Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Ladies Of The Club

I had no intention of writing about abuse, but then I realized how many women I know, including myself, who have been in an abusive relationship and broken free. This piece was very difficult to write because it took me back so very many years to a time I would just as soon forget, but if by sharing we can save even one person from the abuse we have known, then it is worth it.
By abuse, I am referring to verbal as well as physical. It is often harder to heal from verbal abuse than it is from physical. Physical wounds will heal, emotional wounds leave sensitive scars for life and sometimes even prevent us from ever forming a healthy relationship with a partner.

Not all men are abusers, in fact only a few are, but there are enough to give all men a black mark. Not all women have been in abusive situations, but there are too many to ignore. Many are still in those relationships for various reasons. There are also instances of men being abused by women, and it is unfortunately much harder to help them because they are even more reluctant to admit to being abused than women are. It had never crossed my mind that there would be instances of women abusing their partners until, a number of years ago I was going home from work. In front of a local tavern there was a rather large woman waling away on her spouse with an umbrella. More recently, a couple that we were acquainted with, had been having a lot of disagreements. It was not until they separated that we became aware that she had been quite abusive. Like most people, this actually came as a shock to me.

Because abuse within families seems to be becoming more prevalent, the harm done to our children must be considered. Some of the increase in violence can be directly attributed to the fact that it is harder and harder to make ends meet. In today’s economy, it is almost imperative that both parents work outside the home in order to provide even the basic necessities of life. The stress that this causes contributes to the sense of helplessness that often erupts into violence against the partner and often against the children as well.

Without the extended family support system that was available in the past, there is often no where to turn for understanding and help. Our society is generally judgmental, and anyone who admits that they need financial help to support their families is very reluctant to ask for that help. Even visiting a food bank is a traumatic experience. In the past, the extended family would get together and chip in to help the family in trouble with financial aid, but even more importantly, emotional support, and the children would also visit with grandparents, aunts and uncles, giving the couple a chance to spend quality time without their responsibilities interfering.

In fact this family breakdown can be blamed for some of the increase in spousal abuse that we are seeing. Many of our young women are products of abusive homes, broken homes, or suffered from neglect growing up, leaving us with low self-esteem and a great need for love at almost any cost. As I spoke with other survivors, a picture emerged of a woman who had suffered a childhood bereft of the nurturing necessary to grow into a confident, secure adult. There may have been abuse of the mother and/or the children. There may have been lack of involvement in the child’s life, often because the struggle for daily living left nothing for the family. I noticed a commercial on TV recently that said cooking dinner interfered with spending quality family time. It baffles me how this can be. If the family participates in cooking and sits down to eat together, there is quality time built right in, time to share the events of the day, plan a weekend event, set up homework, discuss problems, whatever needs to be dealt with. This also means that at least once a day, the whole family gathers as a family, reinforcing family bonds that will last a lifetime.

Having already developed low self-esteem and a great aching need for love and acceptance, our young woman is a prime candidate for spousal abuse. It becomes very easy to convince her that the bad treatment is in some way her fault. She also becomes convinced that no other man would want here. She repeatedly suffers in silence, vowing to do better so the abuse will stop. She may consider leaving the situation, but feels that she has no resources and could not possibly make it on her own. This is doubly true if she has children. She feels ashamed for what she has been convinced are her inadequacies as a person. She also believes he is an inherently good man and that if she just works harder to please him, all will be well. She sees herself as having failed in some way.

The abuse escalates with time and she will often show up in the Emergency Department of the local hospital, where she concocts a story about falling down stairs or running into a door. The hospital is powerless to help her because, unless she tells them what happened, their hands are tied. Police are often reluctant to intervene in domestic disputes, partly because they have seen abused women returning time and again to the same abusive relationship. Even if she is lucky enough to find a Women’s Shelter and arrives there after a particularly bad episode, she is almost surely going to go back to him. A few well chosen words of apology are usually all that it takes to get her to return to the marital home, where it all begins again, only worse this time.

The damage done to any children in the household will last a lifetime. Young girls come to believe that their parent’s relationship is normal, and they will often seek out the same type of man as her father. Boys become inured to the violence and may well grow up to treat their partners in the same way. As mothers in this situation, we are so busy trying to survive that we are totally unaware of the damage being done to our children.

A picture of the abuser also becomes clearer. He is often from an abusive or broken home. He also often has a problem with low self-esteem, and finds the only way he can feel better about himself is to feel and act superior to someone, usually his partner in life. He is often the life of the party, everyone’s best buddy, and a bit of a bully, with a coward’s fear of anyone he sees as stronger than him. He lives a double life, with his friends and acquaintances having no idea what his home life is like. He never learned to actually love anyone, seeing them as possessions instead. The spouse may be a prized possession, but a possession none the less. He finds life frustrating and lacks the skills to overcome his lack of self control, or to turn his life around, often believing that his problems are caused by what other people do to him, never his responsibility. He may well also believe he has every right to abuse his wife, and be filled with righteous indignation when faced with anything that questions his rights.

A few years back, there was a petition set up in our local drug store, condemning family abuse. Many men signed it, but there were others who would not even go into the pharmacy as long as the petition was there. Another event that happened around the same time, happened in a local family restaurant. The restaurant purchased place mats from the local Women’s Shelter with the name and phone number of the shelter on them. Again some men exhibited that same righteous indignation, ostentatiously turning the pace mats over to expose the blank side. Some even demanded that the place mats be removed before they would even order. Then there were also those who simply refused to enter the restaurant until the offending place mats were removed. I really have no idea as to how to rehabilitate such a man. If he loses his abused spouse, he usually finds another willing victim. In fact some men end up with a succession of partners over their lifetime, never quite understanding why their marriages do not work.

In the past, other men took the stance that what happened inside a man’s castle was none of their business. This is slowly changing, with more and more men condemning abuse of any kind, including animals. The subject is no longer taboo and we are able to reach out to other women who we suspect are being abused, but it is still as hard for an abused woman to believe that she has a right to a better life and that she can achieve it.

I would like to quote from correspondence with the Ladies of the Club, strong survivors all. This article could not have been written without you.

“It has been a long road, I end up just forgiving myself first, and letting go of what tied me to the negativity. It is said to forgive the other person and free yourself – that is hard to do.”

“I try not to put the kids in the middle of things. I’m hoping they see the whole picture eventually, I don’t necessarily want them to hate him or have no relationship with him, but I do want them to realize all the crap he’s done.”

“my bitterness is gone, well most of the time….but if I don’t rise above it, then I am teaching my kids the wrong lesson….so I never put them in the middle. Hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

“My oldest saw a lot that she shouldn’t have, that no kid should see. As she got older…she was torn between wanting us to stay together to keep the picture perfect family, and for us to separate while we were both still alive.”

“My girls lived through many years of it with me. I pray they don’t think they can do better in the same circumstances, and make it last forever or more years.” Response “It’s OK. You did not make it OK. You showed that it is unacceptable, and that is what they will remember.”

“My daughter remembers more than any kid should have to even experience, but most of all she remembers that fists and even verbal abuse is not acceptable…it was not acceptable to her mom and it is not acceptable to her.”

“I would look at my Little girl and realize I would die if she grew up and accepted being treated like this, like I was, because I did. I was also so scared that my son would grow up and emulate his father…….all the pain, all the poverty, all the fears….all worth it to give my kids a better life.”

“For me, the open wounds healed over, but left very sensitive scars that sometimes still make me react without thinking, and it has been over 30 years. Healing may take a lifetime, but we do heal, and we can have a successful, loving relationship with the right man, who has the patience, empathy and love to tear down our walls and allow us to be whole again.”

“I knew it wasn’t my fault, and I knew I deserved better. My ex came from a severely broken home, with little or no family connections. I thought I could show him what “family” was really like and he’d learn to want to be a better person….. I stayed and stayed, waiting for the time to be right.”

“I was almost relieved when it progressed to physical abuse. Those wounds were visible so I knew I was not crazy…"

“I found that I could forgive him much easier when he was a continent away. Ultimately forgiveness id for the benefit of the forgiver, not the forgiven. When we hold such rancor in our hearts, it sours all that we do.”

“If I was writing about abuse, the first and most important thing I’d write is “If you are being physically abused, get out now, don’t wait, no second chances, no thinking twice or waiting for the right opportunity, just get out!’ Too many peoples think they can change someone, or wait for a better time to leave. When you leave in an ambulance, it is not a better time.””

“….maybe it will reach someone who believes they are alone, I remember the shock I felt when someone first told me I didn’t deserve to live that way, that I deserved better…..I deserved better? I didn’t know!”

Following our sharing of experiences with ex’s, I believe we all dealt with it in the best way that we could, and that is all that any of us can ask from ourselves. I hope by sharing our experiences, we can save some other woman from the same thing.