Last month, I received the following letter from an old friend, Lloyd Barnhart.
"A topic I would like you to cover/explore is that curious phenomena which permits otherwise independent women to be dominated…even abused…by males with whom they share some sort or relationship. Why is it that a seemingly strong, intelligent woman would allow herself to be hurt…her life to be altered in a negative way by some guy with whom she has some sort of relationship. I currently know a couple such women and feel completely helpless with regard to alleviating their problem (which they apparently fail to see).
"I realize we/you could attack this from the other angle: Why would a man want to completely dominate a female to the point where she fails to exist as an individual? But, for now…help me understand this from the female perspective."
I'd be happy to, and I hope the following information answers your questions. Of course, every person involved in violent situations has his or her own reason for living that way. Usually, women who remain in abusive or violent situations are more afraid of being alone than of being with the abusive husband. She may also be afraid of what he'll do if she leaves. She's usually financially dependent on him. If the couple has children, the woman feels even more invested and trapped—she believes she's protecting the children. The more time passes, the weaker, more dependent and "stuck" she becomes. Abusive men are narcissistic—they have "Jekyll and Hyde" personalities, which means that they can be very charming when they're not being abusive. Women who stay in abusive situations focus on this charm, and deny the abuse. They also have experience of their husbands smoothly talking their way out of any responsibility for misbehavior, for example if she once called 911 and he got the police to believe nothing was wrong. The woman feels hopeless and helpless, that no one will believe her or help her get out. She's also ashamed, and doesn't want people to know her misery. Various women have combinations of all or some of these reasons for staying.
The question here that concerns most of us would be: "What can I do to help?" Here are some steps you can take when you believe a friend or family member is in this situation.
1. Get informed about options. Before attempting to help, make sure you know what the options are for the woman and her children. Obtain a domestic violence hotline number, (National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) the number for child protective services (ask the operator for your local Child Abuse Hotline, go to www.childhelpusa.org or call 1-800- 4 A Child ) and numbers for local womens' shelters. Call the numbers, explain that you want to help a female friend, and find out what information these organizations need to help your friend or family member. Make a list of the information she'll need to provide. The National Domestic Violence Hotline Website has a lot of very helpful information at www.ndvh.org. But, don't just refer your friend to the website or phone numbers. Give her all the details you can. Remember, she's probably feeling hopeless and helpless, and perhaps even worthless. She'll need friends to guide her every step of the way.
2. A violent spouse has impaired impulse control, and can go off violently at any time. It's vital that no one talk to the husband, because if he's angered, he may take it out on his family. Understand that, if he's truly violent, it won't work to talk to him. His wife and children must be safe before anyone approaches him. Once the family is safe, you can offer him anger management classes, or suggest therapy. Don't be surprised if he blames his wife for his anger. Understand that, if you get child protective services involved, and the wife won't stay away from her husband, the children may be taken into protective custody. Also if the wife goes into a women's shelter, with her children, she will lose her job, if she has one, and she can't contact her relatives from the shelter. Shelters stress that women cannot go anywhere their husbands would look for them, or they could lead a violent man to the shelter, and endanger everyone there.
3. Find a couple of friends or family members you can trust not to tell the husband what you know, and talk to them to find out what they know about the situation, and if they'd be willing to help. If you're not sure about the abuse or violence, they may be able to confirm your fears, or set them at rest. If you find that your fears are confirmed, make it clear to everyone that your friend is in real danger. Make a plan for what each of you are willing to do to help. Perhaps a family member can take her and the children in, and keep her surrounded and safe from her husband if he goes into a rage. Perhaps you can get her connected to a women's shelter. Perhaps you can help her get a Restraining Order, or a Protection from Violence Order against her husband. Some of you may know enough facts to witness on her behalf. You may be able to help her see the websites on a computer her husband won't be able to access.
4. Once the first three steps are in place, you need to talk to the woman who's in danger. If you, a relative, or one of the other friends can get her alone, away from her husband, do so. Don't leave telltale phone messages or e-mails, because women in these situations are often closely monitored by their husbands. Find a way to meet with her alone.
5. Once you get her alone, tell her what you know about her situation. This may mortify her, but it's important that she knows you know. Tell her you care about her, you're willing to help her if she wants help, and what you can do for her. She needs to know she has support and protection, because getting away from this man is very frightening for her. She may tell you she's fine, she doesn't need help. She may even be angry at you. In that case, don't get angry or annoyed. Instead, tell her if she ever needs help, you're available. You can print the "Family Violence Q& A" article from my website and leave it with her.
6. If your friend has children, you believe the children are in danger, and she won't do anything, you may have to call the Child Abuse Hotline without her permission. This will not be easy, because the family will then be investigated, the children may be taken away, and both parents will be required to take parenting classes, and domestic violence classes to regain custody of the children. Children's Protective Services will give temporary custody to a safe family member in the meantime, if someone is willing.
None of this is pleasant, or easy, but if you honestly believe the relationship is abusive or violent, it's the caring thing to do. Remember that domestic abuse or violence situations don't get better without intervention.
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., "Dr. Romance," is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Long Beach, Calif. since 1978 and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again and Lovestyles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She publishes the Happiness Tips from Tina email newsletter, and the Dr. Romance Blog. She has written for and been interviewed in many national publications, and she has appeared on Oprah, Larry King Live and many other TV and radio shows.