Can a marriage survive domestic violence? In this article, we will discuss the effects of domestic violence on marriages and how to seek help if you are a victim of domestic violence.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reports that 25% of women and 10% of men experience physical violence from a spouse or partner at some point in their life. That’s staggering.Source
In this article, we will discuss the signs, symptoms, and path to survival.
AuthorJoe Beam often asks spouses who are trying to figure out what to do in their troubled marriage, “Is your spouse a good person doing a bad thing, or a bad person doing a bad thing?”
“Is your spouse a good person doing a bad thing, or a bad person doing a bad thing?” The intention of the question is whether beneath the current bad behavior there exists a good heart or if the person is so intent on his or her selfish behavior there is no chance to rescue them. Judging a person by what he or she is doing now can sometimes lead to the wrong conclusion.
It think this is an important question. Finding the right answer, however, can be tricky.
For example, in the case of domestic violence and abuse, it’s difficult to call the abusing spouse a ‘good person.’ Although many excuses are offered for such poor (and dangerous) behavior, there is never a good reason for domestic violence.
The danger is even more complicated because the abused person often falls into the trap of justifying their spouses behavior.
- If I hadn’t said what I said, he would not have hit me!
- If I had done what I said I would do, he wouldn’t react that way.
- I shouldn’t have (fill in the blank)…and he wouldn’t be that way.
These are all excuses that have no place in the conversation on physical violence against a spouse.
As we delve into difficult subject, let’s define what we are talking about, so we can better answer the question about a marriage surviving domestic abuse.
What Is Domestic Violence?
According to Boise State, in 2017, 48 states had a definition of domestic violence in civil law, and only 42 states define it in their criminal or penal codes.
A lot has changed since 2017. Unfortunately, clarity on the exact definition is still somewhat confusing.
For example, California defines it as:
Physically hurting or trying to hurt someone, intentionally or recklessly;Source
Abuse committed against an adult or a minor who is a spouse, former spouse, cohabitant, former cohabitant, or person with whom the suspect has had a child or is having or has had a dating or engagement relationship.Source
While the first definition offers some clarity, the second simply calls by another undefined term – abuse. Which begs the question: What is abuse?
The state of California defines abuse as:
Behavior like harassing, stalking, threatening, or hitting someone; disturbing someone’s peace; or destroying someone’s personal property.
Here is our definition (in reference to this article):
Domestic violence is abuse or threats that include physical harm, sexual abuse, emotional and psychological abuse.
Effects of Relationship Violence
Research indicates that victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) suffer from a variety of physical, mental, emotional, and social impacts.
- Posttraumatic stress disorder
- Substance use disorders
- Suicide attempts
- Eating disorders
- Sleep disturbances
- Chronic pain
- Memory loss
- Difficulty concentrating
Physical Effects of Domestic Violence
Notice from the list above, abusive behavior often results in physical suffering unassociated with the immediate ‘event’ or assault. Long term harm is caused by an outburst of violence. The victim may be physically injured and/or psychologically traumatized.
Repeated physical abuse can cause many health issues, including chronic pain or migraine headaches, digestive problems, sexually transmitted infections, and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Psychological Impact of Domestic Violence
The psychological impact of emotional abuse can include posttraumatic stress disorder, substance use, eating disorders, self-mutilation, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts.Extreme verbal abuse can have the same traumatic affects as physical abuse. Click To Tweet
Extreme verbal abuse can have the same traumatic affects as physical abuse.
Take A Stand. Don’t Suffer in Silence
Before we discuss whether you should stay or leave, there is one principle you should understand: Do Not Suffer In Silence.
This is important for a number of reasons, but mainly because you cannot walk this road alone. It’s too difficult. You were not made to be alone, so do not silently suffer as things spin out of control.
Taking a stand doesn’t mean picking a fight. It means you make a decision that you will get the help you need to move forward in your life, regardless of what happens in your marriage.
Too often victims of abuse never reach out for help. This is your call…your permission…to find help. It’s available. Later in this article, I mention several places to find the help you need. So, do not suffer in silence.
Why Staying Together After Domestic Violence May Not Be A Smart Choice
Disclaimer: Domestic violence and abuse is a serious issue. This article attempts to give practical advice to empower victims make the changes in their lives needed to find emotional and mental health. Please consult a medical or legal professional before making life altering decisions.
A report published by Vera Institute of Justice noted that of all crimes, domestic violence has the highest repeat rate, especially in the first few weeks after an incident is reported to the police.
Another report by Columbia Law School indicated:
Research and evaluation on arrest and prosecution, civil or criminal protection orders, batterer treatment, and community interventions have generated weak or inconsistent evidence of deterrent effects on either repeat victimization or repeat offending.
What does this mean? In simple terms, the odds of an abuser continuing their bad behavior is much higher than their chances of changing.
This doesn’t mean they will not change; it simply points out the fact that statistically speaking, someone with violent tendencies will continue to abuse.
This factor is one of the reasons we recommend the abused spouse leave immediately.
In a TED Talk, Leslie Morgan Steiner discusses why domestic violent victims stay in the relationship when they should leave.
Reasons To Leave An Abusive Situation
While there are many reasons to consider leaving a (physically and emotionally) unhealthy relationship, here are four that are important.
1. You Have No Assurance They Will Not Change (So You Can’t Afford To Wait And See).
I realize you have their promise it won’t happen again, but generally speaking (and statistically speaking) it’s not true. As I mentioned above, this is not a final verdict against them, but it is a warning that most offenders do not change. In fact, it usually escalates.
Your life is more important than waiting to see if they will change. Your first responsibility is to protect yourself and your children if they are involved.
So, step one is leave.
2. When You Leave You Will Test Their Sincerity
There is nothing in the rule book that says you have to stay in order to find out if their are genuine.
In fact, when you leave, it will let them know you are serious about taking care of yourself, and it will give them an opportunity to prove they are truly transformed.
Step two is put them to the test. The best way to do this is leave them so you will know how authentic they are in wanting the marriage to work.
Let’s fact it, at this point, words are cheap. I’ve found abusers and liars are alike in the fact they will say whatever they need to in order to get the response they desire. Don’t give them that power. Make them prove they are serious.
Time away is one of the best ways to do this.
3. When You Walk Away You Break The Cycle
Most abusers rely on the fact that the victim never takes a stand. When you do take a stand, they often do not know how to respond. They are used to manipulating the situation to get what they want. By leaving, you take this control away from them.
Leaving the breaks the cycle in two ways:
First, it removes you from the abusive situation. They no longer have access to you, so they can’t abuse you any longer.
Second, you begin the process of unraveling the cycle of co-dependence many victims experience.
Most victims exhibit some form of co-dependent behavior.
There are a lot of definitions of co-dependency, but it boils down to this:
When a person feels excessive responsibility for the decisions of another person in an unhealthy way; thus, enabling that partner’s addictive behavior.
By leaving (if only temporarily), you have an opportunity to break the negative cycles that promote abuse.
4. Leaving Allows You Time To Figure Out What You Want
Big decisions take time to contemplate. Figuring out what is best for you (and your marriage) will demand time to think, pray, and get counsel for your next move.
Leaving gives you time to heal so you can either reconcile your marriage (only if both parties are willing to work on serious issues), or start over. Time gives you the ability to get a better perspective.
The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when the victim decides to leave
One word of warning, leaving can create stress in the abusive spouse. It threatens their control, so do not take this step lightly. Get help and have a plan.
Recommended Resources For Leaving An Abusive Situation
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
Is It Possible To Reconcile And Have A Great Marriage After Abuse In The Marriage?
The simple answer is ‘yes.’ It is possible. However, possible and likely are two different things.
Since we’ve already looked at the statistics on reoccurring domestic violence, let’s discuss the big questions of:
- Can abusers change?
- What does it take to rebuild and reconcile?
Can Abusers Change? Is It even possible?
Recent studies do indicate it is possible for abusive people to change. However, the process of transformation was not easy. According to the article from Penn State, abusers underwent an array of therapy, counseling, and group accountability and counseling.
(The offenders had) therapy once a week for four to twelve months, depending on the severity of their abuse towards their partner…
For any treatment to be successful, abusers must:
- Admit they have a problem
- Own their abusive actions
- Stop making excuses and placing blame for bad behavior
- Make a decision and conscious effort daily to implement strategies learned in treatment
- Get help and stop trying to do it alone
Then, and only then, can the abusive person begin the journey of transformation.
Sharlene Johnson ( M.A.,LPC-S, LBSW, LCDC) from UTHealth gives 10 signs an abuser is changing:
- Admitting fully to what they have done
- Has stopped making excuses
- Making amends
- Accepts responsibility and recognizing that abuse is a choice they make
- Not declaring themselves “cured,” bur rather accepting that overcoming abusiveness is a decades long process
- Demonstrating respectful, kind and supportive behaviors
- Not blaming their partner or children for the consequences of their actions
- Changing how they respond to their partner or former partner’s anger and grievances
- Not demanding credit for improvements they’ve made
- Exhibit consistent changed behavior
She also discusses why anger management classes and couples therapy do not work for domestic violence, but individual counseling is necessary.
The Path To Reconciliation After Domestic Violence
If it’s possible to get your marriage back on track, what are the steps necessary to move forward? In this section, we will unpack (briefly) the basic steps required to rebuild and make sure you stay in a safe environment.
Re-Establishing Trust and Safety
Since trust is the foundation of all successful relationships, it is vital to trust your spouse. Once this is broken, it takes time, energy, and commitment to rebuild.
If trust (emotional security) is not the foundation (or present in the marriage), it will never succeed. Knowing you are physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually safe is the prerequisite for a good relationship.
Even if your spouse does all the steps necessary for reconciling, if there is no trust, it’s time to rethink the marriage.
I recommend our short ebook on ‘Emotional Safety’ for starters. Learn more here.
7 Steps To Rebuild After Domestic Violence
Change happens when the core issues at its root abuse are dealt with. Best intentions will not succeed if you do not have a plan and follow these practical steps. Reconciliation comes when you do the work.
Here is a 7 step plan to rebuild your marriage after abuse.
1. Get Counseling
I don’t always recommend couples therapy or counseling. More times than not, it doesn’t work.
However, when it comes to abuse and domestic violence, I believe it is a ‘no exceptions’ step. This goes for both parties. A professional counselor will help you identify the reasons behind your actions, and help you work through grief so you can process what has happened.
2. Have A Plan
We don’t often associate planning with the subject of abuse, but we should.
Having a plan will keep you moving in the right direction. So, no matter what happens, you know what to do next. I hope you can see the benefit of thinking through the issues and planning for what might happen.
When you know what to do, you feel more confident and can act quickly.
I sometimes ask couples: ‘What is the worst thing that can happen in this situation?’ Once they tell me, I follow up with, ‘What will you do if that happens?’ Believe it or not, the majority of couples know what might happen, but have not planned on what to do if it does.
This is why planning is the second step in getting your life together.
3. Set Boundaries
We like to take our grandchildren bowling. They are still small, so we have to use the bumper guards to keep the ball from rolling into the gutter.
Boundaries are the things we set in place that keep our lives from ending up in the gutter.
As you work with your counselor, they can help you identify and establish the right boundaries for your situation. There is no ‘one size fits all.’ While there are universal principles that apply to every marriage, you are individual and have needs that others may not have. So, use the guidance of counselor to help you set boundaries in your relationship.
Boundaries puts you back in control instead of the abuser. It’s okay to say no and declare what is acceptable and not acceptable behavior. The more willing you are to do this, the safer you will feel, and the more progress you can make in your marriage.
4. Establish Rules of Engagement
Rules of engagement are the principles you choose that determine how you will interact with one another in your marriage.
When domestic violence occurs, it is crucial to establish when and how you will communicate, as well as, things that are off limits to discuss.
Here are a few questions to help you think about your rules of engagement:
- Are there things you feel uncomfortable discussing with your spouse?
- Do you feel okay meeting with your spouse alone? Or would you prefer to have someone else present?
- What does your spouse do that triggers panic and anxiety in you?
- Are there words you do not want to hear because they make you feel hurt?
- What behavior do you want to change in your spouse?
These are just a few questions, but they will help you begin to identify things that must be established if you are to make things work in your marriage.
Once you know the rules, you need to communicate those to your spouse. I recommend writing them down so you can discuss them and document what you expect.
5. Be Patient
The key here is to NOT rush things. Let the situation come together on it’s own. I’m not suggesting you have a ‘whatever who cares’ attitude. On the contrary. As I mentioned above, you need a plan for every situation.
What I am suggesting is you focus on getting YOUR life on track, and let the marriage come together as you both work on yourselves individually.
This means you can’t rush it .Let it unfold naturally.
6. Think Baby Steps
This goes along with being patient. But it focuses more on your actions than your attitude. Patience is the proper mindset. Baby steps are the proper action.
We’ve always been told to ‘think big.’ When it comes to working through domestic abuse issues, thinking small is the key. Don’t assume big events, and huge displays of affection will change anything. It is the tiny, day by day habits that you build that determine the rest of your life.
So, think baby steps. What can you do today that will help you feel better, and be healed? Then take that baby step.
7. Stay Accountable
This applies to both parties. The offender should be part of a group that holds them accountable for his/her actions and attitudes. (Yes, attitudes matter too) Without accountability, we start creating our own rules and standards.
When we are connected to others in accountability, they help us see our blind spots and keep us from falling into old patterns.
For the victim, it is important to be accountable as well. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of wrong thinking. You start believing a lie that it’s your fault (or some other misguided deception). Accountability let’s us empower others we trust and love help us heal and move forward without risk of falling because of blind spots.
Final Thoughts on Surviving Domestic Violence
Domestic violence is a serious problem that can have a devastating effect on a marriage. If one partner is abusive, it can create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that can make it very difficult for the other partner to feel safe and secure. Domestic violence can also lead to physical and emotional injuries, and can even be fatal. If you are in a marriage where domestic violence is a problem, it is important to get help. There are many resources available to help you deal with this difficult situation.
There is no one answer to the question of whether or not a marriage can survive domestic violence. Each situation is unique, and depends on many factors. However, it is important to remember that you are not alone. There are many people who have been in your situation and have found a way to move on. With the right help and support, you can also find a way to heal and move forward.
In this article, we discussed helpful tips on knowing when to stay and when to leave. Here is a brief recap:
- What Is Domestic Violence?
- Take A Stand. Don’t Suffer in Silence
- Why Staying Together After Domestic Violence May Not Be A Smart Choice
- Is It Possible To Reconcile And Have A Great Marriage After Abuse In The Marriage?
- The Path To Reconciliation After Domestic Violence
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If you are having serious marriage struggles, we recommend starting with ‘Save the Marriage System‘ by Lee Baucom.