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Violence against women has received much public and professional attention. But violence against many women, particularly university students and older women who are dating, still persists but remains largely unreported. Not surprisingly, such assaults all too often occur in the context of a "relationship" with the alleged offender. This violence is often meted out under the influence of alcohol and other drugs. No weapon is used, and there is no apparent physical injury.
As the director and supervisor of the McGill Domestic Violence Clinic (MDVC) at the School of Social Work, I am currently looking for ways to support all women in their efforts to identify, understand and respond to intimate partner violence. This, I feel, should also include women in committed long-term relationships as such, but who are dating.
"Domestic violence" and "dating violence" are manifestly congruent. Both entail any intentional, unpredictable physical, sexual, emotional or psychological mistreatment between individuals who have established or may be moving toward an intimate relationship. Violence might arise when two people first meet, become interested in one another, go out on their first date, become involved with each other for some time, or even after the relationship has ended. It may be perpetrated by an abuser acting alone or with a group. It may be a single act of violence such as "date rape" or a pattern of repeated behaviour that escalates.
Dating violence and domestic violence are both unpredictable and patterned. Inherent in this dynamic is what Lenore Walker, author of The Battered Woman, described in 1979 as the "Cycle of Violence." The cycle involves a period of calm, then rising tension, then an explosion in one form or another (emotional, verbal, psychological, sexual, and/or physical), followed at first by pleas for forgiveness, and possibly a period of calm. However, the cycle begins again. Over time, the calm period may disappear. The abuser reproduces and reinforces for the victim that she is somehow at fault for both her actions and his actions. Eventually, he feels no need to seek her forgiveness or offer to alter his own behaviour.
Both in dating and committed relationships, the unpredictability of this cycle, its intermittent periods of calm and forgiveness, can serve to reinforce a "traumatic bond" in which the woman becomes progressively more attached to the abuser and intent on changing him. I have often heard a woman admit that she thought his violence was a unique incident because of his "pressures at work," "coming down with a cold," or "family situations." Women who have come to the clinic have told me that social or peer pressures, not wanting to be alone, and "feeling needed" have kept them from setting appropriate limits in their relationships.
The MDVC addresses the physical, psychological, sexual, emotional and economic abuse of women by their partners. Self-help groups led by a professional social worker provide treatment and support. These groups, which are usually made up of eight to 10 clients, are open-ended and continuous and meet for 90 minutes weekly. Members are encouraged to attend for as long as it takes to improve their situation. Group members are referred to the clinic by a variety of sources, including social service centres, CLSCs, drug and alcohol treatment centres, the courts, spouses and shelters for battered women.
I encourage women with these problems to participate in an MDVC Women's Group. It provides a safe, secure and supportive environment that encourages women to rethink their self-conceptions and reclaim their self-confidence. It supports them in letting go of their responsibility for their partners' abusive behaviours, while internalizing responsibility for their own well-being that centre on developing self-esteem, self-entitlement and decision-making. Universities and colleges should consider the establishment and promotion of such support groups for battered women, regardless of their circumstances. We must not lose sight of the challenging pathways for women in moving from victim to survivor, as well as the well-documented escalation of danger to women attempting to end coercive relations.
Tom Caplan is the Director of the McGill Domestic Violence Clinic. Sunday, Nov. 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.