The Herald Bulletin

October 6, 2012

Leaving an abusive relationship is harder than it may seem, but help is available

By Abbey Doyle
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — Sandi Martin-Frizzell stood at the top of the porch steps, suitcase in hand. She turned around and looked at the house she would leave forever.

She wanted — and needed — to leave the abuse she had endured for decades. Yet, walking down those stairs were the toughest steps that Martin-Frizzell ever took.

“Going into a sea of unknown is so hard,” she said. “People who knew about the abuse would always say, ‘I don’t get it. Why do you stay? Why do you put up with it?’ That was 28 years of my life.”

Her story isn’t unique. The phenomenon of abuse victims wrestling with the idea of leaving their batterer is seen in nearly every domestic violence situation.

There were several reasons Martin-Frizzell stayed in her marriage for 28 years, leaving her husband several times, only to return over and over again. One of the biggest reasons was fear. Her now ex-husband told her that he’d kill her children, parents and sisters if she left him.

Why they stay

It is clear that women are not always the victims and that men aren’t solely the abusers. Still, that scenario is the most common in violent relationships. Certain perceptions, too, are common in domestic violence cases.

Peggy Stockdale, chair of the psychology department at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis, said it is typical for victims to receive blame from friends and family who don’t understand why they don’t simply leave.

“Blaming the victim doesn’t get us anywhere,” she said. “There are complex reasons why people stay in an abusive relationship but it doesn’t mean they deserve the abuse they are getting.”

A major factor is the way a person was raised. Anyone growing up in an abusive family is more likely to be an abuser or victim. People also remain in a violent relationship due to strong feelings for the abuser and dependency on that person economically, socially and psychologically.

Fear, as in Martin-Frizzell’s story, is a major component for many women who stay, Stockdale said.

Kandi Floyd, victim’s advocate at Alternatives, Inc., works with dozens of victims every day. Their fears are real, she said.

Being a friend

Although a female victim may constantly be looking over her shoulder for the abuser, she may sense that she cannot take care of herself and her children. Again it is the anxiety of the unknown, It is also common for the abuser to isolate the victim, keeping her from maintaining a job and by limiting access to money and resources. Those actions are intended to curtail the victim’s independence, she said.

“For some of them, it is a lot easier to stay and take the abuse than leave and not know what to expect,” Floyd said.

And in many cases the victim still loves the abuser.

“You can’t turn that emotion off,” she said. “At one time that person was good; they think they can get back to that point.”

An abuse victim also may stay because the abuser has made her think she deserves the abuse and aren’t worthy of something better. On average, a woman will leave seven times before getting out of an abusive relationship. The general public has no idea how hard it is for an abuse victim to break the cycle of violence, she said.

“Don’t blame them, don’t tell them they are stupid for going back, because they are hearing those same things from the abuser,” Floyd said. “You are just reinforcing it for the abuser and she’ll never leave. Instead, continue to be a friend.”

Why and how they abuse

Just as misunderstood is the dynamic of what constitutes an abuser. So many people, including abusers and victims themselves, only think of the physical aspect of domestic violence.

“When I looked at domestic violence, I thought about it being what we see in pictures — bruises and black eyes,” said Vaughn Walker, director and supervisor for the Batterers Intervention Program at S.O.S Counseling in Anderson. “But what domestic violence is really about is power and control.”

Walker is one of two people in Madison County certified by the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. He provides court-ordered treatment for those convicted in domestic violence related cases. Licensed clinical social worker Don Allbaugh is the other.

“Actual physical violence is the tip of the iceberg,” Allbaugh said. “It is really all about power and control.”

While both Allbaugh and Walker point to several factors that contribute to someone becoming an abuser, both stressed that these traits should not be viewed as excuses for the behavior.

“A large percentage of batterers come from an abusive background where they were victims themselves or witnessed the abuse, were sexually abused or severely neglected,” Allbaugh said. “But there is also a high percentage of people who have that same upbringing who don’t abuse.”

Changing relationships

Some use abuse as a mood stabilizer. Lashing out against a victim in a physical way gives the abuser immediate relief, just as a despondent person might use an anti-depressant. In Allbaugh’s experience, batterers tend to be insecure; they don’t believe anyone could love them unless forced to do so. In turn, they use power and control to keep their partner.

Some men seek justification for abusive actions, and often receive it from other males in the community.

“Men who are not batterers, who abhor that behavior won’t speak out when they hear ideas being expressed about abuse or women being demeaned,” Allbaugh said. “That needs to change. Batterers are desperate guys looking for validation wherever they can get it. Don’t give it to them.”

Social and cultural factors contribute to domestic violence as well, Allbaugh said.

“There’s a lot of ideas in society, especially religion, that teach that men should be dominant over women,” he said. “There’s still a lot of sex role rigidity that sill exists and I think that contributes to the problem, is part of it.”

Walker said men thinking they have a legitimate right to control women begins early on.

“Men are raised in a cultural box that tells us if you are pushed against a wall that violence is the answer,” he said. “We are taught that power and control is OK. It is not OK and that’s the message we need to get to men and children we are raising.”

Walker said many clients in the 29-week program don’t know how else to deal with partners without using power and control. His job is to “retrain” the men in approaching and handling  relationships. The S.O.S. program is new, but Walker said he’s seen it make a difference. There have been eight who have completed it so far and there’s another 20 in the three groups he’s working with now.

“I teach them how to have a better relationship,” he said. “We are trying to protect future partners as well as those from the past. It is my job to try to break the cycle with the perpetrators.”

Find Abbey Doyle on Facebook and @heraldbulletin on Twitter, or call 640-4805.