When a woman leaves her batterer

Woman on a Path

Leaving a batterer is never easy. A woman is at greatest risk for murder when she leaves a physically abusive partner. Her decision to leave is a sign to the batterer that he has lost control, and loss of control is what batterers fear the most.

Not loss of love. Not loss of a partner. Not even loss of a scapegoat, or whipping girl, for all he perceives as wrong with his life. No. Just loss of control. Over her. Over his fears of abandonment. Over his fears that he is not the omnipotent being he imagines himself to be.

A woman’s fear of murder, no doubt, will keep her in the relationship, especially if the batterer has threatened to kill her. Perhaps he has strangled her. Strangulation can be enough to keep her subjected to the relationship and a pervasive state of terror (Thomas, Joshi & Sorenson, 2014). Strangulation can also be difficult to detect.

Low self-esteem will also keep a woman in an abusive relationship. Sometimes low self-esteem precedes her relationship with the batterer. Maybe she was abused as a child, and she never learned to value herself. Maybe she was on hard times when she got together with the batterer, or in a period of existential self-doubt, which is a normal, albeit trying aspect of all lives. For some women, a deep desire for a perfect romantic partner causes them to move too quickly into relationship. These women may not have low self-esteem, yet their dreams of perfection keep them naïvely fixated on an ideal, thus blinding them to subtle warning signs of impending trouble in paradise.

Men who batter can be highly charismatic when they want to be. They seem preternaturally sensitive to the signs of a vulnerable woman who just might imagine she needs a Knight in Shining Armor to save her. Batterers readily play the role of Knight, at least until they see signs of dependency. For the batterer, dependency signals weakness and is a green light to begin exerting control. In a healthy relationship, dependency reveals vulnerability and the need to respond sensitively.

If a woman’s self-esteem is robust before entering a relationship with a batterer, it won’t be afterwards. He will make sure of this. Although “battering” typically refers to physical abuse, many battered women say the psychological and emotional abuse inflicted has the most lasting and damaging effect. Batterers seem to know this. Battering rarely — if ever — occurs without a backdrop of unending emotional abuse and degrading remarks. A woman with a broken spirit is less likely to leave her batterer.

Along with fear and low self-esteem, the dreams a woman holds for her partner and the relationship will cause her to stay. According to research conducted by Neil Jacobson, PhD and John Gottman, PhD, it wasn’t until women let go of these dreams did they leave their batterers for good.

In their book, When Men Batter Women: New Insights Into Ending Abusive Relationships, Jacobson and Gottman wrote:

“How do women get out of these abusive marriages? What we discovered when we interviewed these women was that this leave-taking was in every case an heroic struggle. These women had emerged from hell, and the journey in every case had required them to overcome major obstacles and make psychological transformations. The first step in their transformation was giving up the dream that kept them loyal to their husbands despite the abuse.”

And what were their dreams?

  • Dreams of the batterer as the Knight who once saved her.
  • Dreams of the batterer as undiscovered genius, artist, entrepreneur (whatever his unfulfilled dreams might be) who with the right support and love will reach his potential — and stop battering her.
  • Dreams that if she was ‘good enough’ the abuse would stop. This is the message women constantly hear from their batterers — essentially, that the abuse is their fault.

Writing in When Men Batter Women, Jacobson and Gottman observed:

“All three of the battered women in this chapter — Martha, Judy, and Cheryl — initially saw their husbands as damaged little boys whom they would support, take care of, and heal until they became the great husbands and fathers the women were sure they could become. This was the dream. Don, Dave, and Randy were all perceived as men who with a little more loving and a little more kindness would blossom into upstanding family men. Until the women gave up that dream, they were unable to leave.”

Dreams of a better partner and relationship contribute to the trauma bond between a woman and her batterer. They are the unconscious undercurrent sealing the relationship, much like a secret handshake clinches an unspoken promise. She suffers in vain hope that he will return to the Knight he once was, or eventually, become the King of his fantasies of grandeur. He needs her suffering to feed his fantasies of omnipotence and a deep emptiness within. While she’s looking to him for transformation, he’s looking to her to make himself feel invincible. They both dream of futures that will never come about.

Without his partner holding the dream, the batterer becomes vulnerable to either his feelings of inadequacy or his fears of abandonment — whichever happens to drive his need for control. Many have these fears, but the batterer dehumanizes his partner in his attempts to avoid them.

The batterer’s dependency on his partner is much like a torturer’s relationship to his captive. In his book An Evil Cradling (1993), Brian Keenan wrote about the psychological immaturity and dependency of the captors who kept him hostage in Beruit for almost five years. Unlike battered women, Keenan’s perceptions weren’t clouded by hopes of one day having a good relationship or loving partner. Instead, he could readily identify his captors’ fear of being alone, their continual need for distractions, and how they were dependent on the hostages to avoid an internal sense of emptiness. He wrote:

“Cruelty and fear are man-made, and men who perpetrate them are ruled by them. Such men are only half-made things. They live out their unresolved lives by attempting to destroy anything that challenges the void in themselves. A child holds a blanket over its face in fear. A fear-filled man transposes his inadequacy onto another. He blames them, hates them, and hopes to rid himself of his unloved self by hurting, or worse, destroying them.”

To leave, the battered woman must lose the dream that blinds her to the opposing scripts her and her batterer follow: namely, where she dreams of love, he dreams of power. To leave, she must revoke the secret handshake that once implied it is her responsibility to heal the batterer’s internal emptiness, and thus her responsibility to transform him into the man they both wished he could be.

To leave, she much act safely and seek support.

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References

Jacobson, Neil, and John Gottman. 1998/2007. When men batter women: New insights into ending abusive relationships. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Keenan, Brian. 1993. An evil cradling: The five-year ordeal of a hostage. New York: Viking.

Thomas, Kristie A., Manisha Joshi, and Susan B. Sorenson. 2014. “‘Do you know what it feels like to drown?’: Strangulation as coercive control in intimate relationships.” Psychology of Women Quarterly no. 38 (1):124-137. doi: 10.1177/0361684313488354.

© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography). 

  • Deena Harbaugh

    Important, vital topic for women and families. Thank you, Dr. Kerr, for writing about the things society would rather not talk about. We can’t change the world without knowing what is really happening inside, behind doors. We can’t tell a woman in this situation to practice yoga, or breathing exercises and to focus on loving herself. She must get out, first, and then learn why she was attracted to the abusive man in the first place. Then she must learn what the signs were that she missed all along that were telling her he was a perp. My heart breaks for the women (or anyone in an abusive relationship) who live in fear, who have children that witness and/or receive violence themselves, and who will most likely grow up and repeat the cycle of abuse they witnessed as children (e.g., the little girl will grow up and marry an abuser herself; the boy will grow up to batter and/or end up in prison). How do we stop the cycle of abuse? By talking about it, educating people, intervening, its everybody’s business and we should all be outraged. Thanks again for writing on these important topics.

    • Deena,

      Thank you for taking the time to write this. It’s too bad blog comments can’t sometimes go before the post, as your insights really hit at the core of this topic.

      I think it will take all human beings addressing this issue for us to collectively move beyond domestic and intimate partner violence. There are no quick and easy fixes when violence has been the norm in relationships or family life.

      I know I”m just echoing what you wrote, but you spoke to my heart!

  • Lost Dreams

    I was in tears trying to read this out loud. You described my life. My husband strangled me when I was sleeping. I don’t understand what it is with the choking, so many women in my DV support group have been choked. After that, every time we would argue about something he would say to me in a sing-song voice “You have to sleep sometime”. The threat of violence was always there.
    He was very charming at first, acted like he worshipped me. By the time he started behaving badly I was completely in love, blinded as can be. He broke every promise he made. We had two children who witnessed abuse and experienced it. Daddy is also an alcoholic. On several occasions one of my children put themselves in harms way to stand between me and their father. They had seen me stand between him and my kids all the time. I did everything I could to protect my kids, except leave. Multiple calls to the police over three years failed to result in any help. They only told him it wasn’t illegal to be drunk in his own house, it wasn’t illegal to yell in his own house, and even that it wasn’t illegal to break down doors in the house (my bedroom door — where I slept on the floor like an animal) because he was only damaging his own property. Even the Child Protective Services Social Worker told my husband that he could kill me “as long as the kids weren’t watching” because that would be emotional abuse.
    I filed for divorce finally when it was clear he never cared about me and because I wanted to break the cycle of violence. He stalled the divorce proceedings for over 4 years now and counting. I was a stay at home mom, my job skills now eroded, no self esteem, not allowed to have friends, stuck and losing money by the day. He abandoned the family and I raised the kids alone, we only saw him come home drunk and angry and then he would stir up trouble with the emotional and verbal abuse.
    The abuse increased after I filed for divorce, even though he had other women he begged me to stay without making any promises of improved behavior. There was more shoving, vague threats and direct threats, and of course the financial abuse increased with legal fees. He now abuses me through the court system, with his girlfriend, and now my own children, who have somehow been turned against me and are stuck in what I refer to as “Hell House”. I can’t protect them anymore. He has made death threats, and yet claimed that I abused him and the children. He is six inches taller than I am and outweighs me by 100 pounds. I live in fear, and deep grief at the loss of my children and what they will become.
    I have been in therapy over 5 years and am doing other things trying to heal, but I can’t seem to with the marriage still in force. I am stuck and I want it over. I tried to end the marriage and I have lost everything except the marriage; my home, my children, all my possessions, catastrophic financial losses. We are on our third judge and I am on my second attorney. I need a better lawyer who understands what is going on but cannot afford anything. The legal system is broken when it comes to family law. My husband has violated every single court order, stipulation, and agreement we have made, as well as the law. He is never held accountable for anything.
    I don’t have enough oomph to learn how to get a job or even know what kind of job I should look for. There is always another court date looming. He is not allowed to know where I live, but I wonder if he does. I am tired of people telling me to “get over him” or “snap out of it” or “if it was so bad, why didn’t you just leave?”. Even my own attorney tells me to get out of victim mentality, but does nothing to stop me from getting re-victimized by my husbands attorney who absolutely does it on purpose.
    Even the judges we have had are all female, but all seem willing to blame the victim. They see me as weak I suppose. I see myself as weak. I didn’t used to be like this. I just don’t know how to break free and end it without letting him keep sizeable assets in a community property state. He has a good job and I have none. I need money to live on. I trust no one. I almost feel like I should be in the witness protection program.
    I don’t know if I am making any sense or not. I just know I have to keep hope, and not ever give up. I am in hiding and not on any social networking things to avoid detection and stalking and to avoid opening myself to further harassment.
    The family unit is the building block of society, with so many messed up families, this is a huge problem, because of course, those of us living the nightmare smile in public and pretend like everything is fine at home.

    • It’s so heart wrenching for me — and gut wrenching — to read the continual horror you experience. I have worked with several women whose histories are much like yours, and my own mother suffered domestic violence. It’s one of the greatest losses of freedom and civil liberties. Not to mention peace of mind.

      I used sensorimotor psychotherapy, a form of trauma therapy, to support the women I worked with, including women caught in the trap of the justice system being used by their abuser for continual harassment.

      The advantage of sensorimotor psychotherapy is that it can be used to reduce the fear response in ‘real time.’ This helps reduce the continual retraumatization. Basically, it’s learning skills for resourcing the body when overwhelmed with fear. It’s a small and basic step, but it really can go a long way with regards to reducing that feeling of being a victim. Here’s an example of the kind of resourcing I’m talking about:

      https://www.laurakkerr.com/2014/07/29/inner-buddha/

      Of course, when you work with a therapist the process would be tailored to you and include working through the past traumas.

      If you are looking for a trauma focused therapist, you can google “Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute” and they have a page devoted to practitioners, who are located throughout the world.

      I would also recommend looking into your state’s victims of violence program. In the state where I live, California, victims of domestic violence can have their therapy paid for by the state, including seeing a private therapist specialized in the treatment of trauma.

      Don’t give up! I’ve seen how men do this to women, trying to destroy their self-worth — wonderful women whose only crime was falling in love with the wrong man. And I have seen women recover, by believing they deserved to feel good about themselves and by continually seeking help.