One of the toughest things for me as an adult has been to set boundaries. Whether it’s preserving some sense of privacy (Yes, I am finally allowed to take a bath without a parade of children coming through…) or setting boundaries and rules for the kids, or even with friends, deciding when something is a-okay and when it crosses the line can be tough. After all, rules can and should allow some flexibility. Even with the law, lawyers and judges exist to determine whether the law should apply strictly or flexibly in every given case – we accept the fact that there are mitigating circumstances where the hard and fast rule doesn’t necessarily apply.
So when someone crosses a big line – what’s an appropriate response? Does any infraction demand the same “punishment” or consequences, or are there degrees of response that are appropriate as well?
I just found out that a friend of mine is in an abusive relationship. It’s actually been going on for years, but most of it has been low level stuff, and no one from the outside would have ever guessed in a million years that this would be the case. But after one of those moments where denial is no longer possible, she’s in a situation where she needs to make some serious decisions about her future, the future of her children and of her marriage.
This is the first time that that I’ve known that anyone I know has been in an abusive relationship. Statistics would say we all know someone, but this is such a taboo subject and one that causes people so much embarrassment, no one discuses it, particularly not nice families in the suburbs. But this is far more common that anyone wants to admit: The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and that an estimated 1.3 Million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner every year. More telling may be this quote out of a longer report from the the American Bar Association:
Ninety-two percent of women who were physically abused by their partners did not discuss these incidents with their physicians; 57% did not discuss the incidents with anyone. (emphasis added) Additionally, in four different studies of survivors of abuse, 70% to 81% of the patients studied reported that they would like their healthcare providers to ask them privately about intimate partner violence.
Panagiota V. Caralis & Regina Musialowski, Women’s Experiences with Domestic Violence and Their Attitudes and Expectations Regarding Medical Care of Abuse Victims, 90 S. Med. J. 1075 (1997); Jeanne McCauley et al., Inside ‘Pandora’s Box’: Abused Women’s Experiences with Clinicians and Health Services, 13 Archives of Internal Med. 549 (1998); Lawrence S. Friedman et al., Inquiry About Victimization Experiences: A Survey of Patient Preferences and Physician Practices, 152 Archives of Internal Med. (1992); Michael Rodriguez et al., Breaking the Silence: Battered Women’s Perspectives on Medical Care, 5 Archives of Fam. Med. 153 (1996).
We all hear that it’s never okay to hit another person, and as women, if a man hits you, that has to be the end of the relationship. But in reality, it doesn’t appear that the line is always so clear. Is that first shove okay or not? If he hits you once when he’s angry, even if he never apologizes afterwards, did you deserve it? Did you provoke it? It was just once, afterall, and he was stressed out…. You can see how easily someone can start to excuse the small, borderline infractions of the general rule. The slippery slope comes into play, and it’s only if something dramatic happens that someone starts to realize that all of this is not okay.
I understand this because I have problems setting emotional boundaries from time to time with people like my own mother. I take her criticism very personally, and when she has violated any sort of boundary I’ve put in place, I’m not sure how to respond. How do I talk to someone about those boundaries when they don’t seem to respect them in the first place? How do I tell her that I’ve spent a good portion of my life intimidated and fearful of her, but that’s not the case any more? How do I tell her she will need to play those games on her own in the future, because I am not playing into the melodrama?
For me, deciding to change the way I react and deciding things like hanging up the phone when she’s ranting is not only okay, but required, was a big step for me. But that’s still light years away from trying to live in the same house with someone who hits you in front of your children. I can understand what the slippery slope looks like for my friend, and how it’s hard to decide when things are over, or should be over. Then there’s all of the practicalities like what will happen to the kids, the family….Will the family have to move, get a new job, is a divorce absolutely necessary, does this mean she is a failure at the project labeled family, let alone the social pressure of what will the neighbors and friends think.
I know I can only be there to help as I can, to be a shoulder to lean on, to help when she needs it. I know that lifting the veil behind which she’s hidden her life is really tough, because no one wants everyone to know this kind of stuff which cuts to the core of who you are, or is frankly embarrassing because everyone has such a strong opinion on spousal abuse.
My husband sits on a State panel dealing with spousal abuse, and we’ve talked at length about how difficult this is for people to admit to themselves, let alone other people. Often the cycles of abuse are accompanied by drug or alcohol problems, and periods of remorse and harmony- the honeymoon period, so to speak, which lulls people into a false sense that this was a one-time thing. Some States have enacted strict laws where if someone is treated in a hospital for abuse, the police go to the home and arrest the perpetrator. Frequently, the abused spouse begs for this not to happen, fearing all sorts of repercussions, including not being able to hide what’s happened any more. This cycle makes it even harder for people to draw those lines and set those boundaries of what’s okay and what isn’t yet again- maybe even anticipating that once the anger and frustration have dissipated, the “good spouse” will return and everything will be hunky dory.
It’s even hard to write about this here, because I don’t want anyone to assume for a second this is one of those veiled “I have a friend” stories, nor do I want my friend to feel I am outing her on the internet. But I do think it’s important that these things get discussed, even on parenting sites like this one, because I now know that abuse can happen anywhere. It’s not limited by socio-economic class or education, and can happen where you least expect it. And I think the fact that it is so personal means its even harder for people in “nice” neighborhoods to admit that this is happening.
I don’t know how we can make it okay for people to seek help. I don’t know how we can make it okay for people to admit there’s a problem in the first place before it reaches a dramatic crisis stage- where along the continuum do you start to say- this needs to stop? When do you say- I need and deserve better?
I can tell you that when women discuss their marriages, I certainly thought, before this, all my platitudes and relationship advice would help. I think that we should lean on our friends, early and often with the small stuff, not just with the larger boulders. But all the advice you can give is colored by whether or not you have all the facts, and whether or not people feel free to share even the ugly stuff that goes on with you. And sometimes they don’t. So sometimes, all your advice feels silly and foolish and shallow.
But in the end, I think at least I helped open a door so that when she did need a shoulder to lean on, she knew I cared and would be there. We have crossed a boundary, one where she trusts me, and I hope I can do more than offer up Dr. Phil style advice. But I hope we can all be aware that sometimes, those small, early confessions may be deeper and more important than we realize. We need to be able to look at friends without rose colored glasses and just listen sometimes. We need to accept them as they are, and do what we can to help.
I’ve also put together this list of internet resources on Domestic Violence and getting help, in case any of you out there ever need it. I certainly pray no one ever will, but as I found out this week, you just never know when someone will.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) 1.800.787.3224 (TTY)
Anonymous & Confidential Help 24/7 (The link will take you directly to their website)
US Department of Justice Office on Violence against Women: includes information, hotline numbers, and links to State specific resources
US Department of Health and Human Services, Womens Health.gov domestic violence resources, including state by state listings
Domestic Violence Notepad: including information on how an abuser might be able to track your internet use and how to be careful
Feminist Majority Foundation Domestic Violence Resources- includes a list of both national and State resources, hotlines, fact sheets, and links
Have any of you dealt with this before? How do we deal with crossing boundaries, trusting friends, family and more? When do we know when those boundaries are violated and when it’s time to act? And when do we let things slide, hoping they improve magically on their own?And how do we know we can trust people to help us when we need it most? That’s an equally hard line to know before you cross it as well.
I don’t have any easy answers. I hope that I keep things open enough to be able to help friends when they need it, and not needlessly close doors that people need to have open. But knowing when and where boundaries exist, and when they have been violated, even if it’s not something huge and dramatic- that’s the crux of the problem at hand. And hopefully, knowing what resources are available and encouraging people to realize that this problem is all too common will help people find the help they need, hopefully sooner rather than later.
by Whitney Hoffman
Photo graciously provided by KM Photography, through a Creative Commons license, some rights reserved