My Sister's Husband Hits Her: What To Do If Someone You Love Is In A Violent Relationship

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My Sister's Husband Hits Her: What To Do If Someone You Love Is In A Violent Relationship

Every year, 1.3 million women are victims of domestic violence. One of them is my sister.

At 29, Sarah is two years older than me and on the surface we are nothing alike. She is short with thick curly hair. I'm tall with stick straight hair. I have glasses; she has what our mom calls "eagle eyes." Sarah and I were close growing up. When she was seven and I was five, she took our frog, Gilly, to a pet show.

When it came time to stand in front of the judges and talk about Gilly, Sarah froze. I ran through the crowd, grabbed her hand and began speaking for her. Everyone laughed, but Sarah squeezed my hand. I always thought we'd be like that — holding hands, facing together what we couldn't do on our own.

Sarah met Owen her freshman year of college. She told me they met as he was mowing the lawn on campus. One of her friends said they met online. Years later, our brother said they met at a party. I still don't know the truth. But that didn't worry me; what worried me was Owen.

Three months after meeting Owen, Sarah dropped out of college and moved home, bringing Owen with her. The first time I met him, he called me "honey."

"My name is Lyz," I said, thinking he had forgotten my name.

"What are you, some sort of feminazi b****?" He said, his face getting red. I looked to Sarah for help, but she was biting her lip looking out the window.

It only got worse from there; Owen hid porn magazines in our basement where my younger brothers and sisters played. When my parents weren't around he called me a "snobby whore" and asked me if I would strip for him. He yelled at my siblings when they played too loudly and told them that our mom was a "b****."

When I talked to Sarah about it, she grew defiant. "He loves me. He said you'd be jealous." She ran out of the room whenever I brought up the subject. One day, Owen backed me in a corner and told me to stop interfering. Owen is tall and weights over 300 pounds. He glowered down at me, and I was afraid.

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To my parents, Owen acted the part of the jolly, down-to-earth, good ole boy: he drank beer with my dad, hunted and wore camouflage. He called my mom "ma'am," but when Sarah and Owen announced their engagement, he didn't go the traditional, gentlemanly route. "We're getting married," he said. "If you don't like it, too bad." It seemed like a threat.

After they got married, Owen and Sarah moved into their own apartment. Only a year into their marriage, Owen cheated on my sister and frequently used pot and cocaine. He shifted from job to job, working as a bouncer, on a lawn crew and as a loan collector.

Sometimes he disappeared on the weekends. I often saw him screaming at her for little things like getting up during a movie or eating the last cookie. When I tried to talk to her, she'd just laugh, her brown eyes flat and dull. "Owen said you'd be judgmental." Talking to her became difficult. Sarah used to be quiet and shy. Now she seemed forcefully happy. "Smile, Jesus loves you!" she chirped on her voicemail.

She changed physically too. Sarah had always had a full figure, but after she married Owen, she gained a lot of weight. There were dark circles under her eyes. I barely knew who she was. When I tried to talk to her, Sarah got defensive. "You always had to get better grades than me," she yelled. "You always did think you were better." Soon, all we could talk about was shopping, but even that became a loaded gun when Owen told me I was snobby for thinking Target was better than Wal-Mart. Nothing was safe.

The Truth Comes Out

Before Sarah married Owen, I knew nothing about abuse. We grew up in a sheltered, conservative family. Home-schooled until high school, the only TV shows I had seen before I was 15 were Sesame Street, Dallas Cowboy's football games and reruns of Petticoat Junction. I knew nothing about abusive relationships. I didn't know what was happening to Sarah until I got to college and our whole family learned the truth.

Four years after Sarah and Owen were married, my family moved to another state. It was only then that one of my younger sisters, Casey, felt safe enough to tell our parents that Owen had molested her. He'd abused her for three years, from the time Casey was 12 until she was 15. My parents frequently let him babysit and take Casey out on hunting trips. I was heartbroken and angry. Yet, even though this was my first experience with abuse of any kind, I wasn't surprised that my sister's husband hits her.

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I went with my mother to tell Sarah. We took her to a friend's house, where we didn't think Owen could find us and begged her to leave, but she said nothing.

"What else is happening?" I asked her. "What else is he doing to you?" Sarah threw her wedding ring across the floor. It bounced off the gray carpet and pinged against the fake oak baseboard. I picked up the ring. I could see places where the yellow gold was worn down to dull silver. I thought it was all over.

A week later, Sarah moved back with Owen. She had forgiven him, she said, and my parents told me to forget and move on. When I mailed the ring back, I didn't bother insuring it. I tried talking to my parents, who urged me to "pray" and "forgive and forget."

"We've all done wrong things," my dad said. When I refused to let it go, they told me I was tearing the family apart. Years later, I learned that it's common for families to hide abuse and live in denial. My family, it turns out, is not so different from millions out there refusing to see the pain right in front of them.

My sister has been married for 10 years. In that time, I've learned about the physical abuse she suffers. A family member witnessed Owen hitting Sarah during a heated fight. I've seen Sarah cover her bruises and cover for him. I've watched my sister Casey struggle to stay afloat under the overwhelming psychological effects of being molested.

I've seen my parents' blank faces of denial as they tell me "Owen is just the nicest guy." Ten years and it still hasn't stopped. And after 10 years, my family still doesn't talk about it. All too often, Casey and I are often each other's only allies in our search for honesty and open dialogue.

Domestic Abuse Is Common

The American Psychiatric Association defines domestic violence as "control by one partner over another in a dating, marital or live-in relationship." This can include name-calling or put-downs, keeping a partner from contacting their family or friends, withholding money, stopping a partner from getting or keeping a job, actual or threatened physical harm, sexual assault, stalking, and intimidation.

While cases are severely underreported because of the fear and denial common in abusive relationships, the US Department of Justice estimates that 25 percent of women in the US are or will be a victim of domestic violence. Women ages 16 – 24 experience the highest rates of partner violence. Statistics reporting the number of people who know someone in an abusive relationship are scarce, but according to the Bureau of Justice, 40 percent of teenagers know someone their age who has been hit or abused.

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For Jessica Leroy, that number isn't just a statistic. For a year, her mother was in a violent relationship. Leroy recalls picking her mother up from the hospital where she was being treated for a broken nose.

"My mother always had an elaborate excuse, but I'd interrupt her and say, 'Mom, I know.'" Her mother looked away and changed the subject. "But," Leroy says, "at least she knew that she didn't have to lie."

Leroy, who is the Clinical Director for The Center for the Psychology of Women and a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, advises, "The number one thing you have to do is call it what it is if it's right in front of you." She also cautions friends and family to be supportive and non-judgmental.

"Acknowledge what's going on and tell them that you are there for them no matter what," Leroy says. "But don't tell them, 'I'd leave him if I were you.' That can be perceived as judgmental and undermines the fear and danger that your friend may be in."

Bill Donovan, 59, remembers the day he discovered his daughter was being abused by her boyfriend. She called him crying and said, "He hit me." Donovan's first reaction was to ask "why?" He's ashamed now of his response and if he had to do it all over again, he'd ask, "Are you somewhere safe? What do you need?" And he adds, "I wouldn't judge her, I would just listen."

It's Hard For Victims To Leave

Donovan readily admits that even though he loves his daughter and wanted to protect her from her boyfriend, a small part of him blamed her for what happened. "I know it's wrong now, but it's so hard, because you think, 'Why don't they just leave?' But you really need to ask yourself what else is going on. For a lot of victims, leaving makes things worse." Why Do Victims Of Domestic Violence Stay?

Donovan encourages people to put themselves in their friend's shoes. "Often there are kids, finances, and a home," he says. "Not to mention the threats and fear. When you think about it, it's not so easy to just leave. Where would you go? How would you live? How would you take care of your children?"

Leroy explains that abuse is essentially about control. An abuser manipulates his victim, leaving her isolated without access to people or resources.

"In that context," she says, "a victim often believes the lies that the abuser tells her—that if she leaves she'll be alone, without money, and, if there are kids involved, he'll take away custody." A victim without a support system of family and friends may feel that no one will believe her.

But it's not all in the victim's head. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that women who leave their abusers are at a 75 percent greater risk of injury or death. And 75 percent of all abuse-related emergency room visits occur after separation.

For Sherrie W., 50, leaving her abusive husband meant giving up her home and legal custody of her children.

"I tried to fight him, but he was such a good manipulator and I was so tired of fighting." Sherrie stayed in her abusive marriage for 18 years and she still struggles with regret. "To save myself I had to give up a lot," she said. "Some days I still wonder if it was worth it."

But helping the victim isn't the only difficult aspect of the relationship. For many people the abuser is also a family member. Notes Leory, "The situation is so tricky. You have to be true to who you are and if you are uncomfortable around this person you don't have to be around them. You don't have to participate in family gatherings if you know the abuser will be there. Remember, brushing it under the rug is only enabling this to happen."

Sherrie wishes that her family had heeded that advice."It's hard for friends and family," she acknowledges. "I was afraid to answer the phone because I didn't know how he was going to react. I couldn't use email because he read it." "But," Sherrie cautions, "if you know someone who's in a violent relationship, don't give up on them. Send cards and letters. Even if it doesn't seem like there is hope, those little things do matter."

Nadia Islam, Director of Programs for Laura's House, a non-profit shelter for women in Orange County, California advises friends and family members to encourage the victim to participate in activities outside of the house.

"Acknowledge that he or she is in a very difficult and scary situation," Islam says. "Let your friend or family member know that the abuse is not their fault. Reassure him or her that they are not alone and that there is help and support out there."

The Ripple Effect Of Domestic Violence

Supporting a friend or family member through an abusive situation is emotionally draining and can have an effect on your own relationships. Leroy recalled a time when she was arguing with her husband and he stepped toward her. He wasn't threatening her, but because of what she's seen even that small physical act scared her.

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For 10 years, I've been living in fear for my sister and it's affected the way I interact with my own husband. A quick handhold or a playful push often triggers irrational responses. I can't count the number of times I've walked away from a fight saying, "I'm not mad at you, I'm mad at Owen."

It's hard for my husband to bear the weight of my anger and distrust. Yet, he is patient and respectful and never complains. Often in the face of my family's denial, I begin to feel like the crazy one and I understand how a victim can feel alone. When no one talks about it, you begin to doubt yourself.

Maybe I'm making it up? Maybe Owen is a nice guy? Maybe I am tearing the family apart? Yet, my husband never loses confidence. "You're doing the right thing. You are not crazy," he tells me as often as I need to hear.

After Casey told us about being molested, I began refusing to attend family events if Owen was going to be there. That decision was hard to make, but Casey later told me that it gave her the courage to do the same. And while I know there are no quick fixes that can make this go away and return Sarah back to me, I think I'll start sending her some cards and letters to remind her that out here is someone who loves her and misses her so very much. And I hope, in the end, it makes a difference.

What To Do If Someone You Love Is In A Violent Relationship

1. Listen.

If you can do nothing else, listen. It may get tiring and frustrating, but being there to hear your friend and remind her that he or she is not crazy or alone can make all the difference in the world.

2. Don't engage in denial and don't accept excuses or rationalizations.

Tell him or her you see what is going on and that you want to help. Help them recognize that what is happening is not "normal" and that they deserve a healthy, non-violent relationship.

3. Be non-judgmental.

Nadia Islam explains, "There are many reasons why victims stay in abusive relationships. He or she may leave and return to the relationship many times. Do not criticize his or her decisions or try to guilt them. He or she will need your support even more during those times."

4. Get support.

Don't be afraid to contact a trusted therapist or a local women's shelter for help and support. You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE. Also, get support for yourself. Being supportive is difficult and emotionally draining; make sure you have someone you can talk to who will support you.

5. Stay in contact.

Whether it's a letter, a phone call or email, stay in contact as best you can. Even if your friendship feels one-sided, don't take it personally. Abusers separate their victims from family and friends. Your weekly phone call may be all the contact he or she has with the outside world.

6. Know that you can't save them.

You can't make someone leave who doesn't want to. As hard and as frustrating as that is, all you can do is be supportive. It often takes women seven attempts before leaving an abusive relationship. Be there for her each and every time.

Additional Resources:

National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), 1-800-787-3224 TTY, or www.ndvh.org
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence www.ncadv.org
National Sexual Violence Resource Center www.nsvrc.org

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Lyz Lenz's writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, The Washington Post, the Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Times, Pacific Standard, and others. She is a columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette.