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Domestic violence is a crime that police say is on the rise — right here in Greenwich
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Barbara, who grew up in another state, was the product of a loving, respectful home, which made her husband’s behavior all the more foreign to her. Hers was an upbringing on the lower rungs of middle-class, she says, in which everyone’s needs were met but without many extras. Her husband, for his part, came from a well-to-do background, complete with a country-club membership and an Ivy League pedigree. But his home life had been volatile.
They were in their mid-twenties when they met. His polished style and charming, if somewhat arrogant, personality attracted Barbara. His outbursts began when they were living together in the Midwest. And though she was taken aback by his behavior, Barbara thought it a personality flaw that she could handle. They married, had kids and fell into a life punctuated by his fierce upbraidings along with a steady dropping away from friendships. “Our marriage got to the point where I knew that on Friday nights he would come home and things would be bad, that he needed quiet, that we never went out on Friday nights,” she says. “There were things when I look back now that I should have run away from. But I didn’t. I thought I could have fixed them. I wanted to be with him. I wanted it to work.”
Barbara now knows that her husband innately understood that she would end the marriage if he ever physically assaulted her, and he adjusted his behavior accordingly. “He knew my limitations,” she says. “If you’re an abuser, you know how far you can push somebody.” Suzanne concurs, “Domestic violence is about power and control. The abuser is essentially saying, ‘I will use whatever tactic or tool I need to control you.’ For one person it may just be a put-down or telling you that you look bad today. For another person it may be a shove. For another it may not be letting you have access to a joint banking account.” Many victims say the emotional attacks cut deeper than the physical. “Emotional abuse eats away at your self-esteem, your sense of self-worth, your sense of identity, and your ability to parent,” says Suzanne. “Your concentration changes. Your relationships with your friends change. It takes quite a toll.”
Many victims have been sexually assaulted by their husbands, but say nothing because they accept that he has a right to sex and that it is her duty to comply. For some women, being hit is a signal to take action and end the relationship. Bruises and broken bones often lead to police involvement or other outsiders suddenly becoming aware of the problem. Connecticut lawmakers have passed a number of laws in recent years to better protect victims. In 2007, police departments were given authority to set conditions of bond, including temporary restraining orders, for those arrested in domestic-abuse cases when a bail commissioner is unavailable, such as on weekends and during holidays. Previously, nothing prevented an abuser from returning home after his release from jail. (In Greenwich, as in most cities and towns around the state, bonds typically range from $1,000 for a breach of peace or disorderly conduct charge to $100,000 for a first-degree physical assault.)
Meanwhile, the specific act of strangulation, at three levels of severity, became a crime as well, with first- and second-degree cases being felonies. Officials call this an important development since strangling is a disturbingly common form of domestic violence. “The law gives it more focus,” says Nancy Dolinsky, domestic-violence prosecutor for Greenwich, Stamford and Darien in Superior Court. “It protects our victims more. And in a certain sense it holds the defendants more accountable.”
Of course, the law can only do so much. Often, abusers are so outraged and bent on harming the victim that they don’t care what happens. Lieutenant Cochran tells of suspects, who after they have been arrested, will ask if they could call their attorney and instead call the victim — right from the police station, despite a protective order being in place — to threaten her. “So the victim calls us and asks, ‘Do you still have him in custody?’ ” Lieutenant Cochran says. “And we’ll tell her that we do, and she says, ‘Well, he just called me!’ ”
Typically, experts say domestic abuse follows a cycle of behavior: tension, an abusive act, and what is called the honeymoon phase. For the victim, the cycle starts with a period of anticipation of abuse or “walking on eggshells,” which gradually builds over time until the inevitable blowup. As Barbara saw time and again, the abuser will then often express deep regret and go on his best behavior, until it starts all over again. On average, according to Suzanne, a victim will attempt to leave an abusive relationship seven times before successfully getting out of it.
Too many people ask why victims fail to leave abusive relationships when the real focus should be on the abuser’s unjustifiable behavior, says Louisa Daley, clinical supervisor with the YWCA. Many men blame stress at work, or alcohol, or the victim herself for provoking him, which those familiar with domestic abuse dismiss out of hand. “Abusers know what they’re doing,” Louisa says. “But they need to do it to keep that power balance in the relationship in their favor. They absolutely know, even down to saying, ‘You’re crazy,’ which throws her off so that she’ll be more dependent and less strong.” Louisa recommends that survivors of domestic violence read a book called Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men (Berkley Trade, 2003), by Lundy Bancroft, an authority on abusive men.