Dealing with the pain

Women trapped in abusive relationships search for answers

She never saw it coming. One day Alex, who had been married for about a month, said her husband picked her up from work.

She was in a bad mood and so was he.

They started arguing.

"He started yelling and screaming at me," Alex said. "Then he hit me on the side of the mouth."

She said the impact of the punch caused her to smack her head on the passenger's side window.

"I thought he dislocated my jaw," she said.

The experience left Alex confused and scared, wondering why the man she loved so much had struck her.

"I walked around in a daze for a few days trying to find an answer for why," she said.

He apologized for the incident, and she forgave him.

"Hook, line and sinker," she said.

Eventually, he hit her again. And the process continued to repeat itself.

Alex was in an abusive relationship.

Ironically, prior to the first time her husband hit her, they had discussed domestic violence. He had told her how wrong he thought it was for a husband to hit his wife, and how he could never do such a thing.

But he did. He was an abuser, and Alex was the recipient of his abuse.

"I'm ashamed for letting him do that to me," she said after seeking help. "I wasn't raised that way. Mommy and Daddy always told me you don't stay in a relationship like that."

But Alex stayed with her husband, absorbing the physical abuse every time her husband got upset, and caving to his pleas for forgiveness afterward.

"Here I was, going against everything I'd been taught," she said. "I just kept telling myself that everything was going to be better."

And so it was for more than 800 Northwest Colorado women last year. Advocates Crisis Support Services in Craig reported that 567 abused women sought help from the agency in 2002.

Advocates Against Battering and Abuse in Steamboat Springs reported about 300 women sought help last year.

Pat Tessmer, director of Advocates Crisis Support Services, said Moffat County's numbers may seem alarming given it has a population of about 13,000.

But she said the statistics at a national level are just as alarming.

Statistics show that 50 percent to 75 percent of people will experience domestic violence of some sort in their lives, while 25 percent of those will experience it on an ongoing basis.

Diane Moore, director of Advocates Against Battering and Abuse, said social and economic class doesn't matter with abuse. Her agency sees victims of all different ages, incomes and backgrounds, she said.

"Some people believe if you are educated you won't stay in a relationship like that," she said.

But according to Tessmer and Moore, it doesn't matter who you are. Domestic abuse victims are with someone who wants power and control, and the abuser will try to gain that control emotionally, physically and even sexually.

"Domestic violence is a form of oppression," Tessmer said. "Along with oppression comes privilege and entitlement."

Moore said women in abusive relationships often stay in them for love, finances, personal and even religious beliefs. Their abusers know this.

But there is one emotion that overrides all of the others:

"It's about fear," Moore said.

How it starts

"I had very little respect for a woman who stayed in a relationship like that," Alex said of her past feelings of women in abusive relationships. "I've always promised myself I would never let that happen to me."

She said her husband never showed any indications of being abusive until he hit her in the car, which happened shortly after they were married.

That's not uncommon.

"Women will often say the first time they realized there was a problem was on their honeymoon," said Moore, who has been helping battered and abused women for 20 years.

Tessmer said many women later say they thought their husband or boyfriend was a "strong person," but didn't think he would abuse her.

"When they first start going out with someone, they don't know he's an abusive person," she said.

But there are warning signs women can watch for, including:

  • controlling behavior
  • extreme jealousy
  • explosive anger
  • constant criticism
  • isolation from others

The excitement of a new relationship, the blush of first love -- many things can prevent a person from spotting the warning signs of an abuser, Tessmer said. Moore agrees.

"They miss the subtle and not so subtle red flags," Moore said.

In a new relationship, the key is to avoid getting too involved right away, Tessmer said.

"You can't allow a relationship to become an isolated relationship," she said. "You need contact with outside people and time apart."

If not, a person can easily get sucked into a bad situation, Moore said, and soon the signs she had ignored can't be ignored any longer.

The abuser will soon lash out.

"Imagine a smoldering fire that slowly but surely builds," she said.

Why do they stay?

Alex put up with abuse for almost a year before one day she decided she'd had enough.

She waited until her husband left for work, grabbed her children and left. She didn't take any belongings with her, just herself and her children.

"I told myself, he's going to kill me if I don't get out of this," she said. "I don't know why I put up with it as long as I did."

But she stuck with him, constantly trying to convince herself that the situation would improve. It never did.

"It's just a vicious cycle that never passes," she said. "He has to cause you physical pain before it goes away."

The fear that began to develop in her affected how she acted around her husband.

"You cannot ever be in a bad mood," she said. "That's what triggers it."

Defending herself wasn't an option.

"He just liked to beat me up," she said. "I'm just a little bitty thing and he could be a professional wrestler. It's a control issue. It's all about control."

Tessmer and Moore help abuse victims on a daily basis, and both said they help many women get over an attack only to watch them return home to their abuser.

But they don't dare fault the women for their decisions.

The women are afraid -- and the person they fear is the same person they love."One of the best things we can do is be respectful of what an individual chooses to do even if they're staying in a scary situation," Moore said. "We have to support whatever they choose to do."

Love, fear, money and manipulation are all reasons why women stay with their abusers.

"After a long period of time of being told you can't make it on your own, a number of these women begin to believe that is who they are," Moore said.

Looking back, Alex expresses guilt about staying with her husband as long as she did.

She said she never told her parents she was being abused, but said her mother knew.

"I knew she knew from the beginning," Alex said. "And I was ashamed because I was allowing him to hit me. I should have left. It was my fault for not doing something the first time."

The fact that abuse victims feel such guilt concerns Tessmer. She thinks too much focus is put on helping abusers and figuring out psychological reasons for why they abuse. The victim is then held accountable for answering why they chose to stay with their

abuser.

"When domestic violence happens, they still hold the victims accountable. 'Why don't they leave?' they say," Tessmer said. "Let's hold the batterer accountable."

Tessmer thinks more resources need to be dedicated to helping the victim, and the stigma that accompanies being a victim of domestic abuse needs to be eliminated.

Regardless, Alex carries with her the sense that she made a mistake and let her children down.

"All she's ever wanted is a daddy," she said of her daughter. "Now I can't even give her that."

Starting young

Tessmer said society needs to begin educating children and teenagers on not only domestic abuse, but relationships.

She has a theory about a mindset and practice in small communities such as Steamboat Springs and Craig that lead women to getting trapped in abusive relationships: Small-town teenagers tend to get in too serious of relationships at a young age.

"People are getting into some very intense relationships at a young age," she said. "It is happening to people who don't yet have the skills to cope with that intense of relationships."

Young adults, who are still children in a sense, sometimes get trapped in permanent relationships because they don't know anything else.

"We've noticed the earlier a couple gets together, the less likely they are to break up," she said. "We find out they don't have experience building or breaking up relationships."

They are preventing themselves from acquiring life skills and knowledge about dealing with relationships, especially those with the opposite sex, she said.

"You learn a set of skills with every relationship," she said. "You learn how to stay in a relationship. You learn how to break up. You learn how to go on."

But when one never experiences that first break up, they don't realize that life continues despite the initial heartbreak.

"You don't develop the skills to know how to go on, survive it and be happy," she said.

It's up to parents to teach their children how to handle relationships, and parents should lay down strict guidelines on how often their child can see a boyfriend or girlfriend.

"The focus should be on skill-building," she said. "Parents need to be doing some very serious communicating with their kids. They need to be talking about things like what kind of intimacy is created when you have sex."

Children still hit one another, Tessmer said. And when intimate relationships start a young age, hitting could be involved because they don't know any better.

"And what's scary is that as kids get older they continue to repeat their behavior," she said.

As the relationships continue to grow, young girls aren't able to recognize the warning signs of a potentially abusive relationship.

One of the warning signs, jealousy, is often misconstrued, she said.

"Young girls are initially flattered by all of the attention," she said. They see a boy's jealousy as a sign of his affection.

As the relationship continues to grow and become more intimate, a girl can become trapped because of the traditional beliefs many people carry in Northwest Colorado, Tessmer said.

"We're in a community where there's a strong belief in the traditional roles of women," she said. "Here, the focus sometimes is if you have sex, you should get married."

And those traditional beliefs can lead to abusive situations.

"Domestic violence victims and survivors tend to believe in stereotypical roles of men and women," she said. "It's part of the dynamic."

Healing and the future

Alex's experience has changed her views of relationships and people in general.

"You don't ever know anybody," she said. "Just because they say they love you, you still have to look for the signs. I'd be afraid just to date someone now."

She's afraid because the person she judged to be the "right one" had hurt her.

"What someone else is thinking is always going to be in the back of my mind," she said. "You never know what they're thinking. I'm constantly looking over my shoulder. An experience like this leaves you feeling naked all the time."

Her outlook on life and future relationships is not only a result of concerns for her own well-being, but for her children.

"I never want to be in a situation again where I have to explain to my daughters that we have to leave everything we have because it's not safe," she said.

But help was available for her.

And she encouraged others who experienced what she did to seek the same help from organizations such as Advocates Against Battering and Abuse.

"It's terrific," she said. "I had no idea how wonderful the program was."

They took her in and helped her when she had nothing except her children and the clothes on her back.

Both Tessmer and Moore agreed that domestic abuse is never going to go away, but they hope it continues to get better.

Society is still breaking free from a mold set three generations ago when women were viewed as their husband's property.

Domestic abuse is no longer socially acceptable, but it still happens. Tessmer said the Victims' Rights Act passed in the 1990s was a big step forward in the battle against domestic abuse.

There used to be only a focus on criminals' rights, now the courts recognize that victims' have rights, too.

"I think we're making great progress," Tessmer said. "It used to not even be illegal to hit your wife. I hope in 50 to 60 years we can look and say domestic abuse is down 50 percent from what it is now."

Moore agreed, but said a lot of work still needs to be done to educate people about domestic abuse, and providing more support for its victims.

"I think we have a long way to go," she said. "We don't have all the answers on how to stop the violence or change the violence in our society."

But the key is to continue to provide support for the women who experience abuse, and recognize that they are victims, and not hold them accountable for what their abuser does.

"These women have a lot of courage, character and strength," Moore said. "Whether they leave or stay -- it takes a lot of courage

to do both."

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