…that people don’t believe claims of abuse?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: My friend is going through an awful divorce. She is married to a very abusive man. He calls her names and constantly makes her feel worthless. She found the courage to leave but no-one believes that she is a victim of abuse because her husband, in public, is so nice and charming. She may lose her children. He makes her look crazy and out of control. Why don’t people believe her and how can he get away with this?

A: Your question targets a very pervasive issue related to domestic/relational abuse that is faced by millions of women each day. And while it would certainly be nice if abusers wore a badge identifying themselves as such – sadly, this is not the case.

The fact is that abusers come in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life. Research has evidenced that abusers are found across all races, levels of education, occupations and age groups. Statistically, 50 percent of all women killed are murdered at the hands of their male partners, and 67 percent of women slain with firearms were killed by their husbands or boyfriends. Considering the fact that most cases of abuse go unreported – the rates at which women are being victimized by their male partners is even more staggering. Relational abuse is at epidemic proportions – and since it’s estimated that one in three women will be physically/sexually abused by their male partner – it logically follows that one in three men are, indeed, a perpetrator of abuse.

So why is it so difficult for people to acknowledge and believe that certain men are abusive? Public perception is driven by many factors. We hold stereotypes about the personal characteristics of those engaging in anti-social or deviant behavior. We tend to think that a man capable of abuse is likely to be poor, uneducated and criminal like. It’s counter-intuitive for us to conceive of an abuser as clean-cut, successful and holding positions of social power and respect. But these stereotypes are far from the truth. In fact, abusive men often exploit these public misconceptions in an effort to control and further victimize their partners. Women who challenge their partners by threatening to bring the abuse into public light are often met with phrases such as, “Go ahead. I’m a respected member of the community…and you’re nobody. Who will believe you anyway?”

Abusive men are often personable and charming, when in public. They can hold positions of authority and reflect traits of charismatic leadership. They can also be soft-spoken and unassuming, making public recognition difficult – if not impossible. The man who rants and raves at home may appear gentle and considerate when in public. In fact, most abusers do not display “personality disorders” or “sociopathic” tendencies. And while we may prefer not to think of our co-workers, neighbors, friends and family members as abusers, they are just as likely to be perpetrators as anyone else.

Relational abuse also operates under a strict code of social silence. Victims are routinely coerced into silence by abusers who threaten severe retaliation against them, their children, family members or pets. Considering the statistics cited above, these threats are not empty – often resulting in immediate and urgent compliance to avoid harm.

Beyond the forced silencing of victims, we as a society, take a “head in the sand” approach to relational abuse. We co-exist in a mass state of denial about its prevalence and the nature of its perpetrators. Because women have been routinely devalued, allegations against “upstanding” male members of the community are casually dismissed. The court system is not immune to this dynamic, as case after case of abuse is minimized by “slap on the wrist” sentencing by judges and juries alike. For example, in 2008, a woman discovered that her abuser would receive only three months probation for breaking her arm. Even more alarming is the rate at which abusive fathers are granted partial or full custody of their children – despite the evidence of physical/emotional/sexual assaults.

Public invalidation over claims of relational violence is one of the largest contributing factors to why many women fail to report, to seek, or to receive help for instances of abuse. Public denial sanctions and assists perpetrators and inflicts further harm to victims by adding insult to injury. Morality, and statistical evidence, dictates that we have an obligation to acknowledge that the least likely among us – may very well be the most likely abuser.