“If he laid one finger on me I would walk!” How many times have you heard this, or a similar comment? Maybe you have said something similar yourself. It seems a given, that if the one human who should love you above all others, should inflict physical, or even psychological pain on you, that you would terminate the relationship and move on. Not so….. In reality, very few partners leave at the onset of abuse. Families live with domestic abuse for a significant period of time, and the abused will often return to the perpetrator after attempting to leave. In fact, on average victims’ experience abuse 50 times before accessing effective help to leave (SafeLives, 2015). There should be no doubt that saying no to domestic violence and breaking the cycle of abuse is extremely hard.
The nature of abuse, both in its gradual infiltration into a relationship, and in its invisibility, make action all the more difficult. Often abusers begin their relationships as the most caring and attentive partners, winning over family members, and maintaining a façade of a happy home. However, once the bonds of the relationship have grown tight, undercurrents of control and coercion grow into tidal waves, wreaking destruction upon both the victim and their family, notably children. So how does it work? What makes it so difficult to leave?
Psychologists often talk of ‘the cycle of abuse’, and it is just that. Although there are different types of abusers, the root nearly always comes back to one thing-power and control. To exert control, the perpetrator must show the victim the consequences of their failure to comply.
In the first instance, the abuser may feel wronged, ignored or neglected, sometimes as a result of unrealistic expectations. Some action, often innocent, on the part of the victim, makes the perpetrator feel threatened or upset. They then attempt to dominate the victim through verbal, physical, psychological or sexual abuse. At this point, the abuser may feel remorse or fear and attempt a reconciliation, nevertheless stressing that their actions were actually the fault of the victim due to their behaviour, lack of understanding, or failure to listen or obey. There follows a time of calm, in which the victim may psychologically ‘disassociate’ impacting their relationship with others, and also reducing the attention they are able to give their partner. The partner then feels ignored and neglected, and the cycle begins again……..
The impact on the victim is devastating. Many will tell you that physical injuries are the least of the damage, as they are gradually made to feel useless and worthless, isolated and unable to function. It is this that makes leaving all the more difficult. The disintegration of self-esteem and self-efficacy make the plethora of other difficulties surrounding leaving; such as lack of support, fear of financial implications, and social, cultural or religious beliefs, seem even more insurmountable, leaving the victim suspended in a cage of abuse.
However, many victims have found the strength to break free by identifying with others in the same situation who have already done so. Moreover, memoirs, life stories and poetry, written by those who have lived through abuse provide comfort both for those still in abusive relationships and those who have left them behind. If domestic abuse is allowed to remain hidden behind a veil of respectability, more victims and their children will suffer, and more lives will be lost. It is society’s collective duty to continue to bring this issue into the open, and support those who so desperately need help.