Talking about abuse, especially abuse within the sacred bonds of a marriage, is difficult. Each situation, person, and relationship differs in a number of ways. It is often difficult to compare the behaviors and actions of individuals in one relationship to those of another. However, there are some common characteristics which can assist in the identification of abuse in a romantic relationship.
The addition of a marriage may make approaching the topic of reaching out a bit more complicated. Marriage is a legal and binding contract and often makes it seem more difficult to acknowledge abuse and its effects. Even more difficult is the idea of leaving the relationship altogether.
What is abuse?
The simple definition of abuse is any behavior or action that is cruel, violent, or performed with the intent of harming someone. However, despite the simplicity of the definition, understanding and identifying abuse is far more complex. Often, the signs are so hidden in plain sight that those who have experienced acts of abuse for extended periods of time begin to identify these as part of normal life. Fifty percent of couples in relationships will experience at least one violent or aggressive incident during the course of that relationship. About a quarter of those couples will experience violence as a regular part of their relationship. The risk of abusive behaviors and domestic violence relies on a variety of factors but one thing is sure: abuse in relationships and marriages is not exclusive to any one race, gender, or age group. Anyone in a relationship is a potential victim.
Abuse is typically divided into four different categories: emotional, psychological, verbal, and physical. There are a few other types, including sexual abuse and neglect, but these are typically considered subtypes. The identifying factors, however, make it difficulty to clearly distinguish each type. Since each type shares so many similar characteristics, it is important to note that the presence of one type can often indicate the presence of additional types. For example, someone who is being victimized in the form of forced sexual activity or sexual violence is likely being verbally abused and talked down to as well.
How do I know if it’s abuse and not just normal struggles in our relationship?
Women who are abused by their spouse or partner experience a fairly similar set of behavior, those these can often be mistaken as a “normal” part of growth in a relationship. They often lie or are deceitful to family and friends in order to protect the abuser. The interactions between a woman and her abusive husband in public or with family/friends is usually negative; she could be frequently put down, criticized, threatened, or embarrassed with the intent to harm her emotionally. An abusive husband is typically overprotective to the point of intrusion. He must know where his wife it at all times and may enforce strict rules and limitations about time spent away from home and with whom this time is spent. Additionally, women who are victimized have low self-esteem which progressively worsens; many will begin to believe the horrible things their abusers say about them.
While some negative behaviors will be present at one time or another in most relationships or marriages, it is important to be able to distinguish between dysfunction and abuse. Dysfunction occurs when the ability to communicate between partners is limited or damaged. As previously mentioned, at least half of all couples will experience one violent incident in the life of their relationship. This does not mean the behavior becomes normalized or made a regular occurrence. Typically these kinds of incidents are immediately recognized and a period of reconciliation and forgiveness takes place.
Other factors to consider
Should a woman be experiencing abuse, the most common reaction from bystanders is, “She should leave him!” This, however, is inconsiderate of the many reasons why a woman might choose to stay with an abusive husband. First and foremost, the woman often still loves her abuser, despite the violent behavior, and truly believes he is capable of changing. Other reasons might be her fear of what may happen should she choose to leave, lack of financial independence, embarrassment, fear of homelessness, or having children with her abuser. It is particularly difficult for women who are being abused by husbands; the man to whom they are married is supposed to be a trusted, supportive protector, not the one who inflicts harm.
What can you do?
So what can you do if you or someone you love is experiencing a marriage like this? One of the greatest skills you can use is the ability to listen and let the woman share her heart. She may be internally begging for someone to ask how she is. She may be ready to spill her story to someone she trusts. And she may not be ready to talk but is looking for someone who is willing to listen. Be informed of what options she has available to her in her community; help do some digging to find local resources if she lives in another city or state. Be willing to go the extra mile – if she asks – but leave the decision making up to her. Shelter, crisis lines, legal advocate, outreach programs, and community agencies have doors wide open to those in need; be sure to let her choose instead of making the choices for her. Most importantly, be supportive. A woman abused by her husband is not at fault for his actions; she is a victim of someone else’s choices.