Social isolation and intimate partner violence


By Michelle Nemeth

Their relationship started when Emily was 14. He was a family friend and a few years older than she was. He started acting like an older brother, looking out for her and acting as a confidant as she tried to figure out who she was and what she wanted from life. They kept in touch through Facebook, only seeing each other occasionally. Eventually, the relationship turned sexual. Although she would only see him every few months, he kept track of her through social media and texts. He manipulated her into doing BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism and masochism). He also tried to manipulate her at her job by becoming a client where she worked. He harassed her so much she had to change duties. “People were really worried at work,” says Emily, whose name we’ve changed to protect her privacy.

Not only was his treatment making her feel isolated at work, but she eventually realized she was having trouble making and holding on to friends as well. She was struggling to know who was safe or who she could lean on. She was torn, not knowing who would be judgmental of her situation, or who would tell her secret. And then, near the end of the relationship, Emily began to fear for her life. “I specifically remember when I was in a very serious incident that sort of caused me to reach out for more professional help,. It was a crisis, like a life-or-death crisis,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore because if they find my body, what’s going to happen?’”

It was that moment when Emily realized she was in an abusive relationship. She ended up dropping out of college to deal with her mental and physical health. Once out of the relationship, she felt like she had to start a whole new life. She moved back to her hometown, into a house with roommates. Currently, she has a new group of friends and is hoping to start school again.

Of all of the effects of intimate partner violence, isolation may not be the first that comes to mind. It is significant, however, because it is one of the main factors that prevents women from leaving abusive relationships and seeking help. Abusers use isolating tactics to keep women away from friends and family who may otherwise intervene on their behalf. Isolation is also an unintended effect of the shame and embarrassment women often feel in abusive relationships. Shame can lead them to cut themselves off from co-workers, friends, family and other resources that could help them leave their abusers.

According to Statistics Canada, one in five women experiences a form of abuse in her intimate partner relationship. Every six days, a Canadian woman is killed by her partner. According to Ontario’s Ministry of the Status of Women, the average woman will attempt to leave her abuser five times before finally ending the relationship. “There’s a lot of victim blaming, a lot of self-blame, a lot of guilt,” says Diana Lee, who co-ordinates the sexual assault and domestic violence treatment centre at an Ontario hospital (we agreed to protect Lee’s real name and the name of her employer to respect the privacy of the women she supports). “A lot of women feel really ashamed about what’s happening.”

Women explain why it takes so long to leave an abusive relationship

It’s not just guilt and shame that isolates women. Abusers use isolation as a tool to prevent them from seeking help. In some cases, the isolation is physical. Women are physically confined to their homes or moved to remote areas, away from friends and family, or they are not allowed to use the phone or social media upon threat of physical violence. The isolation can also be psychological, as is the case in gas-lighting, when abusers convince women that they are exaggerating the abuse they are suffering from, that they somehow are responsible for the abuse and deserve it or that no one is likely to believe them. Abusers understand the risks they face if their partners start talking about what’s happening to them, so they go to great lengths to control not only their physical spaces, such as their homes, but their social interactions as well. Some abusers even set guidelines for what women are allowed to talk about.

Survivors of abuse explain the ways their abusers controlled every aspect of their lives.

Tammy Soper was living in Newfoundland when she first started seeing her boyfriend. Soon into their relationship, she found out she was pregnant. He threatened to throw her out a window, and because of this, she found herself at a shelter a few times during her pregnancy. Soper knew that her partner was capable of being violent. She was worried that her daughter would grow up in an abusive environment. After she realized this, she got on a plane to move to Ontario. Her abuser eventually followed her and started showing up at her home. She tried to set boundaries, saying that her abuser was not allowed to show up at her house when he was drunk. But he would come over after drinking, kick down her door and refuse to leave, at which point she would call the police.

Abusers can be so controlling that it is difficult to help a women who is being abused without making things worse. Kate Smith is a community outreach counsellor at Anova, which provides emergency shelter and services for people experiencing abuse in London, Ont. (We agreed to protect her real name to respect the privacy of the women she supports.) She says someone once came to talk to her about a co-worker whom she was concerned about and took one of Smith’s business cards when she left. She slipped the card into her co-worker’s pocket as a sign of support. But the woman’s abuser found it when he went through her things when she got home. “This created a problem for the woman because he found the card and questioned her: ‘Who are you talking to? What are you doing?’” recounts Smith. That’s why she says it’s important to consider how an act you may feel is helpful may actually endanger someone you want to support. She says it’s usually better to keep reaffirming to a woman who is being abused that you’re there for her and will work on her timeline. “You just have to be ready for when they are ready to talk about it or leave,” says Smith.

The Neighbours, Friends & Families campaign, run under the auspices of the Ontario Women’s Directorate, outlines ways you can help someone experiencing abuse. They suggest that you discuss what you see as signs of abuse with the person you are concerned about, let her know you believe her and that the abuse is not her fault. Encourage her to pack a small bag of important items and allow her to keep them at your place. If she denies that she is being abused, assure her that she can talk to you at any time. Don’t become angry or frustrated, and try to understand why she might be having difficulties talking about it.

“A women will be assaulted 30 to 35 times before she will actually then pick up the phone and call someone because she’s reached that point where she can’t take it anymore,” says Smith. A lot of women are scared to tell people about what they have been through. Not only because they have endured psychological abuse from their partner but because they are worried about what their friends might say or what their partner may do if they reach out for help.

Survivors explain how their friends reacted when they found out about their abusive relationships.

After women experience this kind of abuse, they become hopeful that their life can be recreated and that they are no longer trapped in their abusive relationship. “I guess I wanted to let people know that whatever did happen, it’s not minimized. However small or big everything is, there are ways to slowly exit,” says Emily. “There’s hope, and you always have a chance at a second start, and it’s not your fault for anything that happened.”