*Above statistics provided by Futures Without Violence (June 2019)
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What is Abuse?
An abusive relationship manifests itself in a number of ways. Understanding the different types of abuse can allow us to more easily spot an abusive relationship and take the steps necessary to mitigate the harm as early in the relationship as possible.
The most typical/common forms of abuse experienced by women and girls include:
- Emotional Abuse (Psychological Abuse) – Perhaps the most common form of abuse, psychological abuse is the most difficult to identify because there are no outward signs of abuse. Emotional abuse is any behavior designed to hurt the emotional well-being of another or damage one’s sense of self-worth. It can be verbal or non-verbal. Examples of this type of abuse include being yelled at, threatened, shamed, humiliated, stalked, harassed, intimidated, name-called, endlessly criticized, among many other tactics.
- Physical Abuse – When people think of abuse, they often think of physical abuse - as it is the form of abuse with the most outward signs. Physical abuse is sometimes also known as domestic abuse or domestic violence when it occurs within intimate adult relationships (or dating violence if it occurs within a teen dating relationship). Physical abuse is any physical act - or threat of a physical act - designed to harm another person physically. While the obvious actions include pushing, grabbing, hitting, hair-pulling, etc. - invading one’s physical space or damaging/destroying tangible items within such person’s space is also form of physical abuse.
- Sexual Abuse – Most often perpetrated against women and girls, sexual abuse includes any unwanted sexual act forced on the victim - it can include anything from unwanted touching to forced (or coerced) sexual contact. This form of abuse is also known as sexual assault or rape, or child abuse when it occurs to a child.
- Economic / Financial Abuse – Economic abuse is a type of abuse most often seen alongside other forms of abuse. It typically happens when the abuser makes a victim financially dependent on the abuser - either by not allowing the victim to have any power or say in the financial matters of the relationship, by restricting the victim’s ability to work, cutting off access to bank accounts, etc.
Why Do Victims of Abuse (“Survivors”) Stay in Abusive Relationships?
Anyone can be a victim of abuse – abuse does not discriminate. It reaches women and girls (and men and boys too) of all ages, races, sexual orientations, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels.
Those on the outside have a difficult time understanding why a victim of abuse – who should more appropriately be called a “survivor” – stays in a harmful relationship or in an abusive environment. Many victims refuse to speak up about their abuse because they are afraid of being judged and criticized for not leaving the abusive situation – they are often perceived (albeit wrongly) as weak and foolish and at blame for staying in the unhealthy relationship. When, in reality, there are many many reasons why an abuse victim may not chose to (or may not be able to) "leave" the abusive environment. It is our hope that through conversation and awareness, more people will begin to respond to stories of abuse with compassion and understanding, as opposed to criticism. Only then will survivors feel safe enough to speak up and share their stories in a way that enables them to get the support that they need to reclaim their life and to help other survivors do the same.
Some of the reasons why victims of abuse do not “leave” include:
- Fear – Attempting to leave an abuser can be very dangerous – a person may be afraid of what bodily or emotional harm could happen if they decide to leave, or may be threatened with specific acts of retaliation should they actually leave. Abusers use this to control and keep the victim feeling trapped. Abusers will often try to keep their victims isolated and separated (emotionally and physically) from their friends and family (e.g., by making them live far away from their support network, by not letting them communicate or visit with anyone outside the home, etc.).
- Distorted Thoughts / Damaged Self-Worth – Being continually controlled and hurt (emotionally or physically) is traumatizing and can wear anyone down. Abusers blame the victims for the abuser's behavior and manipulate them in a way that they ultimately believe that they deserve the abuse. This leads to confused thoughts, self-blame, shame and despair.
- Believing Abuse is Normal – A person may become so accustomed to abusive behavior that such behavior becomes “normal”. They may forget – or perhaps may have never known – what a healthy relationship looks like. Certain behaviors that a “normal” woman might think are abhorrent could be so frequent and routine for an abuse victim that the victim becomes desensitized to the behavior and slowly convinced that such behavior is normal. Often times women who were victims of abuse in their childhood have a more difficult time recognizing unhealthy situations in their adulthood and are - therefore - more tolerant of abuse and other types of unhealthy relationships.
- Embarrassment or Shame – Admitting that you have been abused or have tolerated an abusive relationship can be hard. Not only do abusers convince their victims that the abuse is their fault (which many victims believe after a while), but victims often feel like they did something wrong by becoming involved with the abusive partner in the first place – and, thereafter, staying with such partner. It is common for survivors to worry that society, including their friends and family (and sometimes their religious community), will judge them for this and think less of them. Because of the guilt and shame and damaged sense of self that can result from an abusive situation, many abuse victims evolve into “people pleasers”, with an inability to say “no” and a deep need to be liked and accepted by everyone – this is a consequence of abuse that can have detrimental effects throughout a survivor's life.
- Love – In many situations, the abuse victim truly loves their partner (or believes that they love them). There are many common attributes of an abuser – one common such attribute being that an abuser is often very charming, especially at the beginning of a relationship. Abuse victims may remember the “old days” and hope that their partner goes back to being that person – they may just want the violence to stop, but not for the relationship to end. In other situations, the abuse victim wants to help their partner “change” – fix them and teach them how to love. In some situations, the abuser has mental health or substance abuse issues (e.g., depression, alcoholism, etc.), or has had some form of trauma in their life (e.g., death of family member/friend, child abuse, etc.), and the victim has pity on them and puts the abuser’s needs above their own in an effort to try to help them.
- Children – Abuse victims may have children with the abuser and want to try to maintain the family unit, including making sure that the children don't grow up without a father. In other situations, an abuse victim may feel like they are protecting their children by being the “willing” subject of the abuse, so as to divert the abuser's anger and abuse away from the children. Some abuse victims also stay because they do not have the means to financially care for their children if they leave – this is a consequence most often tied to the form of Economic/Financial Abuse described above.
- Futures Without Violence - https://www.futureswithoutviolence.org
- RAINN - https://www.rainn.org/national-resources-sexual-assault-survivors-and-their-loved-ones
- Healthy Place for Mental Health - https://www.healthyplace.com
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