The circumstances weren’t extraordinary: We were just a group of friends having lunch together, sitting at a big round table, chatting about the yoga workshop we were doing and catching up on each other’s lives. There were six of us at the patio table of an unassuming Greek joint in Jackson just off the highway.
My friend Dierdre asked if I was working on any interesting stories. I was writing about a woman killed in a domestic violence incident, I said, and it was tough going.
All six women at the table got quiet. And then, as if a spigot had been turned to the left, one by one, my friends started sharing their experiences of domestic violence.
Five of us at the table had been in abusive relationships. All of us knew other women who had been abused or were being abused as we sat and talked. I think one was in an abusive relationship that day, although she never said it aloud.
In researching the story I was working on that day and the dozens I would write over the years since, I found out that our little group wasn’t all that unusual. One in three women and one in four men has experienced physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner, according to National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Here are some other things I learned over the years:
- If you’re asking, “Why doesn’t she leave him?” you’re asking the wrong question. To find solutions, try asking “Why does he abuse?” instead.
- DV doesn’t care about the color of your skin, the neighborhood you live in or how much money you have in the bank. It doesn’t matter how smart you are either. It affects women, men and children from all socio-economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds. In fact, those with resources get away with abuse more often than poor folks. They can more easily cover it up.
- One or more of your friends, family members and neighbors have experienced violence in an intimate relationship.
- Not all abusers are men, and not all DV victims are women, but that dynamic is true for the most part.
- Drugs and alcohol don’t cause DV; they exacerbate it.
- Abusers groom their victims. They almost always begin by quickly paying an exorbitant amount of energy telling you how dazzling you are and how they just can’t help but fall in love with you. In fact, displaying deep affection in record time is a red flag for future abusive behavior. Things shift little by little.
- DV comes in several flavors:
- physical violence, including sexual assault and rape
- psychological and emotional abuse. (These were my abuser’s weapons of choice. He never failed to take the opportunity to belittle me, whether it was my choice of music, the tiniest mistakes, my friends and family, my education — you name it. I was just never good enough.)
- Verbal threats and public humiliation come hand-in-hand with all forms of abuse. Abusers will often threaten to kill their victims or themselves, say they will take their children away from them or threaten to throw them out of the home with nothing.
- DV is about exerting power and control over another human being. It’s not about anger, although abusers frequently display anger. It’s definitely not about love.
- Typically, abusers will try to control their victim’s time and money, down to every minute and every penny.
- Abusers will isolate their victims from family and friends.
- Abusers will gaslight their victims, telling them that what’s happening is all in their heads and really never happened at all. Gaslight someone long enough and they will begin to question their sanity.
- For these reasons, many victims are frequently left with little to no resources to leave their abusers.
- If he hits you once, the saying goes, he’ll hit you again. Abusers frequently apologize for their behavior, sometimes in tears. If the victim forgives them, the cycle begins again.
- Abusers frequently believe the abuse is their victim’s fault and that they have the right to do what they do. “Look what you made me do” is a familiar refrain.
- Leaving an abuser is harder than you know, and the point of leaving is the most dangerous time for victims. If abusers catch their victims in the act, the abuse can be exponentially worse at that moment.
- Regardless of how bad it gets, it takes most victims an average of seven attempts to make the break permanent. Sometimes the devil you know is preferable to the one you don’t, and victims weakened by months and years of abuse and fear may have an especially difficult time adjusting to fending for themselves.
- Children who grow up in abusive homes frequently become abusers or victims themselves. Without intervention, they may never understand that abuse isn’t normal.
- Scars from DV run deep, even with a lot of help. Some time I’ll let you know how much I’ve spent on therapy. Still, my stomach is in knots just writing this.
On one of my bookshelves, I display a purple rubber bracelet inscribed with “No Excuse for Abuse.” It was one of many items in a goody bag from seminar on domestic violence I attended. I keep it around to remind myself I’m a survivor and will never to be a victim of DV again.
So, what can you do about domestic violence?
If you are in an abusive relationship, get help. Yes, I know it can be dangerous. Yes, I know you’re not sure where to turn. Yes, I know you’re scared. Make a plan and do it anyway. Your life may depend on it.
If you’re in immediate danger, call 911.
For short and long-term assistance, in Vicksburg, call Mountain of Faith at 601-501-4508 or Haven House at 601-638-0555. Other resources include Pastor Troy Truly of Truly Ministries, 601-218-1323, and Deputy Chief Eric Paymon of the Vicksburg Police Department, 601-218-1495. Community activist Gina Hendrickson can also provide assistance. Call her at 914-522-4692.
If you know someone who is in an abusive relationship, be supportive. Don’t ask what they need because chances are, they won’t know what they need. Suggest specific things you’re willing to do such as offering to cook or clean or providing the victim with transportation or a place to stay. Maybe offer to call the police for them if they’re afraid of doing it themselves. Maybe what they need right now is a warm embrace and shoulder to cry on. Don’t push and try not to be impatient.
If you’re an abuser, get help. Talk with a trusted relative, your pastor or even a legal or law enforcement professional. Anger management can help, but you will need to do some hard work to find and dismantle the belief system that has you be an abusive man or woman.
It’s never too early or too late to end the cycle of abuse. The life you save could be your own.