Taking a Wide View of Domestic Violence Domestic violence spans more than just NFL. In truth, a recent study highlights that roughly 1 in 5 men in committed relationships admit to domestic violence toward their partner. BY DAVID SACK, MD
There are many reasons women find it difficult to leave an abusive relationship.
“ In fact, those who witness domestic violence as boys are twice as likely to grow up to abuse their partners.”
An elevator security camera captures Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice delivering a punch seen around the world. Carolina Panthers player Greg Hardy is convicted of assaulting and threatening to kill his then-girlfriend. Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer is accused of breaking his wifeís nose with a head-butt. And the list goes on and on.
Itís tempting to write off the recent flurry of domestic abuse allegations against NFL players as a phenomenon unique to the violent world of football. But the truth is, these cases came to the publicís attention simply because of the high profiles of those involved; they could just as easily have featured a businessman, an electrician or a teacher.
If we broaden our camera angle from the inside of the elevator to the nation as a whole, weíll see that domestic violence is not just an NFL problem, itís one that cuts across every economic strata, every race, and every demographic in the U.S.
According to a University of Michigan study, one in five American men admit to hurting their spouse or partner. Itís a grim indicator that we still have far to go in our understanding of domestic violence and what a healthy relationship is. Wife beating has been illegal in this country since the 1920s, but one look at the comments accompanying Ray Rice stories shows that the "keep your woman in line" mindset is alive and well.
The Link to Future Abuse
So what fuels domestic violence? In the case of the athlete, it might seem natural to look for at least a partial explanation in alcohol and drugs. After all, these have been known to be a problem in professional sports, especially stimulants such as amphetamine and cocaine and performance-enhancing drugs such as testosterone and steroids. While we canít say whether substances were involved in any of the recent NFL incidents, we do know they can escalate agitation and aggressive behavior.
However, no matter the profession, the single biggest predictor of who will commit violence against a spouse or partner is this: experiencing abuse as a child or witnessing it against a parent. In fact, those who witness domestic violence as boys are twice as likely to grow up to abuse their partners. This, in turn, makes it more likely that their own children will continue the pattern.
From Charm to Violence
From the outside, those with professional sports careers seem to have it allówealth, fame, adulation. Why would they hurt those they love and risk their careers, some ask, by giving in to a moment of anger?
The reality is that few domestic abusers start a relationship thinking they will become violent. Instead, they tend to start by feeling insecure and wanting to have the partnerís exclusive attention. Theyíll often turn on the charm while simultaneously starting to isolate the woman from her friends and family.
This infatuation stage of the relationship can be very seductive to the woman. She may feel more understood and more loved than she ever has. So itís a bitter blow when the very person who once made her feel so special progresses from verbal abuse and sarcasm to physical violence.
So Leave Already
Why donít they just leave? Itís a question asked often of women in abusive relationships, and it has no easy answers. There are multiple factors at play. Among them:
* Itís hard to give up on someone once loved so deeply and on a relationship once thought of as perfect.
* The abuser will often reveal a traumatic history of his own abuse or of witnessing domestic abuse. This can lead the woman to think of her abuser as damaged or a victim in need of her help and sympathy.
* Because the woman has been encouraged to break connections with family and friends, it can seem as though there is no one to turn to for help.
* Even in wealthy households, the money needed to leave may be hard to access. Domestic shelters are often run with public funds, and those who are not low income may not be eligible for their emergency services.
* The woman may fear for her safety. More than half of the violence against victims and their children occurs after leaving the perpetrator. Restraining orders are hard to obtain and even harder to enforce.
Offering Support and Compassion
The public responses to the NFL incidents make it abundantly clear that there are many people who are still happy to blame the woman in domestic violence situations and to see nefarious motives in an inability to separate from the abuser.
While it can be frustrating to see someone seemingly unable to take steps to help herself, itís important to realize that the process takes time. First, the woman must overcome very real feelings of shame and grief at finding herself no longer beloved, but berated and beaten. She must also come to accept that nothing she did created the abusive situation, but she is probably the only one who can fix it. And for that to be possible, she needs our support and compassion.