This week’s post is by my brilliant sister, Leslie Malkin, a long-time advocate for domestic abuse prevention.
One in four.
That’s how many women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Think about four women you know. Then realize that at least one of them has or will experience some form of domestic violence. Your mom? Sister? Aunt? Yourself?
I never expected to be the one in four. I had a law degree. I was a judicial officer. And later I actually worked for a State domestic violence coalition, educating others about DV. If you’d asked any of my friends they would have told you that I was a strong, independent woman. I identified as a feminist from early childhood. Yet I became a victim of domestic violence.
I always had a thing for ‘bad boys.’ You know the type. Tattoos, long hair, a f**k you attitude. And he certainly qualified. By his own description he was a ‘whacked out Vietnam vet filthy biker scum.’ We drank at the same bar in the little town where I lived and almost immediately started seeing each other. I was blindsided by his tough boy attitude and the money he had. I should mention that this was also around the time my own drinking transformed from a social habit to a more significant problem. That he drank as much as and as often as I did only fueled the flames. And so the relationship began.
Most people think an abusive relationship is where the man physically hits the woman. She is a cowering, doomed figure, with black eyes and a split lip. But that’s not the reality. Domestic violence is about power and control. An abuser uses many tactics to obtain and maintain his power and control over the victim. In fact, he only uses physical or sexual violence when other tactics are no longer working, or when he simply chooses to. The “Power and Control Wheel,” the most common illustration of domestic violence tactics, includes isolation, emotional abuse, financial abuse, intimidation, using the children, coercion and threats, male privilege, and minimizing, denying, and blaming. Domestic violence advocates teach that not all of the tactics may be present at any given time and the Wheel can’t be used as a simple checklist.
Domestic violence is not a result of alcohol or drug abuse. It doesn’t happen because he is stressed or has anger issues or has mental health problems. It affects women of all socio- economic levels, races, religions, and ethnicities. Quite simply, domestic violence occurs because the abuser wants to maintain his power and control over the victim. And the relationship doesn’t start as abusive. He doesn’t walk up to her door on the first date, say hello, and punch her in the face. Rather it changes over time. The man she fell in love with becomes the man she fears.
In my case, it began with isolation. I was a judicial officer and most of my friends were lawyers or other professionals. His friends were bikers or blue collar workers. I loved being in his world. I put on the fringed leather jacket and chaps and away we went on his Harley. But he didn’t fit into my world so easily. In fact, he intentionally made my friends so uncomfortable that over time, I stopped trying to bring him into my circle. I saw less and less of my own friends. With his encouragement, I also bought a house in the country with ten acres of land. I couldn’t manage the property without his help. Between not seeing my own friends and living in a very rural setting, I lost my own support system.
Years past and the relationship became less and less healthy and more abusive. At one point or another, all of the power and control wheel tactics were used against me. Except one. He never hit me. No pushing, shoving, or any physical abuse. I sometimes think it would have been better if he had. At least then, I might have been willing to admit how bad the relationship was.
By the time we were together eight years, I was working for a state domestic violence coalition and teaching other people about DV and the power and control wheel. Yet still couldn’t acknowledge to myself just how bad a situation I was in. What would that say about me if I was a victim of domestic violence? Somewhere around the ten-year mark, he became quite ill — largely self-inflicted from alcohol and drug abuse. Other than veteran’s benefits, he had no health insurance. I was considering marrying him so I could get him insurance. A dear friend and colleague finally sat me down with a copy of the Wheel in front of us and said, “Now look!” For the first time, I admitted to her, and more importantly to myself, how abusive and toxic the relationship was. Yet how could I leave him then? He was dying.
I stayed a while longer, slowly untangling myself from him and shifting the burden of his care onto his sons. When a great job opportunity came up in a different state, I jumped. Sold my house, moved, and ended a sad, humiliating chapter of my life.
There have been benefits of course. With the help of family, friends, and a great therapist, I stopped drinking and dealt with the abuse. And my own experience has made me a much better domestic violence advocate. I use my story to teach others about DV, and how it isn’t just physical abuse. I can help other women understand that it’s not their fault and that they too can end the abuse. If it helps one victim become a survivor, it was worth it.