Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Stopping Abuse Goes Beyond Threats

January 22, 2001

A reader shared the following reasons why she was staying in an abusive relationship.

"I stay because of the "for better or for worse" commitment, for our children and out of a fear of retaliation. A favorite expression may be, `if you don’t like it, get out.’ This is much easier said than accomplished. Confrontation does indeed lead to violence. I continue to walk on eggs."

Male insecurity. Masculine identity is often based on achievement and job-related status, dominance and control over other people - including spouse and children - and avoidance of activities that are stereotypes associated with women, such as child-rearing and housekeeping.

Believing and acting on such a narrow definition of masculinity results in permission to be selfish, an excuse not to listen, a pedestal from which to judge, the arrogance of knowing what is best and the right to use power and violence arbitrarily.

This behavior is often a cover for deep-sealed insecurities, emotional dependence and self-doubt. Instead of winning love and respect from others, such men attempt to wring it from others by sheer demands and dominance.

Such tough statements as, "If you don't like it, get out," or, '"Don’t let the door hit you in the a-- on the way out," are a big bluff. These men - especially this kind of man - need women as much as women need them. Because women are conditioned to doubt their own abilities to survive without their men, the bluff works, and the men never have to take the women or their ideas very seriously.

These same men matter-of-factly state in treatment groups for batterers, "I didn't have to change until she did."

How to stop abuse. There has to be an impetus to change. This impetus doesn't mean divorce or threat of divorce nor does it mean confrontation. It means that the wife must state clearly and concisely what she means in a way that her husband knows she is serious. "Either we get help or . . .," "If you ever hit me again, I'll . . . ."

These are not idle words or threats. These are consequences. She has a plan and she fully intends to carry it out. Separation is often the key. Notice I that I said separation and not divorce. Commitment to a life long marriage is not the same thing as remaining at his side continually while he destroys the foundation of love and respect. That wasn’t a part of the marital vows.

Research shows that separation and loss are instrumental in changing a man's concept of masculinity. For some men, separation and loss mark the beginning of a period of introspection and reflection. It finally dawns on them that their concept of masculinity has inhibited and restricted their functioning as husbands and fathers.

Out of all this turmoil can emerge a willingness to be emotionally aware and expressive, nurturing, cooperative, spontaneous and even playful. As many women note, second wives and stepchildren are often the beneficiaries of these changes. Suddenly these men become all the things their ex-wives knew they could be - only with someone else.

Being alone is a remarkably stressful event for a dependent male. It is overpowering, crushing, disorienting and anxiety-inducing. Experiencing it or even contemplating the certainty of experiencing it is often enough impetus to create change. Again, the wife's sincerity and resolve will be weighed in the balance and if it is found lacking - then it is will still be "business as usual" in the household and just another threat which he has learned he can safely disregard.

Assess the risk of lethal violence. There is a weightier side to these matters. Not all men are going to respond positively. Women have to assess the dangerous possibility of lethal violence as a result of separation or the clear resolve to separate. Murder/suicides are often triggered by the realization of the finality of their spouse’s decision.

States have adopted "probable cause" arrest laws that give police officers the power to make arrests in domestic violence matters without the wife having to file a complaint. Civil statutes have also been enacted to provide injunctive protection orders forbidding violence.

Sometimes an arrest or a court order is the impetus for change. These laws offer protection from violence for women while changes are worked out in the relationship. Going to an abuse shelter may be the wisest and safest course of action. If violence is a part of a one-sided relationship, counseling for the violent partner should be separate from marital counseling.

In one-sided and even in violent relationships, the change of the balance of power in the marriage and stopping the abuse will start when the woman provides the impetus for change. Even though the potential for lethal violence exists, the alternative of living a life in fear and exposing the children to abuse are not acceptable either. Taking a stand and taking a decisive action, one way of another, is necessary.

Dear reader: Don't settle for a life of "walking on eggs" or being a prisoner to your own fears. You deserve better. Your marriage and your children deserve better. Your husband may be one of those men who will eventually say, "I didn't have to change until she did."