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The common belief that domestic violence occurs primarily in lower-income
families is inaccurate. Professional women with good jobs and financial security
also find themselves in abusive relationships with men. In many cases, these women
find dealing with the problem even more difficult than poor women do because the
violence is more unexpected and they are often less willing to utilize the social
services that could help them escape from their abuser.
For most people, the phrase domestic violence summons
a stereotypical scene: police pounding on the door of a ramshackle house; a man
loudly, perhaps drunkenly, declaring his innocence; a woman crying. But for a
vast number of middle- or upper-class women, many of them professionals, domestic
violence is a secret, usually silent affair. They are prisoners of their world,
but for many reasons they feel compelled to don a mask of normalcy. In spite of
their bruises and scars, they may not even admit that they are victims. And until
they fully acknowledge what is happening to thema process that can take
yearsthe very last thing they want to do is make their situation public.
Definitive statistics on these white-collar
victims are hard to come by, especially because shame or fear of reprisal makes
them reluctant to report the crime. The Justice Departments 1994 National
Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) found that only about half the women who suffered
domestic abuse between 1987 and 1991 reported it to the police. As incredible
as it may seem, Family Violence: Crime and Justice, a 1989 book that reviewed
the research on the subject, projected that one-fifth to one-third of all women
could be assaulted by an intimate at some point. And the perception that most
victims are poor and uneducated is clearly distorted. The NCVS found less than
a 10% difference in the rate of family violence between those with household incomes
of less than $10,000 and those earning more than $50,000. Women of means
are just as trapped as women on welfare, says Carol Arthur, the director
of the Domestic Abuse Project in Minneapolis, a nonprofit program that aids victims.
The stories and issues are all the same. There are just different barriers
to leaving the relationship.
the greatest myth about white-collar domestic violence is that its victims should
be able to arrange smooth, bloodless departures because, unlike poor women, they
are blessed with financial and social resources. The irony is how hard it
can be even for women who earn more than the men theyre involved with to
leave, says Sharon Rice Vaughn, who co-founded one of the first battered-womens
shelters in the country in 1972 in St. Paul. It is particularly hard for
professional, highly paid women to believe that battering is happening to them.
One TV reporter was blind to the warning signs in her own relationship even though
she had covered a number of domestic-violence cases. I was in denial that
I could be an abused woman because Im smart, Im professional, I know
a lot of cops, she says. And there was this constant self-questioning-is
it really as bad as I think it is? Experts say the confusion is compounded
by a Gaslight [a movie by Alfred Hitchcock in which a husband schemes to convince
his wife that she is going insane] effect created by the sporadic, random nature
of the abuse; the victim wonders whether she really is being brutalized or whether
the attacks are somehow her fault. The effect is even more potent when theres
a strong desire to keep the relationship intact. Its about wanting
it to be a one-time thing, notes a domestic-abuse counselor.
In addition, professional women are trapped by a fear of exposure.
Thats the abusers secret emotional blackmail, says Rice
Vaughn. If you have a reputation, your reputation will be ruined.
In fact, women who earn more or are more successful than their partners can be
more vulnerable targets than women of like status to their husbands, according
to Evan Stark, co-director of the Domestic Violence Training Project in New Haven,
40% of whose clients are middle and upper-class victims of domestic abuse. Those
men are compensating by resorting to socially condoned male dominance, explains
Rice Vaughn. It becomes their form of revenge. Its as though she is
being blamed for his failuresif she werent so successful, he wouldnt
be seen as less successful.
So Much to Lose
women usually have a great deal to lose by severing ties with their abusers, often
including an expensive home in an exclusive neighborhood, their social standing
in the community, their financial security and a superior education for their
children. Because so much is riding on the perpetuation of their marriage, they
may lack supporters even among their own families.
There is also the problem of a legal system that one victim characterizes
as an abusers haven. Women trying to divorce wealthy, established
husbands typically find themselves ensnarled in court battles for years. Finally,
the fact remains that when a man is intent upon killing his wife, there is no
sure way to prevent it. One distinguished judge whose husband was arrested for
assaulting her says, I have not even tried to get a divorce, because I believe
it would be fatal. She stipulated that she could not, under any circumstances,
be identified. Absence of malice, she says, in a reference to the
libel defense, wont help me when Im dead.
Aside from the physical and emotional toll, domestic violence
can exert a crushing weight on a career. In a 1987 survey from the New York Victim
Service Agency, three-quarters of 50 employed battered women reported being harassed
by their abusers at work. And half of them reported missing three or more days
a month because of their abuse. Another survey, conducted in Duluth, Minnesota,
found that of 71 abused working women, nearly a quarer reported losing a job at
least partly because of their abusive partners; in addition, one-third of 42 battered
Duluth women reported that their partners had prohibited them from working altogether.
Finally, because of the numerous daytime court appearances that may be required,
paticularly when child custody is at issue, victims of domestic violence are at
risk of being penalized or fired for absenteeism, lateness or decreased productivity.
The Powerful Abuser
For professional women married to abusers
who are also power brokers out to preserve their reputations, the road to freedom
can be virtually endlessand carpeted with broken glass. Money offers these
men a way to perpetuate the psychic pain through the courts; the more money, the
more tools the abuser holds and the longer the battle rages.
consider the plight of women who are victimized by such men qualitatively worse
than that of women whose husbands, however brutal, lack the financial toolbox
to manipulate the judicial system. Society goes after the little guy,
notes one victim, but the big guys are clever, and they wont give
up until they destroy you.
Leaving for the Children
Most abused women experience a moment when they resolve to get out of the relationship
at any cost. Most experts consider the issue of child custody and visitation one
of the biggest problems, if not the biggest one, faced by women in domestic-violence
cases. Only 40 states have statutes stipulating that domestic-violence charges
may be presented in custody cases. In Evan Starks opinion, shared custody
is completely inappropriate in domestic-abuse cases. He calls it tangential
spouse abuse, because the man typically uses the child to continue to exercise
control over the woman with threats and psychological torture, and, in some cases,
it gives him opportunities to physically abuse her.
The Price of Freedom
Although domestic violence discriminates along gender lines rather than class
lines, professional women have one advantage over poor women: their job skills
and education. It is precisely because they have independent incomes, says Stark,
that some white-collar women are able to extricate themselves.
any advantages women of means may have over poor and bluecollar women are
minimal, says Carol Arthur. White-collar women are like all other women
in terms of getting sucked into the psychological and emotional abuse that traps
them, she says. All the messages we got growing up taught us to define
ourselves in terms of our relationships. In the end, having the emotional
strength to leave that notion behind is what really sets one woman apart from
- Weitzman, S., Ph.D., (2000). Not to People Like Us. Basic Books: New York.
Reflection Exercise #13
The preceding section was about family
systems therapy for battering relationships. Write three case study examples regarding
how you might use the content of this section in your practice.
The statistic that there is less than a 10% difference in the rate
of family violence between those with household incomes of less than $10,000 and
those earning more than $50,000 indicates what? To select and enter your answer go to .