Feature Archive

Violence at Home

How can you defend yourself against domestic violence?

By Michele Bloomquist
WebMD Feature

April 24, 2000 (Portland, Ore.) -- Carey Draeger was 19 when she met her future husband. After only two months of dating, the two decided to get married. Not long after their honeymoon, Draeger was introduced to a side of her new husband she never saw before. "It started with emotional and verbal abuse, with him saying things like I was lucky he stayed with me or that nobody else would want me," she says. Soon, it wasn't unusual for him to be breaking and throwing things during their arguments.

For two years this behavior continued until their daughter was born, and then the emotional abuse and fighting intensified. Over the next three years, the abuse turned physical when Draeger's husband punched her during an argument. That was the final straw: She convinced her husband to move out and leave her alone. "I still don't know how I was able to get him to leave peacefully. I was very lucky."

The Latest Statistics Tell the Grim Truth

If only every woman in an abusive relationship were as lucky as Draeger. Many attempt to ride out these disastrous relationships, enduring years of abuse. In fact, a 1997 report from the U.S. Department of Justice found that more than one in three women who sought treatment in the emergency room were there as a result of injuries caused by domestic violence. All those dislocated shoulders, bruised jaws, and broken fingers are not the result of a slippery stairwell or a particularly vigorous roughhousing session with the kids.

And many more women probably suffer in silence. Bruises aren't the only signs of abuse: The Family Violence Prevention Fund defines domestic abuse as any pattern of assaultive or coercive behaviors, including physical, sexual, and psychological attacks as well as economic coercion that adults or adolescents use against their intimate partners -- male or female. While most abusers are male, they can also be female. The bottom line is that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence, regardless of gender.

The report found that a woman is more likely to be injured from a domestic violence incident than from car accidents, rapes, or muggings combined. A woman is much more likely to be killed by a current or former romantic partner than by a stranger.

Mistaken Beliefs Allow It to Continue

Shocking as this report is, shock isn't enough to halt the prevalence of abuse in America, says Stacey Kabat, executive director and founder of the advocacy group Peace at Home. "There are still deeply entrenched myths surrounding domestic violence that allow it to persist. Breaking down these myths is critical to ending the acceptance of violence in our society." Particularly destructive are beliefs that abuse is a private family matter or that the abuser behaves abusively because he (or she) loses control, or that the victim provokes the violence. "Violence is not about a loss of control," says Kabat. "Instead, it's about power and control." People do not abuse in a fit of rage -- they know very well what they are doing, she says. And to say that someone provoked any sort of abuse is to lay blame on the victim, which only serves to increase a sense of isolation and powerlessness.

Linda Marshall, PhD, director of the program in social work at Texas Women's University in Houston, agrees that debunking these beliefs is critical, but does think we're making progress. "At least now these myths aren't automatically accepted as truth like they were 20 or even 10 years ago," she said. "Now we question them, we discuss them as a society. That's progress. But we need to do more."

More Programs Reaching Out to Women

In the last 20 years, more has been done to help women in violent relationships. Outreach programs have sprung up in most cities, and increasing numbers of people are being trained to recognize and help stop abuse when they see it.

Because so many women who have been abused show up at hospitals, it makes sense to have specialized care in place there. Parkland Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, is doing just that. Parkland is one of the first hospitals in the United States to have an on-site center that provides women living in violent situations with support and resources. The center pairs each woman with a social worker who helps her to negotiate the legal system, document the abuse through eyewitness testimony and photographs, develop safety plans for those who decide to leave their relationships, provide emergency shelter, and help get protective orders against abusers. The center also trains staff at other hospitals to implement their own domestic violence programs. "The center is a one-stop, one-shop place where victims of domestic violence can come," says Ellen Taliaferro, founder and medical director of the Violence Intervention and Prevention clinic at Parkland Hospital.

Employers, too, are realizing that they can help, because domestic violence is not isolated to the home. It can spill over into the workplace in the form of violence, threatening phone calls, absenteeism related to injuries, or loss of productivity due to extreme stress. This is especially difficult because when the home is violent, a woman's workplace is often one of the few places where she can be safe and away from her abuser. Many organizations, including Blue Shield of California, are recognizing this and providing workplace training to help educate human resource professionals, managers, and co-workers about what to do if a worker is in a violent relationship.

You Can Help: What to Do if You Suspect Someone Is Being Abused

If you ever hear or see domestic violence in action, call the police to report it immediately, says Kabat. If you suspect a woman is being abused, speak up, but do so gently. Say something like, "Look, I know something is going on. If you ever need to talk, I'm here." Putting intense pressure on the victim to talk before she's ready may only make her withdraw. Make it clear that you're available for her and that you're non-judgmental; provide her with the information and resources she will need. Because she may need to leave her home quickly, help her in advance to devise a well-thought-out safety plan that includes what she should take with her and where she should go. And remember that the help should be ongoing: A 1993 study at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, found that a woman is often at the greatest risk of injury or death after she leaves the abusive relationship.

Don't let lack of personal experience stop you from reaching out, says Draeger, who now works for a domestic violence advocacy group in her area. "You don't have to be a survivor to help," she says. "You just have to care."

Michele Bloomquist is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.

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