While abuse itself as a term is defined very simply, the complex nature of abuse is more difficult to describe. Abuse in relationships can encompass a wide range of behaviors and actions. It is any non-consensual act that targets another individual with the intent of harming that person. These behaviors are used in order to establish and maintain control over someone else, most notably a romantic partner or child. Abuse can be physical, financial, sexual, psychological, or emotional in nature. Abusive behaviors can, over time, escalate becoming more frequent and more severe.
Around half of all couples will experience at least one violent or abusive incident during a relationship, and one fourth of these couples will see violence become a common occurrence. Approximately eighty-five percent of all victims of abuse and domestic violence are women. Two to four million women in the United Stated are beaten each year by their intimate partners; around four thousand of these women are killed by the violent actions of their partners. Violence in relationships is not exclusive when it comes to race, socioeconomic status, or age; anyone and everyone can be a potential victim.
Abuse in marriage or long-term partnerships presents as a cycle
There are four distinct stages of this cycle of abuse:
1. The tension building stage
Arguments, miscommunication, avoidance, and lack of appropriate resolutions increase in frequency and the pressure that is building can typically be felt by both partners. This stage can last anywhere from a few hours to even years, and for much of this time, the victim attempts to keep their abuser happy.
2. The violent or explosive incident
In this stage, an event occurs which releases the pressure that has been building. This event can range from verbal and interpersonal explosiveness to physical or sexual violence and is most often done in private.
3. The honeymoon stage
After the violent incident, the abuser tends to promise the behavior will never happen again. In this stage, the victim is usually the recipient of gifts, positive attention, and consensual and caring actions. For a short time, the victim may believe that the abuser has actually changed.
4. The calm stage
During this stage, the abuser may become more confident that control over the victim has been reestablished and will deny responsibility for the violent or aggressive actions. The victim will typically accept that the behavior occurred and move on while enjoying the period of calmness.
Why do people stay in abusive relationships
There are a variety of reasons a victim chooses to stay with the partner by whom she is being abused. Because domestic violence and abuse are most often linked to romantic relationships, one of the most common reasons a woman will stay in a violent situation is because she loves her abuser and believes the individual will change. Other reasons include: fear of violent behavior should the victim try to leave the relationship, threats, belief that abuse is a normal part of a relationship, financial dependence, low self-esteem, embarrassment, and loss of a place to live. Additionally, many women choose to remain in a relationship because of children they have with their abuser.
So as a bystander or onlooker, what can you do to help?
Be present in relationships with others and observant when partners are engaged in what seems like inappropriate behavioral patterns. Women being abused by a partner or spouse will often try to lie for or cover up their partners’ behavior. They may be put down, criticized, threatened, or embarrassed by their partners in public or with family and friends. Victims may receive phone calls or frequent text messages from their partners and are often accused of affairs or cheating. Women who are victims of abuse often have low self-esteem and believe the negative things their abusers say to or about them.
If you know someone who has experiences like these, the most important thing to do is to listen and let the person talk. Assure the person that whatever they share will be kept confidential; you likely already have a level of trust with her. Inform her of her options but do not make the decisions for her – she likely experiences that regularly. Be aware of specific places she can go for help – know what is available in your community! Shelters, crisis lines, legal advocates, outreach programs, and community agencies are all excellent and easily reachable resources. And last, but most important, be supportive of her. She is not at fault for the choices and actions of her abuser.