Posts Tagged ‘domestic violence’

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DV Literacy

When this blog began I was working as an advocate for survivors of domestic violence or “DV” in Chicago. DV is a topic I’m passionate about both as an advocate but also on a personal level, both as a child witness of DV and as a survivor of DV myself in my teen years. As I considered my next topic for the blog I was stunned to realize that I’ve never discussed DV in any of my past posts! I feel I’ve been remiss in leaving out a topic that has resonated for me for so much of my life. And one that seems like “required reading” for being a human in 2017 if you want to be aware and responsible for recognizing the signs of DV.

First, some disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1: For the sake of writing ease, I will refer to survivors of DV as “she” or “her” and will refer to perpetrators of DV as “he” or “him”. Please know that I am very aware that males also suffer at the hands of DV perpetrators as well as there being abusers who are female. Statistically, the majority of DV survivors are women. Give me a break as a writer and try to go with it ;)

Disclaimer #2: I prefer using the word “survivor” rather than “victim”. We’ll get into this more over the next couple of posts, but the short answer as to why that is would be that I prefer “survivor” because it is more empowering and less blaming. Empowerment is especially important for any survivors reading this.

With that all said, let’s talk DV.

What is DV? How prevalent is it?

“Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling behavior that can include physical abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, sexual abuse or financial abuse.” -National Network to End Domestic Violence

“Domestic violence involves a continuum of behaviors ranging from degrading remarks to cruel jokes, economic exploitation, punches and kicks, false imprisonment, sexual abuse, suffocating actions, maiming assaults, and homicide. Unchecked, domestic violence usually increases in frequency and severity. Many victims suffer all forms of abuse. Verbal and emotional abuse may be subtler than physical harm, but this does not mean that it is less destructive to victims. Many have said that the emotional scars take much longer to heal than the broken bones.”Barbara Hart, National Expert on Family Violence

As for frequency, DV is currently the leading cause of injury to women ages 15-44 in the United States—more than car accidents, muggings and reported rapes combined. That means that the number one reason for ER visits is… DV. The number one reason!!

The fact is that 1 in 3 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Not all go to the ER, sure. And this does not include the men who will experience DV in their lifetimes. That’s A LOT of people being affected by this thing we call DV.

Many are injured physically by DV and some are killed. One-third of female homicide victims that are reported in police records are killed by an intimate partner. Think about that next time you hear about a “crime of passion” on the news; take a minute to translate what that likely means, the crime likely involved dynamics of DV.

Let’s be honest, someone can be a “jerk” without being domestically violent. Someone rises to the level of being a perpetrator of domestic violence when they are motivated by power and control over someone else, typically a romantic partner though not always (see Power and Control Wheel below for more on this). Curiously enough, abuse can happen without laying a finger on someone. A huge takeaway here: not all DV is physical in nature! In fact most DV is verbally and emotionally abusive in nature! Make no mistake that those who show up in the ER for DV-reasons likely arrived there after a period of verbal and emotional abuse. Physical violence tends to occur as DV dynamics in the relationship escalate (see Cycle of Violence below).

Why don’t we hear more about it?

DV has been called the “silent epidemic”. Vice President Joe Biden called domestic violence a “public health epidemic” that requires urgent attention. Biden created VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) which funds domestic violence services across the USA, though President Trump has taken steps to strip this crucial funding.

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Yet, abuse is not always obvious.

Many survivors say “I never thought this would happen to me” or “how did this happen? I swear my partner wasn’t like this when we first met”. Indeed, abusive behavior often shows up in sudden and unexpected ways—often in a relationship that started off loving, fun, magnetic.

I think we all would love to believe that abusiveness is always obvious and could never hide in plain sight because then we could feel more certain in the belief that it could never happen to me—we tell ourselves we will see it and definitely avoid it. The idea that relationship-wrecking, dangerous abuse could somehow not be obvious scares us. But it’s true, not all perpetrators of abuse exhibit tell-tale signs from the beginning. It’s not as tidy a spectre to detect as we might like to assume. At least not right away. And physical abuse is only part of domestic violence, as we have seen. Many perpetrators slowly groom the person they are abusing using emotional abuse, verbal abuse and control. These other forms of abuse are much more subtle to notice, especially out of context, yet can result in lasting, if “invisible” damage to the survivor.

Watch stereotypes and victim-blaming.

People of all races are equally likely to be abused by a partner. DV occurs in all communities, amongst all races, socio-economic statuses, in all regions and to people of varying religious background and sexual orientation. Yet, when people are asked to picture a survivor of DV most people call to mind a woman, she’s likely Caucasian and maybe she’s crying with a broken bone and a black eye. The next thought is often “why didn’t she just leave? Couldn’t she see that her partner was dangerous before this happened?” Essentially, most of us want to assess how much she contributed to her own plight; surely some of this outcome was within her control? She could have avoided it better? Right? That is victim-blaming. People victim-blame, often unconsciously, in order to reassure themselves that the world is safe, that if they were in that situation they would see it; they would get out. Wouldn’t we? It’s scary to think that we could possibly be blind to danger or not as in control of a situation the way we believe we are. Leaving an abusive situation is not so simple and not always safe to do without a plan. Click here to learn more about the barriers to leaving a DV situation.

Learn how to spot potential abusiveness. Power, control and cycles are key.

That all being said there has been lots of research done showing that there DO exist concrete signs, predictors and patterns to the behavior of perpetrators of abuse.


Abusive behavior never looks exactly the same in every case and yet there is a common thread, a pattern indicating a particular motive driving the behavior… that is the biggest clue; the motive and desire to maintain power and control over the other person. Though, noticing the “common thread” of behaviors, indicators, dynamics across situations is not always easy either. And so. We come to an area of ambiguity when it comes to what is abusive.

Typically, when working with survivors of DV I help them understand how a desire for power and control over others can motivate the perpetrator’s behavior and that, as it plays out, certain behaviors can be abusive. As I educate the survivor about what is known about dynamics of abuse, in general, the survivor often begins to connect what they had experienced in the relationship to what they now recognize is unacceptable treatment or “abuse”. They often notice what things, if any, resonate or are true for them in their own relationship. Letting the survivor come to this knowing on their own is key since they have likely been controlled in the past.  I always want this to be a moment of free will and choice, of recognition, illumination.

As I help the survivor learn to identify patterns of behavior that are in fact abusive, we examine how abusive behavior might be hurting the survivor and how behaviors of the perpetrator can function in keeping the survivor “stuck” in the situation. Many survivors I work with  recognize that a “pattern” or “cycle” keeps repeating in the relationship with their partners. Abuse is a cycle as you’ll see below:



If these behaviors happened once or twice I’m unsure I would come to the conclusion that what is happening is DV. It’s the continual cycle of power and control that’s the real problem. The problem is the fact that the reconciliation period never lasts. Research shows that the severity and lethality of abuse worsens over time as the cycle continues.

Is anything more confusing than the person who says they love you also hurting you? DV survivors deal with a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity.

I think part of what’s so difficult for many survivors of domestic violence is the sense of uncertainty and ambiguity about their situations.  You probably think being physically assaulted or verbally abused would be pretty obvious, so what the heck am I on about exactly?  Allow me to explain: as a person in an abusive situation becomes more aware of the abusiveness from their partner it can get very confusing; what they “should” do becomes more cloudy or ambiguous. At this crossroads, there are often competing values that come strongly into play when thinking through what to do next, values such as: “families stay together and work through conflict”, “I don’t want my child to grow up without a father”, “I don’t believe in divorce” vs. “the children and I deserve to feel safe, both physically and emotionally, in our own home”, “those who love you don’t harm you”, “I want to teach my children what a healthy relationship looks like by being in one myself”. How do you get safety for you and your kids when your partner is displaying a pattern of abuse that makes you feel unsafe? How do you accomplish that safety AND remain living together and in the relationship together? What if you want to leave but there’s no money to do so? Not so simple, huh?

So, CAN perpetrators of DV actually change?

A common hope survivors have is that perpetrator of abuse might be able to change their behavior… and then they would be less abusive or even non-abusive! I agree, that would be great! There has been extensive research showing how likely it is for perpetrators of abuse to change and become non-offenders… First, there is the consideration of HOW the abuser is going to change and become less abusive. The answer has historically been getting the perpetrator into “perpetrator intervention groups”. And… guess who hates attending these groups? Perpetrators! (“Me? I’m not a perpetrator, she just won’t do what I want sometimes and she gets mad. Why should I have to go to an expensive group because she won’t do what I want?”) Thus, the numbers of perpetrators who go to group are extremely low. In fact, most groups are made up of 100% court-mandated perpetrators. Of those who do attend group to “learn to change”, the majority go on to re-offend as well. I’m sorry to say, it’s pretty dismal! Click here to read more. Let’s say you were going to place a bet on whether a perpetrator of abuse will change and become a non-offender for the rest of his life… what would you bet would happen? Ok, now picture that you are placing that bet and depending on if you are wrong or right, women and children could get hurt or killed. No pressure at all. For more on lethality predictors of DV click here.


I talk with survivors at length about whether perpetrators of abuse–in general–can truly change or not. And then we talk about whether their specific partner can change. I like to focus on what we know about people in general changing. What are the steps one would take to effect a huge change in how they see the world, behave, and react in stressful situations? It’s not typically achieved through willpower alone but through the help of a professional, with a focus on introspection, a willingness to acknowledge one’s contribution to the problem and an investment in the goal (no abuse).

That being said, it’s typically a very tough moment for a survivor to recognize the chances of her partner changing are very slim. I’m not saying people can’t change just that you should be fully aware of how likely it is for someone to change and make your choices accordingly. What “should” a survivor do? Wait out a potentially dangerous situation in hopes of change? Or should she get out ASAP? 

There are no shoulds, there are only choices. 

I like to help my clients think through the possible outcomes of a variety of choices and then support them through those choices. Family members of survivors tend to take the path of “why don’t you leave already if it’s so bad?”. That brings us to the other reality, if a person being abused does choose to leave the situation (yay, that’s what we were all rooting for!) it is THE most dangerous time for her, the time she could most likely to be hurt or killed. The survivor is the expert in her abuser’s behavior; she knows best when it is safe or not-safe to leave. I encourage survivors to trust their gut on what to do, when to leave or not at this time or that time, etc.

Leaving is also a time of uncertainty and confusion for any children involved. It can be extremely difficult for the survivor, not just because of danger and the emotions of choosing to escape abuse, but also difficult in the financial sense. Many abusers exert control and power through monitoring or restricting access to money or forbidding her to work. If a survivor wants to leave she often has to do so with little to no financial resources. If she tries to leave and “fails” financially, the perpetrator of abuse is often around to welcome her back; one way the cycle continues yet again. Financial hardship or lack of access to funds is the number one barrier to survivors leaving.  Many who realize that what they are experiencing is indeed abusive and finally want to get out find it difficult to form a plan to leave because of money and logistical aspects involving moving out, no access to transportation—all of which involve money.  Thankfully there are free programs in every state that help survivors gain access to housing, food, transportation, legal advocacy, counseling and money management classes. Just like the one I worked at for 5 years. Click here to donate to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.


In closing, I hope you remember to check at the door victim-blaming, stereotypes and assumptions when considering what survivors of DV go through. I hope I’ve given you plenty of food for thought regarding  the complexities of what constitutes domestic violence. And I hope you are more “DV literate” than when you started reading :)

DV survivors often seek counseling at a time when they are at the most vulnerable and confusing part of their journey. It is my honor to be part of the survivor’s path toward healing and hope. I am now in private practice and working with survivors of DV is one of my specialties. And, yes, I always welcome referrals, especially working with survivors. Thanks for reading!

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