If there’s one thing we know about domestic violence is that it can happen to anyone, no matter their gender, race, age, address or income. It can be as blatant as a slap across the face, as cunning as controlling the household checkbook, or blurting out a steady stream of confidence-dashing comments.

“Domestic violence is abusive behavior that the abuser uses to gain and keep control over another person,” explains Erica Hardy, MD, an internal medicine doctor with Women & Infants’ Internal Medicine & Consultation Clinic. “According to the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, the most apparent form of domestic violence is physical and sexual assaults, but there are other ways the abuser takes control of the victim’s life.”

She suggests everyone know the warning signs a person might be abusive, such as someone who:

  • Wants to move very quickly into a relationship.
  • Grew up in an abusive or violent home.
  • Acts impulsively.
  • Erupts in anger easily.
  • Calls their partner “crazy,” “ugly” or “stupid,” and tells him/her no one else would ever love them.
  • Does not respect basic boundaries.
  • Tries to intimidate by showing a weapon.
  • Is overly jealous or accuses partner of cheating.
  • Needs to know where their partner is at all times, calling, emailing or texting often or forcing the partner to check in.
  • Refuses to take responsibility for their behavior, blaming the failure of past relationships on others.
  • Isolates their partner by forcing them to withdraw from activities and stop spending time with family and friends.
  • Blames the partner for the abusive behavior.

One in four women in the United States will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, according to statistics compiled by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. That is about 1.3 million women a year, although most cases are never reported to police.

As horrible as such abusive behavior may seem, it’s difficult for victims of domestic violence to get out of abusive situations, says Heather Howard, PhD, MSW, LICSW, a perinatal clinical social worker at Women & Infants. They stay because there is not enough money to leave or the couple has children together, or they may hope the abuser will change. But, children in a violent household, even if they are not directly abused, suffer from witnessing the abuse.

“Children of all ages can be affected by seeing or hearing abuse,” Dr. Hardy says. “This can lead to a whole host of developmental setbacks in very young children and behavioral issues as they get older. Teens experience everything from eating disorders to drug and alcohol abuse as they do whatever they can to cope.”

It’s important for family members and friends to get involved if they suspect abuse, but Dr. Hardy says it may take patience and repeated attempts to help before the victim is ready to leave.

“To be helpful, do not judge the victim. It’s not that person’s fault and it’s very difficult to end an abusive relationship. Being supportive and checking in on them might give them the power to make the move,” she explains.

Social workers can also help an abuse victim leave their situation, Dr. Howard adds.

“Knowing there is someone who can help them process their experience and address their concerns in a non-judgmental manner is therapeutic,” she says. “Our purpose is not to advise victims what they should or should not do, but to empower them to make the best decision for themselves and their children.”

There is Help

The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence operates an anonymous helpline that is open 24 hours a day. For help, call them at 1-800-494-8100. Victims can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Women & Infants also offers support by calling (401) 274-1122, ext. 41360.