Why don’t you just leave? It’s the first question that comes to mind for nearly anyone who witnesses someone else suffering from an abusive relationship, but who has never actually experienced one themselves.
There is no one type of victim when it comes to domestic violence; victims vary by age, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, education, personality and lifestyle. Nor is there just one common type of abusive relationship. Every situation is unique, even when it involves typical patterns of abuse. However, there are two universal characteristics of every intimate relationship that involves abuse or violence: 1) the importance of control, and 2) public misperception related to the role of the victim.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), 10 million people a year are physically abused by an intimate partner and 20,000 calls are placed each day to domestic violence hotlines. Despite the prevalence of the problem, many people continue to believe that being in an abusive relationship is a life choice on the part of the victim. It’s not.
Abusive relationships don’t start out that way. They’re carefully orchestrated and developed over time. In some cases, the victim has a long history of abusive experiences that started in childhood, making them more susceptible to future abusive dynamics, and in other cases, the victim is experiencing abuse for the first time. And yet in both cases, the victims are led to believe that it must be their own behavior causing the problem rather than that of their abusers.
This victim blaming—which victims inflict on themselves while people on the outside do the same—is problematic and dangerous for a number of reasons. First, it positions the victim’s behavior as the problem rather than the abuser’s behavior. Second, it puts the victim at risk for a huge range of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and self-harm. But third, and most important, is that it fails to recognize the fact that up to 75% of deaths related to domestic violence occur while the victim is attempting to leave, or after they do.
A common misperception of domestic violence is believing that it stems from a simple anger management issue on the part of the abuser rather than being deeply rooted in the need for power and control over the abused. The distinction being that anger is typically targeted at a wide variety of people in multiple contexts such as losing your temper with family members, telling off a colleague, blowing up at a grocery store clerk or getting “road rage” with someone who cuts you off on the highway. On the flip side, abuse targets one person and is about maintaining control at all times, never losing it.
At its core, domestic violence is an intentional pattern of behaviors used by the abuser to gain and maintain power and control over another person. Because of the devastating combination of victim blaming and loss of control experienced by the victims in these relationships, the most important things that friends, family and counselors can do when aware of the possibility of abuse are to avoid passing judgment, refrain from trying to control the situation for the victim (which the abuser is already doing), and look for opportunities to be supportive and validate their choices.
National Domestic Violence Hotline and National Coalition Against Domestic Violence provide emergency support. information and resources for both victims of domestic intimate partner violence and those who advocate for them.