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Trigger Warning: Domestic Violence

Red Leaves of October

This time of year, the leaves are developing into yellows, oranges, and reds. Pumpkin and cinnamon spices are being added to hot drinks and layered scarves wrapped around necks. I no longer let my cat out at seven o’clock in the evening because it is too dark for me to hang out inside with the door open waiting for him to saunter back in. Instead, he and I huddle inside under a blanket and think about broken bones, bruises and bodily harm. These are all signs that October has arrived.

Intimate partner violence is not a seasonal occurrence, but a year-round nightmare that is given a small stage mention during October. It is sort of like a play: people dress up in purple, survivors mutter soliloquies under the breath or inhale deeply before monologuing a series of events they would rather forget. The talking points, the slogans, the ad campaigns are a brief fury before the curtain falls. The second leading cause of death in women under the age of fifty gets the spotlight one month out of twelve. The other eleven months of the year the much more sinister—and honest—reality of quietly sweeping domestic violence under the rug takes center stage.

1 in 3 women experiences domestic violence in their lifetime. That is to say that 1 in 3 women will never go about trusting an intimate partner in the same way again. 1 in 3 women are isolated from their family and friends. 1 in 3 women is made entirely financially dependent on their abuser. 1 in 3 women slowly lose touch with their hobbies and their personality. 1 in 3 women is forced to play a sadistic game where her basic safety is the prize for making the right moves. 1 in 3 women does not mean that all of them experience these things and then make it out alive.

Domestic violence mostly impacts women and people assigned female at birth, but that is not to say that other nonbinary individuals or men are excluded from this horrific experience. 1 in 4 men will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, making the tragedy of intimate partner violence a commonality. It is a far too common part of our lives to relegate discussion about it to only one month of the year. Maybe it is because it is so common that people feel the need to compartmentalize. There is the identity that exists outside of the experience of domestic violence that takes up the eleven months of the year, and October serves as a reminder to those who have escaped that there are others still deep in the trenches, fighting for their lives against someone who is supposed to love them.

When we hear that something is common, the instinct is to downplay it, rub some dirt in it, plant a tree and move on. However, domestic violence leaves psychological wounds that far outlast the physical wounds. Having an abusive partner can permanently change the way someone’s fight or flight system responds to social conflict, can damage their short-term memory and the constant concern for their safety erodes the immune system’s ability to fight illnesses. These lifelong consequences for victims, and the fact that abusers are dangerous criminals, means that these actions deserve consequences.

In charges brought against those who abuse in intimate partner scenarios, the courts dismiss them 66% of the time. The message to victims is clear: a concussion is merely the result of a lover’s quarrel. A blow that makes all hits equal. An impact hard enough to blur vision because love is blind and, apparently, so is the law. The percentage of dismissed charges has been rising since 2016 after stagnating at around 80% for years. Victims of intimate partner violence are often criticized for staying in these relationships. However, one look into the legal statistics makes why victims stay less of a mystery. How does someone report a crime that no one is willing to take seriously? Then ponder that question again upon learning that 75% of women are killed by their intimate partners after attempting to escape the relationship.

Things are made worse by the fact that restraining and no-contact orders are not put in place unless injuries go beyond bruising at the time the incident is reported. When these orders are in place they act as protection for victims. After victims are separated from their abuser, their brains will often panic, as their brains have learned to associate their safety with pleasing their abuser (as they do not get attacked when the abuser is happy). If the abuser is not present the victim’s brain floods the system with distressing signals; The same signals the brain sends when it is dying. This means that knowing the information is not enough. Knowing and understanding that they are being abused does not override the brain’s fight or flight system that tells the victim that their survival depends on being reunited with the abuser. This also means that the brain is willing to jump through hoops in order to justify why the abuser was right in their actions and why the relationship will eventually improve.

After being separated from their abuser, victims of abuse are often making decisions based on battered woman syndrome—more widely understood as a form of Stockholm Syndrome. Stockholm Syndrome is most commonly associated with kidnapping or hostage situations, but it functions the exact same way in Domestic Violence. The only difference is that the effects are magnified because the victim had a prior intimate relationship with their abuser. Stockholm Syndrome is when the victim aligns themselves with their abuser to keep themselves safe and lower feelings of terror over the constant risk to their safety. Safety is threatened by much more than physical violence. Often abusers slowly work to foster Stockholm Syndrome in their victims before engaging in any act of violence or coercive control. These tactics are subtle and build over time as the victim’s tolerance to abuse builds and their ability to access and trust their own reality diminishes. Abusers use gaslighting, crazy-making, and blame-shifting in the early stages of their relationship with their victim and continue to use them in more extreme forms in order to maintain the relationship. Being aware of these patterns can help people identity domestic violence early on, help survivors contextualize their experiences, provide people with the skills to recognize red flags and support loved ones who may be experiencing intimate partner violence.

Gaslighting

Domestic Violence often starts with gaslighting, which is when the abuser works to undermine their target’s reality to lessen the victim’s resistance when the abuser tries to impose their own warped view of reality onto them. Gaslighting makes victims question their sanity and their ability to accurately recall memories. Victims of gaslighting will often report feeling confused, anxious, unable to trust themselves and unsure of what is socially appropriate or normal, but victims cannot identify why they feel these things. Gaslighting typically starts off as really subtle. An example of this is an abuser and their partner are binge-watching a television show together. Later the partner quotes a line from two episodes ago to their abuser. The abuser then insists that the partner has completely misquoted the line. The partner continues to say that they quoted the line correctly (because they did). This is the trap. If the partner relents and agrees with their abuser that they said the line wrong, then the abuser just successfully reinforced that their partner does not see the world clearly and that they need to defer to the abuser who does see the world clearly. Even though it is done in a small way, it sets the foundation for slightly bigger and bigger things, until it escalates to the abuser flat out denying cruel statements or physical assault. If the partner insists on going back to the episode to show the abuser that they quoted the line correctly, then the abuser says things like, “Yes, we all know how you are. You have to be right all the time. Even about something small like this when we are just trying to enjoy a TV show.” Since the partner proved their reality was right, the abuser chooses to twist and manipulate their partner’s intentions and paint them in a negative light. Regardless of what the victim chooses to do the gaslighting is successful.

Another example of gaslighting starting small is the partner comes home from work in a hurry and throws their keys down on the coffee table before heading to the bathroom. While they are in the bathroom the abuser moves the keys from the coffee table to the partner’s dresser. When the partner comes out of the bathroom looking for their keys, they are confused as they cannot find them. The abuser then “helpfully” reminds their partner that they watched them go into their room and set their keys down. The partner insists that they did not go into the bedroom at all and recounts their steps to the abuser. The abuser could then disengage, treating the partner like they are being unreasonable or they could become angry and insist that their partner has a problem with pride and an obsession with being right. When the partner eventually finds their keys on the dresser the lies start to seep through and become the victim’s reality.

If the partner tries to confront the abuser, they are setting themselves up for further gaslighting. As the abuser is then able to say, “Really? You are attacking me because I actually knew where your keys were. Wow, ok, next time you can just be late because you wouldn’t stop looking for your keys in the wrong spot.” If the partner is persistent and pushes the abuser things will likely escalate. During these escalations, the abuser’s aim is to exhaust their victim. Abusers engage in a speech pattern sometimes referred to colloquially as ‘word salad.’ Word salad typically refers to a speech pattern consisting of seemingly random and unconnected thoughts or phrases, which occurs in people with specific types of persistent mental illness. For these individuals, the word salad is involuntary as they are attempting to clearly communicate their thoughts. Abusers, on the other hand, engage in this speech pattern consciously to confuse their victim and prevent the conversation from progressing past conflict to possible solutions. Abusers do not want peace. They thrive off chaos. Word salad is when an abuser purposefully jumps topics, avoids questions, engages in deflection or projection and refuses to stay on a topic. In a conversation where an abuser is using world salad, all their thoughts are circular instead of progressing. Abusers will keep fights going for hours until the victim is exhausted and desperate for the fight to stop, making them susceptible to agreeing with anything the abuser says in order to arrive at some peace. This is an instance where a victim might engage in self-gaslighting where they ask themselves questions like: “Why did I have to ruin the night by being so insistent about a dumb quote when I should have focused on us spending time together?” or “I should have just looked on the dresser. It would have taken me five seconds, but I am too stubborn.” This is when the victim loses touch with reality and therefore they are not able to trust their gut or any conclusions they come to about their abuser.

Crazy Making

Another lose-lose situation is crazy-making which is when the victim is given two opposing rules to follow at the same time. For example, an abuser could ask their partner to call them whenever their partner leaves the house because it makes the abuser anxious to know that the pet is home alone. An important aspect of crazy-making is that the abuser will make an effort to explain their reasoning in a way that sounds logical and practical. They may say that they worry about the pet scratching the furniture or that they worry about them having an accident inside on the rug. However, their reasoning does not hold up upon closer examination. The pet never has an accident indoors and only ever plays with their toys. Additionally, the abuser will leave the pet home alone for long periods of time, even forgetting to put out food, but will not notify their partner. So, one nonsensical rule the abuser establishes is that they want their partner to call whenever they leave. It is a double standard that is put in place to cause conflict and to control the victim. Yet, there is also another rule. The abuser does not want their partner to bother them at work, which includes contacting them in any way. This puts the victim in a situation where no matter what they do they are breaking a ‘relationship rule.’ Sometimes abusers will even purposely mislabel abusive behaviors as psychologically healthy ones. For example, they may call crazy-making tactics “boundaries” and then rage at their partner because their partner “violated a boundary.”  By engaging in crazy-making the victims are framed as the ones who are bringing conflict into the relationship. This is an example of blaming the victim for simply playing out the scenario their abuser already set up.

If the victim tries to confront the abuser about the crazy-making the situation will escalate until the victim is exhausted and siding with the abuser. Often times trying to confront crazy-making tactics makes the victim feel dazed and confused. Victims will describe trying to navigate two opposing rules and feeling as if they are—as the name implies— crazy. Placing blame where it is not deserved is another common tactic of abusers as it absolves them of responsibility or guilt.

Blame Shifting

Abusers often suffer from low self-esteem, which is deserved. Abusers are usually aware on some level of the pain they inflict on others and how much they enjoy the power of mistreating people who depend on them. They know on some level that they are not good people but facing this reality and the possibility of taking steps to amend is not in the abuser’s wheelhouse. Instead, they will project their wrongdoings onto their victim as a way of lying to themselves. If they can get the victim to agree with their skewed narrative, then the victim also acts as confirmation that the abuser is not terrible, but justified, in their behavior. An example of blame-shifting is an abuser may relentlessly accuse their partner of cheating when the abuser is the one who is cheating. Another example of blame-shifting is that the abuser will justify their actions of violence or verbal cruelty by claiming that they felt threatened by their partner yelling at them during an argument. They try to put the responsibility for their abusive actions onto their partner. Essentially blame-shifting puts all the ‘cause’ of an abuser’s behavior onto their victim. The abuser would not get so angry if the victim was not constantly nagging them. The abuser would not give the victim the silent treatment if they just had sex when the abuser asked. The abuser would not lie to the victim about blowing a bunch of money if the victim was not such a penny pincher. The victim is then told that the abuser’s cruel actions are a result of the victim’s normal reactions. The abuser is never responsible. In their mind they are never the ‘cause’ but instead always the helpless ‘effect.’ Blame shifting may be one of the easier abuse tactics for someone who is not familiar with intimate partner violence to conceptualize why a victim would comply with their abuser. The victim is trying to avoid the abuse, the ‘effect’ and if they are made to believe they have some sort of power that could deter the abuse from happening, then they will do whatever they can to get the abuse to stop. They will accept the premise that they are the cause in an effort to keep themselves safe. This sets the stage for victims accepting physical abuse as a consequence of their “provoking actions.”

Domestic violence increases the risk of homicide by 500%. This violence is personal.

Physical Abuse

This paragraph can be short, but it may need to be reread. Every act of violence is purposeful. There are no accidental swings. Any type of physical violence is unacceptable and cannot exist in a loving relationship. There are no reasons for their behavior beyond an abuser wanting to maintain power and control at the total expense of the other person that they view as an object. It is not forgivable if the abuser claims to have been acting out of trauma or fear—a common excuse abusers use. It does not matter if the abuser was under the influence, stressed or extremely angry when they acted violently. It does not matter if the abuser had a seemingly reasonable justification to be upset—furious even—they never have the right to act abusively.

The only justification for engaging in violence is self-defense. Oftentimes abusers will try to weaponize the self-defense they force their victims to engage in. Then abusers will try to use all the tactics talked about above to convince the victims that they are actually the abusive party. Victims have every right to use whatever force necessary to protect themselves against an attacker. Engaging in self-defense cannot make someone an abuser.

Domestic Violence Beyond October

Intimate partner violence is a far too common part of our society—of our relationships—to relegate awareness to only one month of the year. Abuse is relentless and continuously escalating. Abuse does not function on a calendar, but on a timer, with many victims’ time running out. Maybe it is because it is so commonplace that people feel the need to compartmentalize. Maybe a way for survivors of domestic violence to move on is to split their identity into October and then the other eleven months of the year. There is the identity that exists outside of the experience of domestic violence and October serves as a reminder to those who have escaped that there are others still deep in the trenches, fighting for their lives against someone who is supposed to love them.

Nobody deserves to be attacked. Domestic violence is a crime. Domestic violence is a form of evil. It is the entitled behavior of an adult who interacts with the world like a tantruming toddler. Partners of these individuals are deserving of love and safety and their abusers often know it, which is why abusers are so desperate to convince their partners otherwise. If someone puts their hands on their partner once, they are an abuser, and they will do it again. Abuse always escalates.

Love should not hurt. Love does not hurt. Abuse masking as love is hurt few words can capture.

Resources:

  • Domestic Violence hotline (has chat or call features): 1-800-799-7233
  • RAIN (Rape, Assault, Incest, National Network):  1-800-656-4673
  • Crisis Line: Text “Home” to 741741
  • Central Washington University Counseling Services: (509) 963-1881
  • Ellensburg Aspen Victim Services: (509) 925-9384
Vanesa Arostegui is currently a graduate student at Central Washington University pursuing a master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling. She has obtained a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Professional and Creative Writing. She plans to go on and earn her MFA in creative fiction and poetry. She is the daughter of an immigrant, with a father from Spain. She wrote a personal narrative that dealt with mental health and that piece was a finalist in Sticks and Stones for short story Bellied Bones (2017). She also was recently a finalist in The New Guard Literary Review 2019 Poetry competition for her poem Puff Daddy (2019). Two Poetry Publications in Manastash Literary Magazine Scorpio Coloring Book and mommy’s alcoholic (2020).
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