National News

How Abusive Relationships Take Root

Posted May 11, 2018 5:03 p.m. EDT

A political activist. A high-powered attorney. A feminist author.

The women who have accused Eric Schneiderman, the former New York attorney general, of sexual abuse stand as a reminder that domestic violence ensnares women of all backgrounds.

Roughly a third of women in developed countries report having been in at least one abusive relationship, defined by a partner or ex-partner who “causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviors,” according to the World Health Organization.

Schneiderman has strongly denied that anything nonconsensual occurred and has described the events recounted by the women — particularly slapping and choking — as “role play” in an intimate setting.

The hallmark signs of the male abuser are well known to experts. He’s jealous. He exhibits a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. He can be cruel with animals, to children. His instincts as the male in the relationship are traditionally cliché: overweening and dominant.

But often it is the subtler, more incremental steps in the development of an abusive relationship, among men and women of all orientations.

— Small demands grow larger

“It often starts in a very insidious way,” said Patricia Pape, a psychologist in private practice in New York. “He says, ‘Don’t put Sweet-and-Low in your coffee, it’s poisonous.’

“Then, ‘When you wear that nail polish, it makes you look like a fallen woman,’ and ‘That skirt is too short, it’s too revealing.’ Or, ‘I don’t think you should see her, she’s not good for you.’

“You wind up in a situation where he’s telling you what to wear, what to eat, who you can see, how to behave.”

Each small adjustment made by the victim reinforces this control, Pape said.

One of her patients had a husband who, when the couple was out at a public event, would insist she not look around at the crowd, as he felt it could be seen as flirtatious. “It came to point that when she walked around, she would look down,” Pape said. “It changed how she walked.”

In this case, as in so many others, no single request was offensive on its own — at least, not early on. Each person in a relationship makes room for the other’s quirks, to some extent, male or female: that’s what couples do.

It’s the incremental ceding of control on one side that can prime someone for abuse, therapists said.

— Concessions lead to self-doubt

No one wants to be controlled, or managed, in this way. And certainly no one wants to admit to it.

“This is where embarrassment comes in,” said Elaine Ducharme, a psychologist in Glastonbury, Connecticut. “The shame of admitting it to friends — everyone is susceptible to that.”

Even as smaller confinements begin to lead to larger infringements, enough self-doubt has accumulated to feed the temptation to downplay the offense. It becomes increasingly difficult to see abuse for what it is.

“You remind yourself, ‘Well, he told me he loved me very much, he promises it will never happen again, he really does adore me,'” Ducharme said.

Another element often comes into play: the notion that the abuser can be reformed.

“Women think, ‘I can help fix him through my own behavior, by reinforcing good behavior — I can fix this,'” said Nadine Wathen, a researcher at the University of Western Ontario’s Center for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children. “Even in dating relationships, these things take time.”

The decision to stay, for the time being, can seem more like a choice than it really is, Wathen said.

— Self-doubt feeds vulnerability

And there’s often the fear in anyone who is abused in any context — female and male, child and adult — that asking for help will somehow backfire. That no one will believe it all.

This fear crosses all levels of society. Fewer than 10 percent of all women who seek help for domestic violence also use shelters, research suggests. Women of means, in fact, are less likely than poorer women to do so.

None of which is to ignore the more explicit shackles an abusive relationship may impose: threats that if the victims tell others, or leave, there’ll be worse to come. These typically escalate when an abused partner tries to leave, or announces a decision to do so.

Jacquelyne Campbell of Johns Hopkins University has developed a checklist that predicts acts of violence, including murder, and features questions like: “Has he destroyed or threatened to destroy things that belong to you?” And: “Has he threatened to harm a child, a pet, an elderly family member?”

The abused partner is often forced to balance the risk to herself against the risk to loved ones. Leaving the relationship is rarely a matter of just walking away.

“Some guys are very slick, they know how to groom women, know how to manipulate them, they promise to help their career,” Pape said. “And no matter how bright she is — she freezes, and takes on all the shame, the responsibility for what’s happening.”

Women who can often leave and return multiple times. They sometimes flee in the middle of the night, grabbing the children and their wallet; they may end up at a friend’s home, or a sibling’s or parent’s, asking to stay for “a while,” according to an extensive review of focus group and interviews with abused women by researchers at the University of Western Ontario and elsewhere for forthcoming practice guidance for health and social service providers.