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My Spouse Hit Me. Now What?

by Willard F. Harley, Jr.

Has your spouse ever hit you in anger? If so, at first you probably didn’t know what to do. You were stunned. As you began to realize what had just happened, you may have struck back. Or you may have collapsed in tears. Or you may have tried to run away, afraid of what would happen next. I can’t begin to know what you actually did, because the range of reactions for spouses that I’ve counseled is so broad that it defies any simple classification.

But it’s very unlikely that you did what I recommend doing—call the police and separate immediately. If there is a visible injury, take photos and go to a hospital for verification. Make sure that the photos and hospital verification are included in the police report. When you are called to testify against your spouse, don’t omit a single detail in your testimony. That’s how seriously I take physical violence in marriage.

Domestic violence is so dangerous that police recognize it as one of the most likely places for them to be accosted and even killed when they when they are called for help. If it’s dangerous for police who are trained for such encounters and armed, imagine how dangerous it is for spouse who is vulnerable and unarmed. My experience counseling victims and perpetrators of domestic violence is that it’s far more dangerous than they think it is.

Many people think that an angry moment, where a spouse loses control and hits their spouse in the heat of an argument, is a common experience in marriage. When it happens for the first times, they think that it’s something that they should be able to forgive and then move on. But it’s much too dangerous to ignore.

Help from Law Enforcement

Since the 1980s, the police and the courts have been much more diligent in arresting and prosecuting perpetrators of domestic violence. And it has had a very impressive effect: It brought protection to victims of domestic violence as never before and, as a result, there has been a steady decline in instances of domestic violence. The public has finally come to recognize how dangerous it is, and realize that it should be considered a crime, punishable by time in prison. No longer is it seen to be a private matter between a husband and wife.

As I’ve witnessed in case after case, bringing law enforcement into the problem of domestic violence is an essential step in protecting victims and saving marriages. Yes, saving marriages. When a perpetrator of domestic violence faces the choice of time in prison or becoming a safe domestic partner, becoming a safe domestic partner becomes a compelling choice. I’ve tried to help hundreds of violent spouses, and the most success I’ve had in helping them learn to control their temper is when they have already spent time in prison for their violent acts and await even more time if it ever happens again. Without prison time as a threat, there’s much less motivation to change.

The risk of permanent injury or death is so great for a victim of domestic violence that at the very first sign of violence, they should call the police, separate immediately, take photos of the injury, and go to a hospital for verification. Permanent injury or their very life may be at stake if they don’t follow my advice.

Most people who have repeatedly been victims of physical violence can understand the wisdom of taking my advice when it first happens. But for those who experience it for the first time wonder why they should take such a drastic step. They regarded as a terrible mistake that will never happen again.

I recommend a police report and separation at the first sign of physical violence because it’s always dangerous whenever it happens, even when it’s the very first time. And it almost always escalates. That first slap across the face should be a warning that you’re not safe. Unless that warning is heeded with the response I’ve recommended, your abuser will conclude that he or she will be able to get away with it in the future.

You’ll notice that I said “he or she.” Are men at as much risk as women?

My experience as a psychologist who has witnessed hundreds of cases of domestic violence has convinced me that both men and women are equally responsible. But I’ve found that men are far less likely to report their injuries to police, even when sent to a hospital. As a result, people usually have the impression that domestic violence is a problem for men to overcome and they ignore the risk that men have living with a violent woman. I have counseled many couples where it was the wife who seriously injured the husband during a fight. One wife I counseled crushed her husband's skull with a rock, leaving him permanently brain damaged. So it’s certainly not only the wife who is at risk in a violent relationship.

Resistance to Separate

My advice to separate when in a physically violent relationship is not usually heeded. And there are many reasons that an abused spouse gives as to why they stay.

Some victims of physical violence consider themselves to blame for the abuse—they feel that they deserved to be punished for what they did or said. If they were to avoid upsetting their spouse, or if they had been a better spouse, they would not be at risk. But that argument ignores the fact that nothing done in marriage, even having an affair, deserves a physical attack from a spouse. Those who do not believe that to be true are almost certain to be perpetrators or victims of domestic violence even for the smallest offense.

Some are as violent with their partners as their partners are with them. They don’t want to separate because they hope to eventually even the score. These relationships are particularly dangerous to both partners, inviting permanent injury or even death. Cases of murder-suicide often involve this type of couple.

Some are so emotionally attached to or financially dependent on a violent spouse that they would rather risk the consequences than leave the relationship. They can’t imagine living without the abusive spouse and are willing to subject themselves to violence to stay together. It’s for this reason that many cities have now imposed mandatory penalties for physical abuse, even when the victim refuses to testify against the abuser.

Some don’t think that anyone would believe them. Their spouses have such a good reputation that even mentioning it to closest friends might invite scorn and derision on them. They might also feel that a police report and separation might injure that reputation to such an extent that it could never be restored. Even though they have been physically hurt, they don’t want to hurt their spouses. By protecting them, they don’t realize that the ultimate destruction of their spouses’ reputation would occur when they become permanently disabled or even killed during a single angry outburst. They are enabling their spouses to destroy their reputation for good.

Whatever the reasons spouses give for remaining in a violent relationship, they do not justify the risks that are taken.

When I first counsel a physically abused spouse, they are not usually separated at the time. So my first goal is to motivate them to separate at all costs. Whatever their reasons to stay, I explain that an angry outburst is a moment of temporary insanity. Their spouse becomes clinically paranoid, thinking that they are out to get them, and they need to be punished. They’re so irrational in that moment that the punishment can be almost anything ranging from verbal to physical violence. And it can turn from verbal to physical in a flash.

If I can motivate that spouse to separate and live with a friend or relative, they’re in a much better position to see their danger for what it is. They can reflect objectively on the red flags that have been present in their relationship for quite some time. They can see how they have tried to ignore them, hoping that they would somehow go away. Over time, I’ve been able to help them to create a plan for either a safe return or a divorce.

What is a Safe Return?

As those who work for women’s shelters throughout America realize, trying to keep these women from returning to their abusers before it’s safe to do so is very frustrating. One client that I had referred to a shelter, climbed out her bedroom window at night to meet her abusive boyfriend at a motel where the physical abuse continued. Another that I had sent away in secret for her safety (at my expense), returned to be with her violent husband who greeted her with such a serious beating that it could have killed her. In each of these cases, the woman thought that the man had learned his lesson and would no longer hurt her. And in each case, it was obvious that it would not be a safe return.

My advice to separate immediately after a physical attack, take photos of the injury, go to a hospital for verification, and report it to the police is not designed to end the marriage. Its purpose is to keep the abused spouse safe while the perpetrator has an opportunity to completely overcome his or her angry outbursts. I have seen remarkable and permanent recoveries for those with a violent past when they are treated in effective anger management programs. These programs focus not only on physical abuse, but also on the overarching problem of trying to control another person with abuse. If demands and disrespect are not eliminated along with angry outbursts, I consider the recovery to be temporary at best.

In many cases the violent spouse is not willing to be treated by a professional anger management therapist. So for those marriages, I have recommended a divorce. It’s only when the violent spouse is willing to enroll in such a program that I have encouraged these victims to give their abusive spouses a chance to redeem themselves.

The process of learning how to avoid angry outbursts can take a year or more before safety can be reasonably assured. At first, while the abusive spouse is learning how to avoid angry outbursts, separation is usually mandatory with little or no contact. Then, when the program of anger management seems successful with no instances of demands, disrespect or anger, I recommend a gradual increase in contact. With careful planning, safety can be restored, and the marriage can be saved. But I consider any sign of abuse and control (demands, disrespect, or anger) thereafter on the part of the recovering spouse to be evidence that the marriage is still unsafe, and that separation should be continued until abuse and control is completely eliminated.

For further information on this topic, read chapters 8 and 9, (Angry Outbursts, parts 1 and 2) in my book, Love Busters. I have also written on this topic in the Q&A column, Domestic Violence.

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