It is not infrequent that a story of domestic violence screams out on headlines. When this happens we search for meanings and answers, and wonder how a tragedy could have been prevented. Culturally, we possess a pragmatic approach to most problems, and as such we presume that people have choices. Why doesn’t she leave? If she hasn’t left we may privately wonder if she is a participant or even a facilitator of the circle of violence.
We often forget that originally there is a spark that brings two people together. In any situation where there is love and dependence, even in its most positive manifestation of interdependence, hate will be aroused. In the most stable, healthy relationships hate and aggression exist, it is only dealt with differently. In healthier relationships it is felt, tolerated and talked about, or otherwise worked through. In the least healthy it is acted out.
Abuse in couples can take on many forms. From berating verbally, to various forms of humiliation to the more extreme cases in which there is physical and sexual aggression – in which case all levels of abuse exist. We must remember that women who are abused physically are always severely emotionally abused, controlled and terrorized.
There are many obstacles that stand in the way of a victim to leave her abuser. The material ones are more apparent, and perhaps easier to accept, particularly when considering victims with limited socioeconomic resources who are dependent financially on their abusers. Women, often with children, may possess limited financial resources and social and community support in attempting to leave their abusers. Cultural values in which the preservation of a marriage surpasses a woman’s safety may prevail. A woman may lack education and marketable skills to support herself and her children as a single parent. Fear of how she would manage may keep her there long past when she should stay. Fear that he may pursue her, find her and punish her, as he has threatened, may fuel her insecurity and paralyze her into passivity.
What is more mystifying to an outsider is the woman’s love for her partner, and her repeated attempts to rectify the situation. She may blame herself (since he has told her many times it is her fault); She may believe it is better for her children to have a father than no father at all; She may believe things will get better if she stays, if she can help him or if she could only do better. Underlying all this is her fear of surviving on her own, her dependence on him and often a profound lack of self-esteem. Many women will leave their husbands/partners numerous times only to return. He may be very loving and sincere when he is not abusive, and reels her in with his apparent love for her, his own dependence on her. An unconscious dance of mutual projections occurs in which loved and hated parts of each member of the couple is projected on to the other with the consequent expressions of love and hate.
The abusive situation runs throughout the socioeconomic layers of society. A wealthy woman has much to lose in her standard of living if she leaves an abusive husband. Humiliation and shame are often a factor, and the husband may be well liked and respected in the community. Yet the effects of abuse scars children who are raised in environments where there is no fundamental emotional or physical safety, when acts of love and hate seem interchangeable.
If women have opportunities to strengthen their sense of selves, over time they may disentangle themselves from difficult situations. The passage of time and the repeated cycle may wear a woman down and reduce her tolerance to such a relationship. The headlines do not scream when a woman finds the courage and resources to leave and create a better life for herself and her children.
Michal Tziyon is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in private practice. Her website is www.nypsychotherapy-mtziyon.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.