We are the ones you rarely hear about when you study the reasons behind divorce statistics: Educated women like myself, who stayed in abusive marital environments for decades, thinking it would change.
The general public tends to reason that women who are victims of or eventually escape domestic violence usually fall into the lower-income ranges – those who have not had the advantages of higher education or a functional upbringing.
But the reasons many women stay under the radar with this issue are as diverse and far ranging as any other predicament in which people find themselves.
Abuse knows no bounds . . .
The truth is that marital physical abuse permeates every socio-economic level. Middle and upper class women who survive marriages in which they suffered physical abuse at the hands of their ex-husbands simply tend not to speak of it. Why? Probably because after we finally decided to leave that environment, we were embarrassed to admit that we stayed for as long as we did. Before that we were no doubt in denial that it was really happening to us. I, for one, never pictured myself among those who could be chosen for daytime TV on panel shows like The Jerry Springer Show, where women from obviously violent environments would complain publicly about their spouses or boyfriends.
You don’t have to be poor to experience domestic violence. Plenty of middle-class women, and some men, are beaten and humiliated by their partners. The current economic downturn doesn’t cause violence in itself, but it is creating the conditions that make these times ripe for it –environments where a sudden change in circumstances, acute financial problems, or loss of self-esteem come into play.
Realizing where we are . . .
In his article Understanding the Victims of Spousal Abuse, Dr. Frank M. Ochberg points out that there are those who are victims, those who were victims, and those who want to help but are not victims themselves.
He admits that the word ‘victim’ carries with it connotations and associations that many find degrading. Especially educated, upper middle class women feel they deserve some kind of dignity and freedom from fear while seeking compassionate acceptance by their families, friends and communities. Those of us who have lived to tell of our former circumstances now realize we were indeed victims, however. The conclusion I have recently reached now that I have lived nearly a decade as a non-victim is that I have a unique capacity to become a small-scale catalyst for change in spousal relations in general by merely bringing illumination to it both with my writing and in my conversations with other women.
Those paralyzed with fear at one point know well how gut-wrenching making the decision to leave that environment can be. For me, it was much more than an escape from the physical threat, reasoning my ex lashed out physically against me only an occasionally, accompanying his tirades with verbal degradation. As wives and mothers, It can involve our concern with breaking up a family nest (no matter how dysfunctional). It can be the thought of admitting to close friends and family what has gone on within the walls of our seemingly lovely homes, out of earshot and shielded from sight. And it can be cloaked in the idea that staying made us stronger wives and mothers, not weaker ones. While we may have tried to convince our spouses to get help if they intended to learn how to stop hurting those they supposedly loved. paradoxically enough, advice like that to batterers from the victims of the abuse can be received with explosive denial. And in the end, many men see no need to be ‘fixed’ by their wives.
How we were conditioned (or condition ourselves) to accept our fates . . .
Some of us brought up in church-going households were no doubt taught to pray for those we love every chance we got. “God will change his heart,” my sainted little mother used to reassure me when instructing me in my wifely duties. Even if religion were not at play, however, many Boomers like myself were raised by a generation of women who saw their roles in life as supreme caretakers whose job it was to endure not only the rigors and joys of motherhood but also to cater to our husbands’ needs no matter what the cost. My generation may indeed be the first to break free of the hard and fast roles modeled for us, as domestic violence incidents are being reported in greater numbers than ever before after having been an undercurrent in many households for generations.
Another reason many women stay is that there is simply no exit. “The door is open but she cannot leave,” says Ochberg. “She has no resources of her own. Her children need her. She is terrified of the police. Social workers are people who can declare you an unfit mother. The perpetrator has threatened to kill her if she leaves or if she tells and she knows no safe haven from him. There is no federal witness protection program for domestic assault victims. Her fear is real, the threat is real, and the pathway to freedom cannot be found.”
“For some the shame is crushing,” he goes on. “To heal in private, behind dark glasses, behind closed blinds is far better than to be seen by others. Physical pain is more bearable than shame. The shame is deeper than embarrassment. It is mortification, humiliation, dehumanization. Shame depends on the eyes of others. Avoid the eyes, avoid the shame. Stay home. Endure.”
Standing on the outside . . .
If you’ve never been a victim of spousal abuse, Ochberg poignantly illustrates a way to imagine it. Try to recall a time of intimidation by a larger person, perhaps in childhood . . . “when you dared not fight, when you felt small and hurt and humiliated,” he suggests. To offer help to victims of abuse, he asks, “Join hands with the victims and the survivors. Feel the partnership, the parity, the universality of being human and being hurt — because in this field, to deny one’s vulnerability to victimization is to pass from person to authority, to appear and to become separate. We are all colleagues when the issue is coping with human cruelty.”
Ochberg explains the many reasons a battered wife might love her spouse and stay the course, but most of the issues therapists deal with in couples’ counseling have to do with childhood ‘attachment’ issues. Ochberg, a therapist himself, warns against generalizations when professional counseling plays a role, especially when women who are currently being battered are more in need of physical protection, advocacy, financial resources, and a reliable support system. For this purpose there are shelters, 24-hour hotlines and family law attorneys who work day in and day out to help people who are caught in the cycles of abuse.
While therapy can help heal wounds and enable women to learn how they landed in their abusive circumstances, “We must do more than treat the wounded,” urges Ochberg. “Spouse abuse is a long-standing, entrenched problem. Fortunately, there are experienced, effective survivors committed to changing this cruel aspect of human history. We who treat and teach can do no better than to join hands with them.”