Alicia is a part-time medical records clerk who lives just outside of Charlotte with her boyfriend and their two preschool-aged children. Ever since her hours got cut and their landlord increased the rent, it’s been hard to make ends meet in their little household. Although she says they don’t have the money for it, Alicia’s boyfriend heads out for happy hour with his coworkers at least twice a week.
When he comes home from drinking, Alicia’s boyfriend often snaps at her. Last week he kicked over the pile of laundry she was folding and called her names. Alicia knows he’s just stressed out about money, so she takes on a few extra kids to babysit in the afternoons after school. She buys her boyfriend some new clothes with her earnings so he’ll feel more wealthy—and hopefully more happy.
The first stage of the cycle of domestic violence is surprisingly non-confrontational. Tensions rise in a household while the victim tries her (or his) best to smooth things over. The abuser often relies on verbal or emotional abuse to put his or her victim in place. Often disagreements over child-rearing, money, or jobs turn ugly, with the abuser escalating the argument beyond a natural stopping point.
One night Alicia’s boyfriend doesn’t come home. He shows up at 9 the next morning, making her late for work, since she was relying on him to stay home with their small child. When Alicia confronts him in the driveway, her boyfriend slaps her, with an open palm across her face. He calls her a shrew and nearly pulls her arm out of her socket when he grabs her as she walks away. As she heads out for work, she tells herself her boyfriend was just hungover; things will be better tonight.
The explosion, or acute battering, stage is the second stage of the domestic violence cycle. The physical abuse in this stage can go on for a few seconds, or a number of days. This is the culmination of all the tension from the previous phase, coupled with the abuser’s hurtful personality. This stage can include sexual, as well as physical abuse, and often the victim retreats—embarrassed for others to see the marks of the abuse.
When Alicia arrives home from work, she can see candlelight through the front window. When she enters her home, her boyfriend has set a table with her favorite meal. Over dinner he is contrite and blames not feeling well for his actions earlier in the day. The next morning Alicia asks her boyfriend to promise never to hit her again, at least not in front of their son. He replies, “I barely touched you. Stop being such a drama queen.”
The honeymoon phase is the reason most victims go on to be abused again and again. It’s a time of closeness and peace that can last months or even years. Often the abuser minimizes the previous violence, and will promise to never do it again. At some point conflict will escalate the tension in the house, and the cycle begins again. For many, each cycle becomes more extreme, with higher consequences and even more effusive honeymoon periods. For many women, these violent attacks will hurt them and their children. For nearly 100 North Carolina women each year, this cycle ends in death.
Even before Lenore Walker described the cycle of violence in her 1979 book, experts and advocates have been trying to find any way to free women from the thralls of those who hurt them. For as many women and men who have been abused ,there are that many more reasons to stay with an abuser. Some think the abuse is normal, while others have been manipulated into believing they deserve it.
A great many women are victims of financial abuse, and lack the resources to leave. Others have children, or fear a secret their partner holds over their head. Whatever the reason, separating a victim from their abuser is complicated and dangerous. Here are a few steps that might help make the transition easier.
- Make an exit plan. If you have been abused, start thinking about how you’ll keep yourself safe in the future. Stash away money, and learn the location of your closest police station or domestic violence shelter. Pack a bag and hide it, so if you need to leave in a hurry, you’ll have a few essentials. If you are close with someone suffering from violence in their relationship, gently encourage them to plan for a future that might not include their abuser. Don’t be so forceful that you end up damaging your relationship.
- Seek help. The stigma around domestic violence is real. But you can tell your doctor what you’ve experienced in confidence. If your partner is controlling, a general physician might be a resource for advice and care that won’t set off your partner’s ire. Call a domestic violence helpline in your area, or visit one to explore resources. If you care for someone who is struggling with domestic violence, seek help from a counselor or church leader. Loving someone who is getting hurt is a heavy load to carry, and you’d do well to have someone who can support you.
- Establish support. Many women do not leave because they believe they financially cannot afford to. Try to find even a part-time job, or begin training for a career. Having a long-term plan can be incredibly empowering, and many women find it much easier to leave their abusers when they know they’ll be able to provide for themselves and their families. If you are the support system of a domestic violence victim, help them find their strengths and focus those on a career plan. Without pushing too hard, give them the resources they need to take placement tests, fill out college forms, or apply for jobs.
- Love yourself. No one deserves to be hurt in the name of love, or for any other reason. Even if you stay with an abuser, never lose sight of the fact you are a good person who deserves good things. Don’t let the way someone else treats you dictate your self worth. If you are a victim’s support system, never let them forget that you love them and don’t judge them for the choices they make.
If you or anyone you know is a victim of physical, sexual, verbal, or any kind of violence in their relationship, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.