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Lessons on Abuse

We recently had the chance to catch up with Deborah J. Cohan a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, a contributing writer for Psychology Today online and author of Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption. Hopeful Horizons has worked closely with Professor Cohan since she arrived in South Carolina -drawing on her expertise in the fields of domestic violence and sexual assault and partnering to increase awareness among USCB students. Closing out October, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we asked Professor Cohan to reflect on the topic of domestic violence – her personal and professional experiences, working with victims and perpetrators and teaching college students.

Please be aware, this blog post contains descriptions of violence, including physical and sexual abuse.

I have taught many students who have been raped, harassed, stalked, manipulated, beaten and threatened, and I have had students who lost their own mothers and aunts and grandmothers to domestic homicide. There are many lessons I try to impart. Here are some of them:

Abuse has a particular relationship with time. Abuse stunts a victim’s growth and simultaneously speeds it up. However, the timelines for healing and recovery are different for the person hurt than the person who created the pain. Abusers I worked with over many years would impatiently grumble, “But, it happened a few months ago, why isn’t she over it by now?” Abusers seem to want to rush time. No wonder so many male abusers try to woo women into super-fast courtships--it makes it harder and harder for the women to see any flaws. These men seduce at lightning speed. By rushing things, abusers rapidly blur the vision of their partners before the women can make fully informed choices about what is working in the relationship and what is not.

Instant intimacy is all too often followed by disillusion, so tread carefully. Abusers are experts at zeroing in and preying on vulnerability. They do this so a person is “all in” before having all the information necessary to make good decisions. But, the rushed, pressured quality to get serious quickly, move in right away, or get married immediately is certainly part of a continuum of controlling behavior. It’s a way to control reality and to control the frame.

As a child, when I heard the story of my parents’ first date, I thought it was romantic, like something out of a princess fantasy. Their mutual friends had set them up on a blind date. After dinner, in a swimming pool in Columbus, Ohio, on July 15, 1967, my father told my mother that he would marry her by the end of the year. He didn’t really ask. He just told her this would happen. According to the story, she just laughed it off and told him he was crazy. Now it gives me the creeps to think that they got married on December 24, 1967, especially since I know that fast courtships are correlated with domestic violence and, worse, domestic homicide.

Relationship violence consists of acts and beliefs that rupture human connection and trust. Just as entrapment encapsulates the experience for victims/survivors, entitlement characterizes the experience for abusers. As a society, we tolerate abusers’ excuses that perpetuate women’s entrapment, excuses that include the perception of victim provocation.

Abuse can take on many forms including:

  • Physical: hitting, kicking, biting, pulling hair, pushing, grabbing, blocking exits, destroying property and precious objects like family heirlooms

  • Emotional: name-calling, mind-games, threats

  • Sexual: includes assault and rape as well as coercion, pressure, threats, and sexual bargaining for things in return

  • Financial: putting someone in debt, closing accounts without consent, giving an allowance that then infantilizes the other person

  • Neglect: withholding affection and attention

Society generally relies on bruises, broken bones, and black eyes to define abuse. Books and movies focus attention primarily on physical and sexual violence which minimizes the intensity of the harm of verbal abuse, emotional control, threats, and psychological damage. For a more in depth look at the nuances of emotional abuse, please check out my new book that goes into this in detail.

It is important to point out that forms of violence can and often do overlap with each other so these categories are not completely discrete. For example, some years ago I worked with an abuser in a battering intervention group who had dumped an overflowing kitchen garbage can over his wife’s head containing a dinner of chicken bones; we can see this as physical abuse yet it’s not the sort of abuse that would send someone to the emergency room or from which someone would be likely to sustain injuries; it surely is emotionally abusive as an act like that, especially done in front of other people, is tremendously humiliating and sends the clear message, “You are garbage also.” Then, when the abuser proceeds to tell her that she looks and smells disgusting and should go to clean herself up, we can see how psychologically twisted that is, creating a situation where she is made to seem and to feel like the cause of the problem. An abuser must so thoroughly objectify and dehumanize the other person that then this other person becomes a thing in the abuser’s eyes. She becomes a commodity that can be tossed aside or thrown away. Furthermore, cases of sexual violence often reveal the merging of physical and emotional violence, and sometimes neglect as well. For example, I worked with a client who demanded oral and anal sex from his wife in exchange for participating in childcare and house cleaning. In his worldview, women were good for sex and homemaking responsibilities and he did not think of his role as a father as being more than an occasional babysitter who deserves compensation. Another abuser with whom I worked claimed that he was only able to reach orgasm if he laid out pornographic images all around his partner’s body as they had sex. An action like this is both sexually abusive and emotionally abusive and reveals the extent to which this man saw women as disposable, replaceable, for the purpose of sexual gratification, and for the purpose of furthering his own self-interests. This line of thinking involves the dehumanization of women and the perception of women as property to be bought, owned, sold, traded, and disposed of. Ultimately then, attitudes and behaviors like these indicate the objectification of women. Along these lines, I worked with a client who, when describing his violence, said: “I punched her when she was pregnant, but I did not punch her in the stomach, well, because, ya know, the baby is a person.” He made it very clear who he did not regard as a full person. Girls and women are socialized to forge and maintain relationships, almost at any cost to themselves. That's what good girls and women are taught to do: create relationships and make them work. So, it is a particularly cruel irony that at the time a woman is most vulnerable, in an abusive relationship, we ask: Why does she stay, why doesn't she leave? But in actuality, she has done what good women are taught to do—she has conformed, maybe overly so, to societal standards. And when she is at the highest risk of being killed by her partner, we insist on asking these questions, and we insist on her resisting and going against all the socialization that has been imposed on her all her life. There are many other reasons why people stay in abusive and coercive relationships—love, fear of danger, fear of not being believed, children, finances, health or disability of their partner or themselves, immigration status, religious upbringing, threats that the abuser may have made regarding killing her or himself, racial loyalty (black women often report that given the rate of incarceration of black men, they don't want more dirty laundry to be aired), etc. I am often asked why survivors of violence recant their story. This gets at how victims are trapped in abusive relationships. A vicious cycle is perpetuated, because once the victim/survivor recants, the sense of the brutality of what was endured gets minimized in the relationship and by those outside the relationship.

The experience gets reduced to: "See? It wasn't that bad. It's never that bad." And then a dynamic ensues such that survivors are not seen as trustworthy with the experiences they have faced. When it comes to accusing and recanting, survivors already have the sense that they won't be believed, because they have been told so by abusers over and over again, and society reinforces this through victim-blaming and tolerance and excuses for violence. In essence, the reasons that survivors recant their stories are often the same reasons they stay in abusive relationships—a torturous combination of love and fear. Most survivors face a tremendous sense of ambivalence—wanting the violence to stop and the relationship to continue, though these may be incompatible goals. Most people want to believe that the person they love loves them back, and that when he says he is sorry, he means it. Though women may wind up scarred and scared from the experience, and often not presenting well, seeming angry, depressed, and anxious, while abusers can present better and calmer, it is also crucial to understand that victims do resist. Sometimes resistance may be subtle and less explicit. In fact, resistance is always present, because violence is unwanted.

If you need help or support, please call Hopeful Horizons at 843-770-1070. Our support line is available 24/7.


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