Domestic violence is all too common in American families. In almost 20 percent of all marriages, couples slap, shove, hit, or otherwise assault each other. Emotional abuse—verbal threats, humiliating or degrading remarks, and controlling behavior—is even more common. If you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship, help is available.
Marital violence is especially common among young couples, and, without intervention, may escalate in intensity or frequency. In many marriages, violence begins with shoving or pushing. Couples frequently ignore early aggressive incidents and believe that once current stressors end, the violence will end. However, even minor acts of violence can escalate over time, increasing the risk of injury or even homicide.
There is no single type of marital violence. Sometimes, controlling behavior on the part of her husband is a woman’s first sign that she may be in an abusive relationship. Her husband may prevent her from seeing friends or family and make her feel guilty or afraid if she chooses to spend time with others. Physical assaults coupled with increased social isolation strengthen his control. Over time, a woman can come to feel like a hostage in her own home.
In other relationships, the violence is different. Both the husband and wife slap or shove each other when they get angry. Often, they are more concerned about the content of their disagreements than the violence itself, and neither partner sees themselves as being abused or controlled. However, even violence that is not part of a controlling, frightening relationship can devastate a marriage, lead to criminal charges and injuries, and have long-term negative effects on children who witness it. There is help for couples like this, too.
How can I get help?
Since domestic violence is a crime, one way to get help is to call the police. If you have been hit by your partner or are afraid for your safety, your first response needs to be to protect yourself and your children. The police can be your first line of defense. You can also call the local Battered Women’s Shelter Organization, community crisis line, or community mental health agency to find out what services are available to you. Most communities have offender treatment, victim support services, and access to a shelter where you and your children can go if you are afraid.
If the violence has not escalated to the point that you are fearful, but you or your partner recognize that the way you argue is not healthy and want to prevent destructive arguing from destroying your marriage or escalating to battering, there is a variety of options available to you. Most communities have anger management or men’s treatment programs that can be found through the mental health services agency. These programs help you learn skills to resolve conflict and handle anger without letting it escalate. Support groups for victims can also help you maintain a commitment to living in a nonviolent household.
In addition to anger management and victim’s support groups, you may want to seek marital therapy if you are both committed to ending the violence and improving the marriage. Marital therapists work with couples to develop strategies for resolving conflict without violence. Make sure that your therapist knows about the violence in your relationship and has experience and training working with marital violence. Through domestic violence–focused marital treatment, couples are given tools to eliminate violence, resolve conflict, and improve marital relationships.
If you decide to leave a violent relationship, a marriage and family therapist can help you and your children deal with the changes in your lives and with the trauma you have each experienced. A marriage and family therapist can help you access your strengths and coping skills to move forward.
What to do if a Friend or Family Member is in a Violent Relationship
If someone you care about is in a violent relationship, let them know you care for them regardless of their decision to stay or leave their partner. Women stay in violent relationships for many reasons, including the mistaken belief that they cannot make it on their own. Many battered women feel isolated and have no one to talk to with about the violence they are experiencing. Ask gently about any injuries or emotional upset you observe and listen without passing judgment. Find out about resources for battered women in your community. If your friend decides to go for help, you may need to accompany her. Most women eventually leave violent situations through the ongoing support of a caring friend or family member.
The text for this brochure was written by Sandra M. Stith, Ph.D.
Use the AAMFT Consumer Update "Domestic Violence" pamphlets to market your practice.