After driving several miles into Washington, D.C., I arrived at a new client’s apartment for the first time. The complex seemed almost hidden by the busier streets and bustling drive-throughs I passed on the way. It was one of the first times that I went alone to do a home visit as an adoption social worker.
Delicately, Shannon (all names are changed here to protect confidentiality) opened the door. Her right eye was bloodshot and her face bruised. There were dark circles under her eyes and much of the skin on her face looked tender and sore. But it was her gaze that was the most piercing: exhausted, surrendered, resilient.
I doubt I was completely successful in masking the heartache I felt upon seeing her, upon meeting her for the first time this way. “He’s on the run now,” she said. And I’m sure we both couldn’t help but think, “What if he comes back?”
Those who experience domestic violence (DV) are not strangers to the fear, terror, gnawing uncertainty, and feeling of being trapped that Shannon fought to overcome as she cared for two very young children.
Anchored in disordered illustrations of power and control, domestic violence comes in many forms. A perpetrator seeks to have control of another in ways that brutally violate physical, emotional, financial, and relational boundaries.
Domestic violence — now often called Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) — is not uncommon. The National Institute of Health (NIH) states that as many as one in four women, and one in nine men, are victims of domestic violence. What’s more, the NIH states that “domestic violence is thought to be underreported,” meaning it is not far-fetched to think that many more instances of domestic violence are hidden in plain sight.
Domestic violence happens to people in all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels, and affects both men and women. People of all races, ages, sexual orientations, and religions can be victims or perpetrators. It can happen in relationships where partners are married, living together, or just dating. Keeping these pervasive dynamics in mind can prevent stereotypes and misconceptions from getting in the way of seeing abuse that might be taking place within a relationship.
While physical manifestations of domestic violence like those Shannon experienced are the most recognizable signs, they are not the only indicators that something just isn’t right. As you navigate your own relationships and seek to support loved ones in doing the same, it is worth knowing the ways domestic violence may impact someone.
So your friend just started seeing someone new, and you’ve hardly seen her since. Your weekly coffee dates seem to be a thing of the past. She’s ignoring your calls, not to mention your texts. While it is not out of the ordinary to spend more time with a significant other (especially in the “honeymoon phase” of a relationship!) a pattern of increasing and consistent withdrawal from close friendships — especially with little to no explanation — is unhealthy.
A healthy relationship respects boundaries that allow each person to thrive in their own friendships, family, personal privacy, and even educational or career pursuits. Dictating whom another person can see and when, using jealousy to manipulate behavior (which is different than telling your significant other you’ll miss them while he/she spends a weekend away with friends), and refusing to respect privacy are all attempts to isolate someone to an abusive degree.
Emotional abuse: it’s not just a tease
More likely than not, there is someone who knows you well enough to poke a little fun at your flaws. But there is a marked difference between a little joke about how it always takes you ages to get ready for a night out and being intentionally humiliated in front of others at dinner — let alone by someone who should be supporting and encouraging you.
Emotional abuse can also look like gaslighting (leading someone to believe their observations or other perceptions of reality are wrong, crazy, or misguided), put-downs with insults and derogatory language, or exacerbating or preying on your struggles (negative body image, a low test score, a bad habit you’re trying to break).
Take notice of how a significant other reacts in moments when you are feeling vulnerability, disappointment, or the like. Does he/she emphasize discouragement and shame, or show compassion and gentleness? Do fights end in dangerous territory (throwing objects, physical hurt, threatening ultimatums), or in forgiveness and resolution? While we must acknowledge that each of us says and does hurtful things sometimes, emotional abuse simply goes too far.
Nothing heightens power and control like the uncertainty and suffocating fear that can come with a threat. A threat intends to coerce or manipulate someone against their wishes.
Emma had been physically abused to the point that she needed attention at a hospital. Recently, she shared with me that she was receiving texts about someone staking out her house. Afraid to return, she felt as though she had nowhere to go. The threat of violence was taking away from her a space that is meant to be comforting and safe.
Other threats may pertain to children, finances, a personal secret, or anything that a perpetrator knows a victim holds dear and would do virtually anything to keep. It is never okay for someone to use someone or something you love or need against you.
Threats, isolation, emotional abuse — not to mention other tell-tale signs of domestic violence — all have the potential to incite behavior changes that can serve as warning signs. Withdrawal, significant agitation, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, loss of interest in daily activities, drug or alcohol abuse, addictive behavior, and changes in sleep habits (sleeping too little or too much) are some ways to tell if it may be time to seek outside support and perhaps end a relationship.
Any relationship has the potential to be healthy, abusive, or somewhere in between. Research the characteristics of healthy, unhealthy, and abusive relationships. If you think you or someone you know may be involved in a relationship that is unhealthy or abusive, you can reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). There is also a live chat feature available at thehotline.org.
There are caring, compassionate people ready to offer professional support at any time. Among other national domestic violence organizations, local organizations can provide counseling, housing, and other supports to those affected by domestic violence.
Know that there are people who will walk with you the whole way through an abusive relationship, who will help you fight for your freedom and peace.