Physical violence against a marriage partner is inexcusable. It's also something you can't ignore, as Cathy Ireland found out.
She opened the door slowly, but smiled as our eyes met. I was surprised to see the black and blue marks around her left eye. I reached out to hold the door open, as I introduced myself. I was a door-to-door salesperson for the Home Health Education Service, selling children's storybooks and health books.
Just as I was finishing telling her who I was, a little girl toddled over and hung on to the mother's leg. The door opened wider and I was invited in. Over the course of the next few minutes I pretended I didn't see her bruised face and showed her my books. The little girl pointed at the animal pictures in My Bible Friends and I felt confident that this mother would purchase the books. However, when I came to the end of my presentation she told me that she wasn't able to afford anything right now. It happened that way sometimes, so I started packing up the books.
But I couldn't help myself. I knew I had to ask her the one question that had been gnawing me since I saw her. I mustered the courage, and bluntly asked: “Why do you stay?”
She knew immediately what I meant and told me that she feared for her life, as her husband had promised to kill her if she ever tried to leave. Then her sad story of misfortune came out like a flood, as tears ran down her cheeks. I listened without a clue as to what to say. The little girl patted her mother's cheek as if to comfort her. How sweet and intuitive children are, I thought.
I prayed with Mary and her little girl and hugged them both before departing, but their situation haunted me so much that just before I left I offered her something that today, I can't believe I did.
I asked her to call me if she decided to leave. I wrote my telephone number on a piece of paper and pressed it into her hand, hugged her again and then turned to go. I left wondering if I would ever hear from her again.
Two weeks went by when at approximately 8 o'clock one evening, the phone rang. It was Mary. She asked me to come. Now!
Despite the hour, I dropped everything and drove quickly to Mary's home. She was ready to go, even before I got out of my car. Being careful not to draw attention to the fact that she was leaving, she couldn't pack anything in advance of my arrival, so we took out what we could carry in our arms. We took turns holding her little girl as we struggled to gather up the things she thought she'd need.
My heart was pounding in my chest and my hands were cold and sweaty when I finally climbed in behind the wheel.
“Where are we going?” I asked. “Across the border,” was the gentle but emphatic reply.
I started the car, and without looking back, we headed down the highway, south toward the interstate bridge and safety. We didn't talk much as we covered the distance to the border. Mary didn't cry. I drove through the darkness feeling the adrenaline rush replacing any sleepiness I had previously felt. Three-and-a-half hours later, and safe, we came to the town where her parents lived.
Mary seemed to rally, as she pointed out directions to her parents' home. It was midnight when I pulled into their driveway, but the lights were still on in the house.
I thought Mary must have called them before leaving, but when they came to the window to see who it was in their driveway, they seemed surprised to see Mary, who had already jumped out.
Her parents came running out of the house to meet her, and quickly hugged her. They took their little sleeping granddaughter into the house, and then returned to take the sparse belongings we had rescued from her home. They invited me in, but I declined, saying I had to get back home, as I had to work the next day. I reached over and hugged Mary, whispering in her ear, “God bless you. You'll be OK. You're safe now.”
Tears welled up in her eyes, as she nodded and hugged me back. I walked away quickly as I struggled to keep myself together. I turned the car out into the street and watched her walk into the house in my rear mirror as I accelerated away.
She's safe, I thought. She's safe because I helped her get away. But slowly the reality of what I had just done sank in. What if her abusive husband had come home? I was helping her escape! I shuddered at the thought. She was safe now and that's all that matters.
Every year thousands of women are emotionally abused and physically assaulted by a domestic partner. Physical abuse is only one aspect of the various forms of abuse that is likely to occur simultaneously in the abusive environment.
Psychological or emotional abuse is another form of abuse that significantly erodes a woman's self-esteem. It is difficult to measure—and heal—because the blows are not as obvious as a physical injury.
Emotional abuse is the umbrella or cornerstone of all types of abuse, including physical and sexual abuse.1 Typically, however, emotional abuse is made up of the following factors:
- Exerting control that creates isolation2
- Verbal put-downs and criticisms that threaten her or what she loves
- Manipulation and threats, including declining affection and/or withdrawing
- Intimidation that instills fear
- Pushing blame on to others
- Degrading her, based on gender
- Controlling resources, time and space
- Physical injury and/or holding
- Forced sexual activity
These factors all have an extremely negative impact on the woman's self esteem and objectivity. The extent that the abuse has been internalised will be the extent of the injury. With self-esteem and confidence eroded, one becomes fearful and hopeless about life, which leads to the desire to withdraw socially. This often results in feelings of depression and helplessness, increasing one's vulnerability and the likelihood of further abuse.
The road to wholeness can be long, but is definitely possible. Coming to terms with God's value of us and His redemptive love has an incredible power to break the bondage of identity sabotage: “I have summoned you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1) and “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1).
Understanding that one is in an abusive relationship is the second important ingredient to getting out of an abusive cycle. Sometimes, the victim does not easily discern their situation because of the confusing behaviour of the abuser. Typically the abuse cycle consists of three phases. First comes the honeymoon phase, a season of loving, affectionate and harmonious times. This is followed by the building of tension phase. In this the abuser begins to criticise and makes negative accusations, which escalates to the final phase. This last stage is the actual abusive episode in which an abuser lashes out but is later remorseful for behaviour, with acts of peacemaking and promises. He looks to resolve and/or whitewash the incident, restarting at the honeymoon phase.
As time goes by, this cycle of abuse shortens and is more volatile. The victim's safety becomes increasingly at risk. Domestic violence is the single greatest cause of injury to women.3 It is imperative that the victim see the abusive cycle for what it is—dangerous.
To get out of an abusive relationship almost always requires the support of many people. It is wise to search out a qualified counsellor and talk to friends who are emotionally healthy and stable, who can render support for your recovery.
In the end, it is an extremely courageous act to end an abusive relationship, but one that has many positive outcomes. The victim will have a better sense of well-being, any children will improve academically and socially, and the abuser is put in a place to contemplate their behaviour, the consequences, and, hopefully, get help.
“There is no situation as desperate as it may appear, that cannot be sorted out. There is no human relationship so tense that it cannot be resolved,” says Danielle Starenkyj in her book Menopause, A New Approach.4
To this end, I implore everyone in an abusive relationship, both victim and perpetrator, to seek help. Break your silence and the cycle before it is too late.
And if you're a friend or acquaintance of someone whose need you detect, have the courage to do something about it. For victims, there is a lot of goodwill at both the personal and governmental levels. There's support of all kinds, including financial and legal, available to those who need it.