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Challenging misperceptions about domestic violence

As Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes to an end, we again see headlines involving a public figure’s domestic violence and since our culture is so sports/entertainment/celebrity-focused, it sometimes takes professional sports players or high-profile musical artists abusing their partners to generate conversation something that takes place in so many intimate relationships. But when people start talking about these very public cases, the usual misperceptions arise, and I’d like to challenge a few of them here.

Misperception: I don’t know anyone who’s experienced domestic violence.

Challenge: This is highly unlikely given that in Delaware 243,000 adults have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner (no other types of abuse included). This is more people than the combined populations of Delaware’s largest cities: Wilmington, Milford, Georgetown, Dover, and Seaford (Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence). What is most likely is that since domestic violence is often hidden, few people know the actual experiences of their friends, family members, co-workers, teachers, students, church members.

Many people envision black eyes, swollen lips and bruises when they hear “domestic violence” and unfortunately, this imagery overlooks more subtle but common displays of abuse – a broad range of controlling, harmful or manipulative behaviors, such as:

• Name-calling, insulting, humiliating or continually criticizing partner,

• Telling partner who (s)he can or can’t interact with online or in person,

• Sending negative, insulting or threatening texts, emails, Facebook messages, etc.,

• Demanding to constantly know where partner is or using partner’s phone, social media or GPS tracking to keep tabs on partner,

• Preventing partner from leaving (the room, car, house),

• Gaslighting (a pattern of highly manipulative behavior which impacts one’s ability to trust own memory and judgment),

• Threatening to hurt partner, children, other family members, friends or pets,

• Damaging or destroying partner’s property (smashing phone, throwing objects),

• Controlling how partner dresses or looks,

• Pressuring, coercing or forcing partner into sexual activity,

• Refusing to contraception if desired by partner or forcing partner to have sex without contraception,

• Driving recklessly or dangerously with partner in the car,

• Interfering with partner’s ability to work or go to school, controlling the hours partner can work or creating problems at partner’s place of employment, putting job at risk.

Misperception: People are abusive because they have anger management issues.

Challenge: Abusive people abuse their power to control people they claim to love. They are often very charming and likeable and are usually very capable of managing their anger when they choose, with co-workers and friends, and even when they’re not in a position of power such as with law enforcement, judges, treatment professionals. They choose to engage in abusive behavior because it is effective in getting their needs met and they inherently believe they have the right to.

Misperception: If someone really doesn’t want to be abused, they should “just leave.”

Challenge: If “just leave” takes into consideration that leaving will likely result in increased harassment, stalking or death, then yes, a victim of abuse can “just leave.” However, what most people don’t realize is that leaving (or attempting to leave) an abusive relationship can be the greatest trigger for a lethal incident- that by leaving, the victim is effectively taking control away from the abusive person. Few who are abusive will respond with “I respect your right to leave, your right to be safe. I wish you well.”

Those who safely and permanently leave their abusive relationship often have made many past attempts and have needed to take great measures and safety planning to do so. “Just leave” also doesn’t take into account the emotional and financial damage, the isolation, the shame, the low self-esteem created by the abuse, all making it seem less possible to leave. And finally, we cannot underestimate the reality that abusive partners will likely still have parental rights to their children and that sometimes staying feels safer than the abusive partner having unmonitored joint custody or visitation.

This last misperception is experienced as one of the most judgmental and non-supportive as described by victims and one that I may devote an entire column to in the future.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call the Delaware Domestic Violence Hotlines: (302) 762-6110 New Castle County and (302) 422-8058 Kent/Sussex Counties.

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