Why Black women may miss red flags of abusive relationships: 'You start to believe you don't have any value'

While the occurrence of domestic violence transcends race, religion, class and gender, studies show that Black women are three times more likely to experience “a lethal domestic violence event." (Photo: Getty Images)
While the occurrence of domestic violence transcends race, religion, class and gender, studies show that Black women are three times more likely to experience “a lethal domestic violence event." (Photo: Getty Images)

I remember being in so much pain while trying to pose and smile for the pictures being taken at my son's kindergarten graduation ceremony — because I had spent the entire night before fighting for my life.

By that point in my engagement, I had already been hiding the kitchen knives and any alcohol I could find, and spent over a year tolerating financial abuse and emotional manipulation. Still, even as I looked down at the splint on my freshly broken finger, I wasn’t ready to call a spade a spade.

The next day I was late to my Health & Wellness course (I’d been working toward an associates degree) and when I looked up at the board, and saw we were going over the tell-tale signs of domestic violence, it hit me like a ton of bricks: My partner fit every single description on the list.

Feeling embarrassed, I wondered how I let things get as bad as they did. For months, people had been congratulating me on weight loss (that I couldn’t actually explain, though in hindsight it was stress) and I’d experienced my first and only panic attack, induced by one of our fights, which should have been a signal that something was wrong, but it seemed my body understood what my heart and mind failed to comprehend. I knew that I spent a lot of days walking on eggshells at home because I was never sure when to expect the next explosion (she’d already punched holes in my bedroom door). But for some reason, I didn’t see that I was in a poisonous union.

How could a smart girl like me have missed all the signs? And how could the people who loved me have missed them, as well?

It turns out that I was far from alone in not seeing what I needed to see, but that was only half of the battle. Separating myself from toxicity that had become interwoven with every part of my life was difficult, dangerous and a traumatic experience in itself, but I realize how lucky I am to still be alive to share my story.

Jordan Madison, a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist and founder of “Therapy Is My J.A.M.” tells Yahoo Life that missing the signs of abuse is “actually very common, mainly because most abusive relationships don't begin that way.” She explains that, “Abusive behaviors can start off very small or seem ‘normal’ in the beginning stages of a relationship. For instance, when you first get in a relationship with someone you may want to spend a lot of time with them. But over time, if your partner isolates you from your loved ones or gets upset when you're not with them, that can be a warning sign of abuse.” She says another common problem is “seeing your partner's protectiveness or even jealousy” as a sign of deep affection.

“Another reason it can be easy to miss, is because people often hear the word abuse and assume it only means physical. So people may not realize their relationship is abusive if they aren't experiencing any physical harm. Other forms of abuse can exist, such as verbal, emotional, sexual, or even financial,” Madison adds.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States, where studies show that almost 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner every minute — and more than 20,000 phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines daily. Researchers also found that one in four women have been victims of “severe physical violence” and roughly four women are killed by an intimate partner every day.

While the occurrence of domestic violence transcends race, religion, class and gender, recent studies show that Black women are three times more likely to experience “a lethal domestic violence event,” and that domestic violence homicide is one of the leading causes of death for Black women between the ages 15 and 35.

In June, for example, 23-year-old Shiand Miller and her 3-year-old daughter were killed by the father of her unborn son. In September, 26-year-old Jaishshawn Gaston turned himself in for shooting and killing his girlfriend back in August. And more recently, one Baltimore woman took to social media to let everyone know who her assailant was in case she mysteriously turned up dead. There are countless stories like these and websites like Black Girl Tragic keep track of them to “disrupt the traditional 24/7 news cycle” and “highlight the discrimination, abuse, mistreatment, unfairness and tragedy inflicted upon women of color throughout the diaspora.” According to the Institute of Women’s Policy Research, “More than 40 percent of Black women experience intimate partner violence during their lifetimes compared to 31.5 percent of all women.”

Reasons for missing the signs that you are being abused, particularly among Black women — and either consciously or subconsciously — vary, explains University of Washington professor of psychology and domestic violence expert Dr. Carolyn West. But they include a complex web of emotions, coping mechanisms and learned beliefs.

Believing it’s what you deserve

West points out how examples set forth by media images, or relationships observed in real life, can make some Black women feel that they don't “deserve to be treated better,” explaining that this phenomenon is “deeply rooted.” When it’s internalized, she adds, “you start to believe you don't have any value in the world. You find yourself feeling undesirable, unremarkable and undeserving of love — making it really hard to select healthy partners.”

Lack of healthy role models

West adds that “not having role models for healthy relationships” is another layer of why some people have trouble realizing when they are in a bad situation with their partners. She says, “I think we don't know what the signs are to look for — like somebody who's overly controlling, possessive or verbally and emotionally abusive. And if you don't know what that looks like, and you don't know what healthy looks like, this may seem very familiar to you.”

However, this is not just a lack of awareness, as West explains that “perpetrators are very good at what they do,” comparing them to “sharks.” She says, “They know how to hone in whatever you are needing in your life and pretend to be the person who can provide that. They know how to operate, what to say, what to do and how to behave to get you.”

Stereotypes about who is a victim

West notes that in addition to a lack of resources, stereotype-based victim blaming is also another barrier to Black women receiving help when they are in violent relationships. “We don't see black women as victims. And we don't provide the help that they need. Shelters aren't available, mental health counseling isn't, either, and local law enforcement isn't really effective in terms of dealing with abusers,” West says.

She adds that, “There are too many stereotypes about who is a victim in our community and we are not realizing that it could be anybody — it could be us. So we tend to hide the violence we experience and avoid conversations about it,” which is something she calls “tragic” given that “Black women are being killed at record rates.”

Further, West says, “Too often, when we talk about homicides in our community, we think about black men (who also experience unacceptably high rates of all kinds of violence), but we're not talking much about gender-based violence within our community. In some ways it's easier to talk about the violence that's committed against our community, than it is to talk about violence within our community — which means having some really, really hard conversations.”

Not wanting to air dirty laundry

West explains that a big part of the issue is the “conspiracy of silence” that victims are often up against, and a lack of spaces where people can have realistic conversations about domestic violence. She adds that, culturally, within Black communities, there is an understanding that “you don't air dirty laundry outside of your family system,” and connects some of it to the “church community” which believes strongly in blanket forgiveness, saying, “Too many of us are ‘ride or die’ in a way that isn't so healthy.”

West tells Yahoo Life that, in terms of supporting a victim, one of the best things one could do as a supportive friend or family member is to believe them and avoid minimizing their experiences. She also suggests that people normalize talking “about the different types of domestic violence, because it can be emotional, physical, sexual and/or psychological,” noting that certain resources like the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence’s danger assessment can help victims track and quantify their experiences, which has the potential to save a life.

As for victims of intimate partner violence, West goes on to quote Nina Simone, noting, “You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love is no longer being served,” explaining that “when you don't like the person that you're becoming in your relationship and you don't feel good about who you are in this relationship, that's a sign that that's not where you're supposed to be.”

While it took me a while to see recognize that sign, it was, of course, only half of the battle, as separating myself from the toxicity that had become interwoven with every part of my life was difficult, dangerous and traumatic in itself. But I realize now how lucky I am to still be alive to share my story.

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