WARNING SIGNS: What I want to make sure my daughters know
We try so hard to protect our children, even as we prepare them for a future where they will be as independent and as strong as they need to be to survive on their own. We know of the dangers that the world can present and want to ensure that they will not fall victim to accident or random violence. But the scariest thing for us, is that we know that the greatest danger for women does not come from the random stranger, but from the people that they invite into their lives. Two thirds of the violence against women is done to them by people they know – and the most severe violence, by intimate partners.
Did you know that one of every five high school girls in the US is physically or sexually abused by a dating partner? During the course of their lives almost one in three women will be physically or sexually abused by their husbands or boyfriends. For the past eight years, I have worked with domestic violence and I have seen the damage that this violence does to women and to their children.
I am also a father and I do not want my daughters to ever end up in a relationship where they are being beaten up and put down, where they are made to feel as if they aren't as intelligent, beautiful and wonderful as we know them to be.
As my oldest daughter is getting ready for college, I am shaken by the murder last week of a lacrosse player at UVA by the hands of an obsessed former boyfriend. They were graduating seniors with such great potential and their whole lives ahead of them. Now one is dead, and the other's life is destroyed. We read these stories from time to time in our newspapers and we are affected by them, but for the most part we see these stories as aberrations. We don't see them as part of the much larger problem of control and obsession as it plays out everyday in the lives of millions of families wrecked by domestic violence. Though this story stands out because of the tragic ages of the young woman and her killer, it will happen four more times today in the United States. There will be four more tomorrow, and the day after that ….
The most frightening statistic that I have seen is that a woman is 75% more likely to be murdered immediately after she leaves an abusive partner. This is when the stakes are highest, when emotion rages out of control and when we need, as a society, to take seriously the protection that victims require.
Equally important, is helping young people understand the risks and the signs of danger before they enter into relationships which will spiral into violence. There are almost always signs of an abusive personality that can alert us to the danger, if we are tuned to see them. The following are some of the most common indications that the people they are with may become abusive toward them. I ask you, as you prepare to send your children out into the world, to share these with your daughters, and with your sons.
Sudden Emotional Attachment
People with abusive personalities tend to move into relationships very quickly and develop excessive emotional attachments almost immediately. As a young person who has romaticized love, it may sound wonderful to you to hear someone say, again and again, how much they love you, and that they don't know how they could live without you in their lives. We all want to be loved. However, this sudden and complete emotional attachment is not often love at all, but rather the expression of a needy person's desire to fill a hole within themselves. This hole cannot be filled, and can grow to consume you. It may also be an indication that someone may become violent. When someone believes that you are absolutely essential to their happiness, they feel entitled to do anything to keep you. Though we often think about marriage and relationships as a way to complete ourselves, the truth is that we can never enter into a healthy relationship unless we are healthy already. This means that we must love ourselves enough to be well with or without anyone else in our lives.
Jealousy is often interpreted as a sign of someone's love for you, but in truth it is a sure sign of insecurity and possessiveness. It may begin almost innocently, as he/she may want to be with you constantly and ask you about every moment of you day when you are not together. But soon this jealousy can become suffocating, especially when he/she is trying to verify where you are all the time and questioning if you are being truthful. She may accuse you of flirting every time you interact with another person. He may call you constantly and make a habit of dropping in to check up on you. This is not love. This is a lack of trust in you, stemming from his own insecurity about himself.
Control and Isolation
Control is often disguised as concern for you and your safety. Though it seems at first as a desire to protect you, it grows into an overarching desire to regulate all of your time, friendships, and decisions. An abuser will often check the time it takes you to come home from work or school and ask you why it took longer today than yesterday, perhaps accuse you of being dishonest about where you've been and who you've seen. Even your choice of clothing will be called into question. Putting your decisions down and making you feel guilty is a method of eroding your self esteem and gaining more control over your life. Control moves to isolation as the abuser will try to limit your friendships and the time you have to spend with your friends and family. He/she will insist on spending all his/her time with you and limiting friendships where he/she is not allowed or comfortable. He/she will try to drive a wedge between you and anyone who is seen to be a threat to that control.
Blame and Guilt
Abusers have a very difficult time accepting responsibility for their actions and as a result are looking for scapegoats on whom to project their feelings of shame and guilt. They tend to anger quickly and project this upon others. They will blame coworkers, employers, parents, and anyone convenient for anything that goes wrong, regardless of fault. If you see this emerging as a pattern, beware. It will not be long in your relationship before they will begin doing this to you as well, making you to feel responsible for their problems, exaggerating the severity of mistakes made, and heaping guilt upon you.
As this progresses, you may reach the point where you don't even feel as if you are being blamed for everything. You might get to the point at which you believe that everything IS your own fault, and that you can't do anything right. Many victims learn to question everything about themselves because after hearing it said so often, they believe they are responsible. If you begin to feel inadequate, incapable and unintelligent in all that you do, you need to know that this is a lie.
Violence and Destructive Behavior
Physical violence in a relationship is often not directed to the partner first. It may come out as dishes are thrown, or walls are punched. Sometimes agression is shown toward pets, children or others outside the relationship. Abusers can explode upon anyone who gets in their way. The blame is always directed to someone else. Often the first physical violence shown a partner is as someone will attempt to restrain and control their partner, keeping him/her from leaving a room, for instance. You must know that any show of physical strength against another person, even without blows, is violence. In the same way, the threat of violence is also domestic abuse. When someone attempts to control another person by threatening to harm them, actual physical violence is never far behind. The first time someone threatens to harm you or makes you afraid of them, you need to get out of the relationship. That is not what love is, and you deserve far better.
I hope that you know that as human beings, our relationships are meant to build us up, to strengthen and encourage us. The person you choose to spend your time with, to love and to marry, should help you to be the best of what you can be. They should help broaden your horizons and not limit your opportunities. They should help you know what love and forgiveness really mean, and not mire you in guilt and self loathing.
Be careful to establish your friendships and relationships on acceptance and love. If you see these warning signs beginning to emerge, then deal with them head on. Let your partner know that you will accept nothing less than mutual respect and understanding. Don't be afraid to leave someone who is hurting you; it is not you failure. And, most of all, don't be afraid to ask for help.
As a parent I want to let my daughters know: Michelle and Melissa, this can be a tough world, and as much as I would like to protect you from its pain, you may get hurt. Just remember, no matter what it leads you to believe about yourselves, no matter how badly you may feel about the choices you have made, we will be here for you. We believe in you, and know that you deserve the best. Don't ever be afraid to ask for our support, you will always have it.
If you would like additional information about domestic violence and its warning signs and characteristics, the following sites have further information: