Many people think of domestic abuse as an interpersonal problem between partners. It’s also a medical problem. The victims of domestic abuse account for at least 170,000 hospitalizations, emergency room visits or physician visits each year. Battering is the single greatest cause of injury to women—more frequent, in fact, than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined.
But the physical injuries of any given incident of abuse aren’t the only medical problems that victims experience. The stress of repeatedly suffering through the cycle of abuse—tension building (in which the batterer is moody and critical), acute explosion (in which the actual abuse occurs) and “honeymoon” (in which the batterer begs for forgiveness)—can cause additional medical problems. Those problems include headaches, low-back pain, chest pain, anxiety disorders, sleeplessness and eating disorders. The combination of physical and psychological symptoms that occur in women who suffer chronic abuse is known medically as the battered-women syndrome.
Doctors can help abused women by listening, by treating injuries and by referring women to appropriate support services—all with a guarantee of confidentiality. But doctors can’t help if they don’t know the true nature of the problem. In some cases, a physician may suspect abuse because of the nature of the injuries or the patient’s history. Yet physicians can’t always recognize the physical complaints of battered women as abuse without help from the victims themselves.
To compound the problem, many women who are abused have difficulty admitting it because of the fear, guilt or shame they may feel, or because of a deep-seated denial that they are being abused.
Keep in mind there are many forms of abuse directed toward women. Experts say that a woman’s “Yes” answers to any of the following questions may suggest an abusive relationship:
- Is she frightened at times by her partner’s temper?
- Is she afraid to disagree with him?
- Is she constantly apologizing for her partner’s behavior, especially when he has treated her badly?
- Does she have to justify everything she does, every place she goes or every person she sees to avoid her partner’s anger?
- Does her partner put her down, but then tell her that he loves her?
- Has her partner ever hit, kicked, shoved or thrown things at her?
- Does she not see friends or family because of her partner’s jealousy?
- Has her partner ever forced her to have sex?
- Is she afraid to break up with her partner or leave him because he has threatened to hurt her, her children or himself?
Experts have found that male batterers tend to fit a profile. The characteristics listed below aren’t definitive signs that a man is a batterer—only that he may have the potential to become one:
- The man reports having been physically or psychologically abused as a child.
- His mother was battered by his father.
- He plays with guns and uses them to protect himself against other people.
- He commits random acts of violence against objects and things.
- He drinks alcohol to excess.
- He becomes enraged when his partner doesn’t listen to his advice.
- He appears to have a dual personality.
- There’s a sense of “overdoing it” in his cruelty—or in his kindness.
- He has rigid ideas of what other people should or shouldn’t do that are determined by male or female sex-role stereotypes.
To receive the best care possible, a victim of abuse must be honest with her doctor about her home life. Admitting to abuse can be scary, to say the least, but it’s the first step on the road to recovery.