Saturday 21 April 2018

Domestic violence: Are we doing enough for women in abusive relationships?

Emma Murphy's brave video has put domestic violence in the spotlight. But are we doing enough for women in abusive relationships?

Abuse: One in five women are affected by domestic violence in Ireland
Abuse: One in five women are affected by domestic violence in Ireland
Emma Murphy spoke out about domestic violence she suffered in a video she posted to social media this week

Chrissie Russell

Sarah (*not her real name) wishes she'd left the first time her husband was verbally abusive. "My only guilt now is that I didn't walk away when he started putting me down," she says. "But I felt I had to keep up the facade that life was fine because, from the outside, it looked like I had everything."

Instead she stayed. Emotional and psychological abuse became physical and sexual abuse. There was, she says, always an excuse. She had 'pushed his buttons', she was 'making him do it', it was 'all in her head'.

When she saw Emma Murphy's video this week, now viewed by more than five million people world wide, she says part of her wanted to stand up and applaud the young Dublin woman for being strong enough to walk away and brave enough to publically stand up and say emotionally and physically abusive behaviour isn't ok.

But another part of her was afraid. "I felt nervous for her," she says. "Violent men don't like their true colours being shown and I was worried, I wanted to know she was safe and ok."

It took seven years before Sarah summoned the courage to flee her family home, and when she did it wasn't just because of her own mental and physical injuries, but because her husband had started beating their young daughter too.

She has no doubt what would have been the end result had she stayed. "I know, 100pc, that if I was still there, I would be dead."

Domestic violence is rife in Ireland with one in five women affected and the terrifying reality is that it's often a precursor to homicide.

Statistics from Women's Aid show that 70pc of murdered women are killed by a husband, lover or estranged partner.

In approximately two thirds of those murder cases the woman was physically abused before they were killed.

Dublin woman Amanda Jenkins was just 27 when she was murdered by her partner Stephen Carney in October 2007.

Carney, currently serving life, had been confronted before by Amanda's family for physically abusing her but he had assured them it was "just a one off".

Her mother Anne didn't want her daughter to stay in the relationship but says Amanda "always saw the best in people," and forgave him. He strangled her.

Margaret Martin, director of Women's Aid says the message is clear that, rather than getting better, the behaviour displayed by an abusive partner will most often get worse.

She believes it's vital that there's a better understanding of this both in the public domain and by the State and its agencies.

Because domestic abuse is so rarely exposed, in the way Emma Murphy has done, there is still a culture of shame and secrecy around it. A culture that Margaret fears could be affecting the way the State responds to claims of violence.

"Many women we talk to feel that their situation was not being treated as seriously as it should be. Women spoke of inconsistent responses by State institutions and agencies such as the courts and gardai," she says.

"These experiences were supported by the 2014 Garda Inspectorate Report into Crime Investigation which, despite highlighting individual good practice, showed up very serious gaps in the official response to domestic abuse cases."

Not only is there an inadequate understanding in our culture about the seriousness of domestic abuse and how it can escalate but there's also a lack of insight into the mind-set of the perpetrator.

All too often the dialogue surrounding domestic violence is fixed on the question 'why didn't she walk away?' rather than looking at what is wrong with a man who wants to hurt the one he professes to 'love'.

Clinical psychologist Dr Kevin Lambe has worked on many murder cases, cases of harassment and threats to kill. In his assessment work with perpetrators involved in these cases he has found a common factor to sometimes be "the presence of personality disorder, the roots of which are to be found in abused childhoods, broken childhood attachments and the inability to self-soothe through life."

He believes that key to these investigations is 'victimology' - understanding why a person was targeted for a violent crime and, perhaps controversially, he believes there can be a psychological similarity between those who abuse and those who are abused.

"Why women are more likely to be attacked by someone known to them is very complex, but put simply, birds of a feather flock together, and in my experience intimate partners sometimes choose partners with similar personality patterns," he says.

"Aggressive males and females seek each other out, yet some female partners become more submissive over time as a result of constant victimisation. In one case I worked on recently where there was serious domestic violence in the relationship, resulting in many hospitalisations for the female partner, I concluded the husband had a schizoid personality disorder with avoidant and paranoid features and the wife had an avoidant personality disorder with schizoid features.

"In effect they were isolated individuals who found each other and they were caught up in a cycle of violence brought on by alcohol abuse which is hard to break."

He cites another case where the pattern of communication and breakdown of the relationship was "so significant" that a defence of provocation was invoked at trial and resulted in a manslaughter rather than murder conviction.

Maria Burns runs 'United and Strong', a support group for women who have survived domestic abuse. She is appalled by the idea of holding the woman's personality type as a factor in abuse. "It's victim shaming," she says. "It's saying 'you brought it on yourself' which is not what any woman in that situation needs to hear, particularly when it's probably something they're used to hearing from their abuser".

Emma Murphy's partner has since denied punching her but admitting to giving her a push. Maria says this is a scenario many women in abusive relationships will be familiar with and believes it raises the important question of what constitutes assault and what is considered non-violent.

She has also been infuriated hearing people say the young Dublin mum seems 'a strong, intelligent, articulate woman', as if that should exclude her from being party to an abusive relationship.

"In United and Strong there are lots of a strong, intelligent, articulate women," she says.

"Women who have spent a lot of time in counselling trying to get to the route of 'why did this happen to me?' and it's just got to stop. We need to stop blaming women or asking what women do to get into violent relationships and look instead at the men carrying out the abuse."

Women's Aid believes that Dr Lambe's view that certain personality types might seek each other out not only leans towards attributing blame to women but it also potentially lets men off the hook by medicalising the situation.

In fact all too often the public dialogue lets abusers off the hook. We blame a rise on violence on the recession, on Christmas on the New Year. Yes, there are risk factors that can heighten the potential for violence: Times of divorce or separation, abuse of alcohol or drugs, extremely patriarchal concepts and attitudes, acts of violence outside the family and possession of weapons are just some.

But the frightening reality is that domestic abuse can come from even the most seemingly innocuous source and happen to a woman from any walk of life.

"My life looked picture perfect from the outside," says Sarah. "My advice to women would be that if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. It never gets better, it only gets worse and the best thing you can do is walk away."

Irish Independent

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