When Violence Hits Home

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When it comes to understanding relationship violence and fully appreciating the risks, there are still too many folks harboring dangerous misconceptions and perhaps even engaging in a fair amount of denial.

When NFL football player Ray Rice was captured on a hotel security system knocking his then fiancé Janay Palmer out cold with a left hook, then dragging her limp body across the floor, and the videotape of the event went viral on YouTube, public attention was again directed to the matter of domestic violence (DV). The sad, ugly truth is that DV is an all too common occurrence, wreaking havoc in the lives of folks from all walks of life, backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes every hour of every day.

Research statistics tell us that 85% of domestic violence victims are female and that as many as 1 in 4 females will at some point in their lifetime experience an episode of such violence. Most of the time the perpetrator of the violence is male and an intimate relationship partner, close family member, or someone else with whom the victim is well acquainted. For a variety of reasons, most DV victims never report their assaults. Even those who do and seek protection through restraining orders and other legal means often find themselves securing little safety from future victimization. Fortunately, efforts to alert potential victims about the dangers and risks of DV and to afford actual victims more adequate protection have increased in recent years. Informational campaigns seek to warn women of the risks they face in relationships and to alert them to warning signs for violence. What’s truly remarkable (but still, unfortunately, not all that uncommon) about the Rice saga is that the victim has not only spoken out in defense of her attacker (whom she married within weeks following the assault) but also insinuated that she bears some of the blame. So it seems that when it comes to understanding relationship violence and fully appreciating the risks, despite all the information available these days, there are still too many folks harboring dangerous misconceptions and perhaps even engaging in a fair amount of denial.

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For many years I served at the request of my state’s Governor on a board overseeing our efforts to deal with child abuse, rape, and domestic violence. It was disheartening to see how widespread the problems of relationship partner violence and child abuse were — many perpetrators of partner abuse also abuse children in the home — and how they still persisted in our own backyard despite all the efforts made over the years with regard to public education and prevention. During those same years, I was also involved in fashioning programs designed to empower victims and to rehabilitate DV perpetrators. As a result of those efforts, I came to some hard realizations about the nature of domestic violence and why it has persisted as a major problem for so long.

While there is no “typical” abuser, perpetrators display some very common attitudes, patterns of thinking, and behavioral habits that heighten the risk for violence in the home. These include:

Attitudes of Entitlement
Perpetrators often tell themselves (and even convince themselves) that they were perfectly justified in their violent behavior. They feel they have a right to demand both respect and deference without having to earn either.
Victim Blaming
Perpetrators will often attribute the cause of their violence to some provocation on the part of the victim. They may say things to themselves like: “She had it coming,” or “She knows just what it takes to tick me off.”
Shallow Contrition and Remorse
The abuser may say that they feel bad for what they’ve done or they might even act somewhat remorseful, but they don’t take the kind of action and make the kind of commitment necessary to deal with their underlying issues and ensure they will never abuse again.

These traits are often deeply ingrained within the character of abusers and are not easily modified without substantial and long-term professional intervention.

While it would also be a mistake to cast anyone as a “typical” victim, and an even bigger mistake to fault the victim in any way for the abuse perpetrated, there are some fairly common reasons why DV victims remain in their abusive relationships:

Fear of Financial and Emotional Abandonment
Many victims feel they have nowhere else to turn for emotional or financial support. So, as frightening as it might be to stay, in some way it feels to the victim less risky to remain with their abuser than to get out of the relationship. This is especially true if there are children involved and even more so true when the abuser has made it clear that they’ll do whatever it takes to use the children as weapons of manipulation and control should the victim try to assert independence.
Fear of Loss of Investment
DV victims have often invested much energy over many years trying to make things work and to hold their family together. To abandon hope is to part company with that investment. So it’s tempting for victims to think that if they just keep trying, one day things will get better.
Loss of Boundaries and Identity
Analogous to the kinds of dynamics known as the Stockholm Syndrome, abuse victims not only come to identify with their abusers but also with their abuser’s issues, taking partial ownership of a problem that resides solely with the perpetrator. (Some cite Janay Rice’s public statements as providing an example of this dynamic, but at least in the Rice case, there may be more issues at play). For more on Stockholm Syndrome, see “Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser” on this site.
The Risk Associated With Ending the Relationship
In my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, I point out that at a deep level, abuse victims recognize that the most dangerous time for them is actually when they’ve made the decision not to be victimized anymore. Some disturbed character types simply don’t take “NO!” for an answer and will severely up the ante when faced with the prospect of what they perceive to be ultimate “defeat.” All too many relationship partners have been seriously injured or murdered by their abusers just at or after the moment it became clear to the perpetrator that the victim had made the decision to break free of their dominance and control.

Hopefully, some good will come of all the focus that’s been given to the Ray Rice affair. The problem of domestic violence needs all the attention it can get. It’s also possible that after some professional intervention, the Rices might have a shot at a good and violence free life. But I’m highly skeptical. That’s because we didn’t just witness in that now famous videotape an impulsive mistake by an otherwise decent young man who reacted in horror to what he’d done. Rather, we appeared to witness a man with the callousness of heart to drag his victim across a floor in a remarkably nonchalant manner and without immediately going for help. Such an apparent lack of empathy and lack of internal revulsion at a heinous act one has just committed bespeak aspects of character that tend to run deeply and don’t modify easily. My hope is that potential victims everywhere have been paying close attention. As in the O.J. Simpson case and many others that have come before and are likely to come after, high profile examples of domestic violence get a lot of media attention, and as a result, have much to teach us all.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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