic violence in heinous ways.  While it is true that domestic violence can often escalate to the point of horrific physical and sexual abuse, up to and including homicide, it is important that we not let these most extreme cases obscure our vision and allow us to miss early warning signs of other less violent types of Intimate Partner Abuse.  It is also very important to not lose sight of the fact that domestic violence effects people of every social class, education level, ethnicity, race, gender, and faith background and the signs of abuse are similar if not much the same.

SIGNS and behaviors of abuse and control

Here is a brief list of behaviors based on the research from the Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs and their Power & Control Wheel that indicate the presence of domestic violence within a relationship.  While this condensed list is not exhaustive, it can give you an objective view of behaviors that should not be acceptable in healthy relationships.  It should be noted that not all abusers engage in all of the behaviors listed below and this varies from relationship to relationship, but if you recognize some of these behaviors within your relationship (or the relationship of someone you know) there may be cause for concern.   If any of these behaviors are occurring – whether “intentionally” or “unintentionally”, and regardless of whether there is “remorse” on the part of the abuser, especially if they have happened repeatedly – please consider getting help.

Intimidation – Seeking power or control through the use of looks, actions, words, and gestures designed to create fear and submission.  Examples of this include displaying weapons, breaking objects, punching walls, destroying property, leaving threatening notes, and abusing pets.

Emotional Abuse – Undermining a partner’s sense of self-worth and emotional security by making condescending remarks, name calling, ridiculing personal beliefs, public/private humiliation, unfair blaming, repetitively bringing up what someone has done in their past, making contradictory demands, controlling how one dresses, etc. A particularly insidious aspect of this is known as gaslighting, which is a manipulative tactic to make the individual question their memory, perception, and, at times, even their sanity.

Isolation – The abuser isolates their partner socially and geographically. They may move the victim to a new location, farther away from support systems.  The abuser seeks to control where their partner goes, who they see and to whom they speak.  This behavior can often start out with an abusive partner “checking-up” on their partner, wanting to know their whereabouts frequently. These behaviors may feel “flattering” in the beginning of a relationship, though in time, can become restrictive and gradually pull the victim partner away from their sources of support.

Minimizing, Denying, and Blaming – Abusive individuals generally don’t take responsibility for their actions. Common strategies that they employ in order to evade taking responsibility include claiming that their partners are exaggerating the events, refusing to admit that any abuse has taken place at all, or claiming that it was the partner’s fault for somehow inciting the events or causing the abuse.

Using Children – Abusers will sometimes accuse their partner of bad parenting or find other ways to make the other parent feel guilty regarding their children. The abuser may create a split between their partner and their children by creating a “good” and “bad” parent by using gift giving and other manipulative tactics.  The abuser may also use legal threats as a means to control, threatening to have children removed or have custody revoked, etc.  In cases where there has already been a separation of the partners, an abusive partner may withhold child support, may be uncooperative with visitations, or may make false allegations to Child Protective Services.

Economic Abuse – Some abusers prevent their partners from working, keeping a position, or obtaining professional/educational advancement.  On the contrary, some other abusers may refuse to work and use their partner for financial support.  Abusers often control the finances, making bank accounts private and inaccessible to their partner.  They may also try to exert power by withholding cash or credit cards, and by making their partner account for every penny spent.

Coercion and Threats – Abusers may also use threats to get their partners to do something that the partner may not want to do, such as engaging in unwanted sexual acts (sexual abuse), to drop restraining orders, or even engage in criminal acts.  These threats can take many forms including threats of bodily injury to the partner, abandonment of the relationship, removal of the children, the contacting of Immigration and Naturalization Services, and even suicide.

Using Privilege – Abusers may also use various aspects of privilege against their partners. Differences such as race, economic/professional status, and religious beliefs, for example, can be misused to leverage an abuser over their partner. As referenced above, the prevalence of men abusing women is greater than any other dynamic and it is far too common for women to experience the misuse of male privilege as a form of abuse. Living in a patriarchal world, these gender roles have been “invisibly” interwoven into the daily life of many cultures and societies and at times can be difficult to distinguish. The bottom-line is that in any situation where one partner is disrespected, treated as less than, or is made to feel inferior is an inherently abusive situation and should be a cause for concern.

SUPPORT services

If you feel that you, a friend, a coworker, or relative is in an abusive relationship, there are many supportive agencies that can help.  One such agency in NYC is Safe Horizon, which is a victim assistance non-profit that offers services including hotlines, crisis shelters, legal advocacy, and counseling.  You can also visit WomensLaw.org for additional domestic and sexual violence services in the boroughs of New York.

For 24/7 confidential support, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1800-799-SAFE or the NYC DV Hotline, 1800-621-HOPE.  If you are ever in an immediate emergency, call 911.

For additional reading check out this book list provided by domesticshelters.org.

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