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Combating domestic violence

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A black eye, a broken arm — these are images we often conjure up when we think of domestic violence. But did you know that domestic violence can occur without ever leaving a physical mark? As we observe National Domestic Violence Month in October, consider how verbal abuse can be every bit as damaging as physical abuse. Moreover, it is almost always present prior to a physical outburst.

At diocesan Catholic Charities’ Office of Family Services, we counsel women and men who are domestic abuse survivors.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic violence as "a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship." While I refer to the abuser as male and the abused partner as female, both men and women experience abuse with equally destructive effects.

When a woman is in a relationship with an abuser who, she believes, wants the best for her and enjoys spending time with her, that abuser can shape her behavior effectively by making her doubt her own perception of the world.

How do abusers create that doubt?

Name-calling; insulting intelligence or competence; dismissing concerns; minimizing feelings; responding with anger to neutral statements; and playing "dumb" about how his behavior impacts his partner. Abusive behaviors are predictably unpredictable, making it hard to say "enough is enough" and leave the relationship.

Part of instilling that self-doubt is to alternate these punishing behaviors with "honeymoon" phases of seeming apologies and promises to change. Eventually the behaviors return, and tension builds until he’s right back where he started. Survivors have described the tension building phase as one of holding their breath or walking on eggshells. The whole pattern is like walking on shifting sand, with no solid ground to stand on.

I’ve had the privilege of working with several women in various stages of abusive relationships. Here is a composite story of some of them with identifying information removed and details changed to protect confidentiality.

Josephine is 32. She grew up in a rural area in France, met the love of her life, Jack, while he was traveling there, and moved to the U.S. to be with him. She struggled to learn English, and he mocked her for not understanding him. The more he called her stupid, the more she believed it — after all, he spoke French fluently, why couldn’t she learn English?

He refused to use her native language to speak with her, "for her own good," arguing full immersion is the fastest way to learn a new language. Her confidence shrank, and so did her ability to learn new information. Her Visa did not allow her to work, and, living on one income, money was tight after their second child was born.

There was one French-language church in the wider area, but he insisted they attend the English-language church nearby, to save money on gas. He always had a reason for limiting her world. When she tried to explain that the way he talked to her — the insults, name calling, eye rolling — hurt her feelings, he just told her she was being too sensitive, and there was nothing wrong with his behavior. Jack never hit her, so she thought he must be right that it wasn’t a big deal. He told her she was the problem. That’s when Josephine came in for therapy.

She had developed depression. She had become so disconnected from her emotions that tears would run down her cheeks, and she would have no idea why. She was surprised when I told her I could understand her English easily; he always told her that she made no sense when she was talking to him.

Bottom line? Jack’s abuse had caused Josephine to believe she was worthless and unlovable, two of the most insidious lies that break our ability to trust in the God who made us good and who loves us. Husbands are supposed to love their wives as Christ loves the church (Eph 5:25). Instead of recognizing this was not how Jack was treating her, Josephine believed that Christ saw her as worthless since this was how Jack made her feel.

At Catholic Charities, our counselors show clients that they can and deserve to be treated with the respect due the children of God; we validate survivors’ capacity to make their own decisions; we hope they will refuse to live with abuse; and we help them cling to the rock of truth when the sea is raging.

Strenio is a licensed clinical social worker with Catholic Charities of the Arlington diocese .

Find out more

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233, or text "START" to 88788. Access a directory of local resources at thehotline.org.

For counseling, go to Catholic Charities, ccda.net/need-help/medical-and-counseling/counseling/.

Read more at catholicsforfamilypeace.org.

"The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond," by Patricia Evans.

"Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men," by Lundy Bancroft.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021