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The Cycle of Abuse

(Photo by Robin Holland)

In this week's JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with Marta B. Pelaez, who runs an agency for women and children who have been victimized by domestic abuse. Moyers asked Pelaez why so many women go back repeatedly to partners that have injured them physically and emotionally.

Pelaez said:

“At the beginning, they don't see very well the level of trauma that they have sustained, and that has been progressive, over a lifetime, in many instances... We are, as human beings, beings of custom. We are accustomed to something. We have made some adjustments to adjust to a certain situation, as awful and as ugly as that may be. So it is difficult for them... If you stay in an abusive situation one year, the likelihood of your staying a second year grows exponentially... Why? Because the progressive nature of domestic violence is one that begins in a very subtle way... It's about isolating the person from the relatives, from friends, so that he can exercise more and more abuse. And then, eventually, it becomes the physical thing. It becomes the dramatic thing that we see on the newspapers. But in order to get to that point, the abuse has been going on for a long time."

What do you think?

  • Does Pelaez’s explanation correspond with your own experiences and/or observations of domestic abuse? How?

  • Pelaez describes a progression of more and more dehumanization over time. Is this dynamic applicable to situations other than domestic abuse, such as business or politics? Explain.

    For more information, please visit our resources page on domestic violence.

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    I think that we should pull back are troops from the war in Afganistan.

    I'd like to point out that the phrase "victimized by domestic abuse" is problematic. By anthropomorphizing "domestic abuse" and making it the thing which vixtimizes women, blame is displaced from the actual abusers who actually victimize people. It's a strange circumlocution to use when "victimized by abusers" is much clearer and has the benefit of not removing the responsible parties from the description. I mention it because this phrasing is found frequently in reports made by journalists on abuse and sexual assault and I'd hope that the writers of this blog would be more careful about avoiding it.

    What is remarkable about this thread of comments are the number of people that expressed frustration that Marta focused too much on men and neglected abusive women. And it is the emotional tone to the posts that makes me doubt them, more the anything else.
    No doubt women can be abusive, and do abuse children. I think though that especially in regards to the study above, which was based on self-reporting behavior in surveys, statistics can be easily distorted. Women might have reported violence more than men, and taken responsibility for violence within a relationship more than the men. A cultural or gendered tendency towards self-reporting could easily skew the results.
    In my experience, the men that proclaim the loudest "she was abusive!" are often the most insidious and manipulative abusers. They also fit a more psychologically controlling profile, than a violent profile; often provoking violence through verbal abuse or again, manipulation.
    The “progressive nature” of abuse also includes psychologically control of reality. The result is a demoralized, degraded woman, more inclined to accept her partner’s version of reality. Again something that would skew results in a survey.
    It would be one of those unfortunate side effects of woman's equality if one day we could say that women are just as abusive as men, but at this point, the reality is Marta is right, men are the predominate abusers of women in intimate partner relationships.

    Stephen McArthur says "90 to 95% of the victims are women".

    Usually when I see a similar statistic, it is a crime study or study of people who seek services. Remember, 50 years ago by this standard, there were few women victims. It was hidden, not prosecuted, and no services were provided. Conflict studies have shown the face of DV victims and DV perpetrators to be far more diverse than currently represented in our courts and our shelters. It is not just women ( ).

    Also, I commonly see that after citing a crime statistic on adult DV, people will switch to child victims and conflate their experience with adult women's experiences. They imply or state directly that men are the perpetrators. This does not appear to be the case, see .

    The experiences of people who have experienced DV or serve victims tell a powerful and true story. Please don't let your truth blind you to the other faces of DV victimization.

    Marta Pelaez knows what she is talking about. You can't work for a hotline/shelter and not understand the dynamics of domestic abuse as well as the effects on women and children. Domestic assault is a gendered crime, 90 to 95% of the victims are women, and most of the perpetrators are men. As a hotline worker (one of the few men who take hotline calls from women) I have talked with some women repeatedly, as they struggle increasingly with the accelerating abuse by their boyfriend or husband. Marta's description of this reality is accurate and, for some people, difficult to understand. Women want t believe their partner can change. This is, however, only one of the many reasons women do not leave a relationship after the first incidence of abuse.

    I was very happy to see a discussion on national TV of domestic violence and the effects on women and children, as well as mention of batterer intervention programs. I am also interested in how we can engage more men in a discussion on these issues. As co-chair of the White Ribbon Campaign of Vermont, an organization of men working to end men's violence against women, we confront the myth that this is only "a women's issue" and try to engage men in discussions around the culture of male violence and what we, as men, can do about it. It is not just women and children who feel the toxic effects of a male culture that objectifies and subjugates women, but it is men whose spirits and health are poisoned by it. We can't continue to discuss domestic and sexual violence in terms that do not include men and men's involvement as part and parcel of the solution. Thanks, Bill Moyers.

    Stephen McArthur
    Violence Prevention Educator & Hotline Crisis Worker
    Battered Women's Services & Shelter, Washington County, Vermont

    A worthy interview, although as some others have noted, at least a brief mention of abusive women would have improved the result. More importantly though, I feel Moyers missed a key opportunity to plug one of his interviews from years past in discussing men and how we cope. Robert Bly has written of man's constant struggle to be strong, while also being sensitive in his book, "Iron John" and I would have loved to hear this mentioned. What about all of the men (and women) who feel the pressures both internal and external, aren't abusive to their partners but instead project their pain back inside of themselves? Wouldn't a look back at your interview with Bly be appropriate at this time? Perhaps next week...

    I want to thank the people who wrote about women who abuse. I worked at the shelter in South Bend, IN and was kicked off of the staff because I advocated for abused men. I personally watch my husband tackle a neighbor to keep her from stabbing her husband with a butcher knife.

    I only subscribe to the blog, so I didn't see the interview. Psychologists have studied the process of abuse and most of that makes sense. What I don't understand is why my two abusive ex-husbands have apparently established successful second marriages where they don't abuse their wives and children. With the second one, I can see that we're his escape valve. Even though we don't live with him, he emotionally abuses us instead of his wife. But even though the experts might disagree, I think it's something about *me* that makes guys want to abuse me. I think I'm extra annoying. Therefore, I stay far away from men.

    As usual I found Bill Moyers Journal on 3/20/09 important, interesting and thought-provoking. I would never criticize a woman of such experience and depth as Marta Pelaez. However, I would like to point out another perspective or analysis about Domestic Violence. It has been my experience and training as an instructor/supervisor in the New York Model for Batterer Programs that Domestic Violence is more than a problem of individual men. It is a systemic, pervasive problem directly linked to America's history of patriachy and sexism. We can trace Domestic Violence back to the time in our nation's early history when women were literally considered property of men. For many, many generations men could do virtually whatever they wanted to do with their "property" women. Women had no rights. They were subject to the men in their lives, first fathers and then husbands. Our intstitutions (government, health care, education, law enforcement, the judiciary, religion, the media, etc.) reflect this history of patriarchy and sexism. What lingers even after the social changes resulting from the women's and battered women's movements is a society that still too often does not treat Domestic Violence as the serious crimes they are. I would love to see Bill Moyers invite leaders from the Battered Women's Movement and The New York Model for Batterer Programs as guests to explore another perspective on Domestic Violence. One leader I strongly recommend you invite as a guest to explore this perspective of Domestic Violence as linked to patriarchy and sexism is Ms. Phyllis B. Frank, Director of the Domestic Violence Program for Men in Rockland, Orange and Westchester Counties of NY. Ms. Frank has been a leader, trainer and community organizer around issues of oppression, inequality and Domestic Violence for over 30 years. She would add a context to the serious problems of Domestic Violence and male violence against women and girls that would show how these problems of male violence directed to women are broader and more deeply embedded in our whole society. Before we can stop male violence against women and girls we must face the breadth and depth of the problem. I urge everyone to visit The NY Model for Batterer Programs website at to get a feel for this perspective. Thank you.
    Peter Heymann
    Rosendale, NY

    During the quarter century I worked as misdemeanor court probation officer, I witnessed both abusers and abused. I experienced it in my own marriage sufficiently to be pessimistic about intimate violence. I hear therapist talk about changed behavior and changed abusers, but I have not seen it happen. I don’t trust myself well enough not to ever remarry.

    Abuse takes many forms but the patterns seem to hold. The literature on intimate abuse is large enough for those who work with victims and perpetrators to see well defined patterns—syndromes. There are excellent popular and insightful books on the subject. I think of one by Michael Miller “Intimate Terror” and by Stephanie Covington “Leaving the Enchanted Forest”. Lundy Bancroft is another excellent commentator and researcher on the topic. The link between addictions and domestic violence is well established. However, we live in a society in which we experience many kinds of abuse--look at what happens to women in the military and even in our elite service academies. Look at abuse we endure on our jobs from employers, other employees, and customers. I know of a young woman who killed herselt after her boss sexually assaulted her--she was in her teens. We tolerate a vast range of abusive styles with domestic abuse being one powerful model.

    The Marta Pelaez missed a critical perspective of domestic violence, men and children who are victims of women.

    It seems to be very difficult to find uncontroversial statistics on domestic violence (DV). It is, by definition, a relatively hidden problem. Also, statistics are derived from several sources including crime studies, victim surveys, and cross-sectional surveys using different survey instruments. Mixed and unmatched statistics may not paint an accurate picture. One thing is clear, the most commonly quoted statistics (apparently from crime studies) only describe a subset of victims, women. Children abused by women and men victims are often ignored as they often don't show up in the crime surveys. Another critical aspect usually ignored is mutual violence among adults. This discount of men and children is very clearly demonstrated in the interview.

    A clear indication of the full scope and origin of intimate adult DV is discussed in the Psychiatric News, August 3, 2007, article "Men Shouldn't Be Overlooked as Victims of Partner Violence" ( ). It uses Center for Disease Control data and reports that:
    - 24% of young heterosexual adults report violence in their relationship,
    - 12% were reciprocally violent (both male and female perpetrators),
    - 8.5% had sole female perpetrators, and
    - 3.5% had sole male perpetrators.
    Other studies find similar results although usually the percent of male and female sole perpetrators is closer to equal. See the graph at the website cited for a clear representation of these facts.

    Concerning children victims of abuse, US Department of Health and Human Services statistics indicate that:
    - 40% of the perpetrators are mothers only,
    - 18% are fathers only, and
    - 18% are mothers and fathers together.
    Clearly mothers are a common perpetrator of abuse of their children along with fathers. See a graph of this data at . Since Ms. Pelaez's shelters apparently only accept women and their children, a majority of child victims are excluded.

    The implications of these data is a far more complex picture of domestic violence than presented.

    I perceive some things in breaking the cycle of abuse that are are a reality to address.

    In many shelters, women and children get a taste of a possible good life and then find out that what they earn and how they live is not going to work. I now see more women returning home than leaving after a cycle of abuse, because they can't earn enough to assure housing, health insurance, food and basics.

    I also see in the system of breaking apart the abuse, the patterns are like a glued grid. Emotionally, a woman and children can develop boundaries and a system of survival simply because leaving does not improve quality of life.

    Does Pelaez’s explanation correspond with your own experiences and/or observations of domestic abuse? How?

    Breaking the cycle of abuse is incredibly hard to do, especially with a life-time of isolation.

    Pelaez describes a progression of more and more dehumanization over time. Is this dynamic applicable to situations other than domestic abuse, such as business or politics? Explain

    I'll go with politics, since that is what I love.

    It's nice to see Latin American countries push back against the US business communities' assumption that Latin America is a source of raw materials and cheap labor y no mas.

    It seems our society is addicting young men to violence. A recent New Yorker featured the prominent role marketers have in movies; they target young men with massive violence. Rather than funneling sex to healthy, normal bonds with young women, we're re-directing this energy to violence.

    Humanity is a consistent theme of yours. This time you have fallen down. I just watched "Sputnik Mania" which is a human story, but reminded me that it is humans who can come to the brink of war. This week the MD legislature discussed arming alleged DV victims.

    NCFM advisors tell me that DV is a human problem, but if you will look at the "resources" provided on your page, they are all gender pamphleteers. If you will listen again to the words of Marta Pelaez, you will hear the fear, hate and war mongering that Ike was barely able to quell. Because of that, it is no surprise that the DV industry of which Marta is apart, has been ineffective at addressing a real human problem. Please return to humanity.

    I think this was a good interview and I think I will take the time to take my grandchild with me the next time I donate something to the local abused women's shelter.

    I want to thank Bill for having Marta on his program. Awareness of the growing problem of domestic violence is needed in order to stem the tide. Yes, the current economic climate will bring on more of this violence. And I have to agree with one of the bloggers that stated the fact that our country has been taught to "worship" violent behavior. It is on our television sets at every turn along with sexual behaviors that are meant to take place in private. By viewing these "sexual" scenes that were meant to take place between two people; it is demoralizing and shows a general lack of respect for each other and the human race as a whole. I have seen a continuing disintegration of the moral values over the course of my lifetime and it will definitely come home to roost in future generations. I hate to see what effect it will have on my grandchildren.

    Focusing on domestic violence, and specifically violence done by men to women or children will never solve the problem. Violence is not limited to men.

    The problem with violence starts at the top. Our society glamorizes, perhaps even worships violence.

    The bombings and mass murders committed by the US government and military in Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam and many other places are seen as honorable or noble or at least necessary. And even if the wars are called unncecessary, just serving in the military is for some reason is called honorable. There's nothing honorable about murdering innoccent people, no matter who gave the order. Mass Muderers and Terrorists like Bush and Cheney should be behind bars, but they're not. Criminals run this society. Why is it a surprise when people follow their example? The elites of our society are the most violent of all. The society simply reflects them.

    "It takes two", deadbeat dads and moms to have domestic violence and squalor. why do men always get the blame.An equal citizen should be equally responsible.

    If we always blame men,for domestic abuse,shame on us.Deadbeat moms deserve equal treatment also.Women should rise above tendencies to serve men;and treat themselves with more respect.

    An editorial in yesterday's Boston Globe quotes "Dee" who posted on Entertainment Weekly's website this comment about Chris Brown's battering of Rihanna: "I know what Chris did is horrible but you can't prevent true love" In the same thread, "Yulay" opined "... this event shows how much love you have for each other." If, as many experts believe, much of what is called domestic violence is learned behavior, and that the learning occurs early in life, more needs to be done to teach kids about healthy relationships and to brand abuse as unacceptable.

    In my experience domestic violence runs genetically and culturally, in families and societies. It may be exacerbated by the loss of employment, but it certainly isn't caused by it. What that does is simply to make the party aware of his or her dependence on others and I would guess this has the greatest impact on those who escaped the sort of behavioral conditioning most children in this country receive toward that end, the effect of which has been ameliorated by holding a job. It is not confined to men, nor are all women different. This is the reason for the high "recidivism." You can expect all sorts of other of what we are accustomed to call criminal behaviors to rise as this crisis deepens, too.

    When the abuse started for me, I had no idea what was to come. the abuse started slowly verbally, then physically when I was three months pregnant, then progressively after the birth of our child. We moved away to another town where I knew no one. For five years, I endured physical and verbal abuse. Before I was married, I worked as an intern for a DV shelter and hotline and still didn't see the signs. The cycle of abuse consumes you and you become someone else. I remember my mom saying to me, "where is my daughter, what happened to you, this isn't who you are." I believe Marta did relate how the violence does progress and how isolating it does become without the victim being aware.

    My wife and I, for several years, were quite active in Camp Opportunity, which was a camp for neglected and abused children, aged 8-12, in central Maryland. One of the most severe cases we had ever encountered were 2 brothers who had witnessed their father strangle their mother to death. The younger of the 2, I believe, had witnessed this at the age of one year old. I was reminded of this when I heard your guest talk about the effect of the injury to the woman, who was scarred so badly through abuse, on her children.

    Marta has captured well the insidious and progressively more isolating aspects of domestic violence. The victim may not even realize at first that she is systematically being cut off from family and friends and then when things get really scary isn't sure where to turn.

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