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Domestic Violence Awareness Month – Oct. 2022

Domestic violence is complicated and unique in every instance. One month is never enough to cover the complexities but let’s get started here with a primer.

Are there characteristics that are common in victims?

While there may be some reasons of personal history that render someone more vulnerable to power behaviors, unless this is discussed sensitively and individually, it becomes victim blaming. For the most part, being asked to describe a “typical” victim is like identifying which tree is more likely to be hit by lightning. Lightning can strike the mighty Oak or the Weeping Willow, there is little rhyme or reason to the strike.

We can however provide a list of characteristics for the “lightning”.

Abusers operate from a need to have power and control over another. They are often jealous, critical, inconsistent, disconnected, narcissistic, insincerely repentant, and frequently portray themselves as a victim of others’ behaviors, causing them to react badly. And they are usually not these ways toward anyone other than their partner, causing observers to be confused, or worse, disbelieving when victims speak out.

Imagine this: you likely do not wear your bathrobe to work, the grocery store, or church. People who know you in these places would not recognize the version of you who wears an old, tattered bathrobe and fuzzy slippers at home.

Why would anyone be attracted to this behavior?

Abusers are manipulative, displaying charm and caring behaviors that lure partners in while masking their need for control. Abusers do not display their need for power and control in public places, nor do they start off a relationship attired on first dates in a grubby bathrobe.

Why do people stay in abusive relationships?

The courtship stage of a relationship feels good to anyone who has experienced it, not just to people who have a supposed defective partner selection. Those early glowing emotions are built upon and become foundational to healthy relationships. In abusive relationships, those feelings are often used to manipulate a victim as they try to recapture the courtship emotions and make sense of why they have been withheld and replaced by cruelty.

This shift, in relationships that become abusive, doesn’t happen suddenly it happens over time. Sometimes years, and often in barely imperceptible increments that keep the victim hopeful that the “rough patch” can be overcome.

Those who have never experienced abuse might ask, why not just leave?

A fair question, one that should be asked with concern, not judgment. A Starting Point advocate offers this analogy – if you have ever had a terrible boss did you leave the second you noticed, or did you make every effort to do a better job to please them and address the concerns? Were you even able to consider leaving for financial reasons or other circumstances that might have left you in an even more precarious situation?

Relationships are not jobs or shouldn’t be, but they do require work and most of us go in knowing this, willing and taught to keep trying. Some are taught to keep trying even when there is evidence that “trying” does not work. Once abuse has become a pattern it can affect brain chemistry and diminish one’s agency in a way that makes trying to fix it an obsession and leaving the relationship even more difficult.

Are some people “prone” to abusive relationships? Do they have learned helplessness? No. Not the kind that is rationally understood anyways.

There are literally 100s of reasons a victim might not leave that run the spectrum from love to fear. The root cause though is likely the trauma itself, or the pattern trauma causes in the brain. Trauma alters brain chemistry and can keep one in a loop of unhealthy behaviors, including staying in an abusive relationship.

In layman’s terms, trauma shuts down the frontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain, and operates through the part of the brain that signals flight, fight, or freeze responses, all necessary responses for survival. Because the brain has memory muscle, trauma creates a very active survival force, one necessary to survive but one that can be a barrier to thriving. We know a lot about this from veterans of war, whose brain chemistry when compared to a survivor of interpersonal violence is the same. (Let’s pause on that for a moment…a brain that has experienced the atrocity of war has similar patterns to one that has experienced domestic violence.)

Trauma causes an inability for the victim to regulate, creating emotional imbalance and a lack of agency. Add this cocktail to memories of the courtship, a time of elation, and to a list of logistics that make leaving problematic and we have a person who is not prone to abusive relationships but is stuck in an abusive relationship cycle. One who has likely done a great deal of work to survive and tried countless times to leave.

Why is leaving so dangerous for the victim? How does a victim regain agency and heal from trauma? What causes someone to behave abusively? Why is verbal and emotional abuse considered as lethal as physical abuse? Can abusers change? …???

You see, even a primer on domestic violence is complex, leaving us with even more questions.

For more information call or email community@startingpointnh.org. Or even better – join us on October 13 for our volunteer training presentation (see more about volunteer training below).


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