Therapy Thursday panelists talk about the multiple obstacles victims face to leave an abusive relationship
By Yesenia Barrios
From the outside, it looked like Roblyn Lewter had a good marriage with a wonderful man. But for years, what no one knew was that she endured violence by his hands, fearing for her life.
Finally, she said, “enough is enough — because I am going to die,” and took out a restraining order.
“The day the restraining order was delivered, he decided he was going to kill me that night,” said Lewter, now an international psychologist and domestic violence expert. “He decided he was going to murder me.
She did not dare go back home. Instead, she drove to multiple police stations, asking for help. Nothing changed. His threats and attempts to contact her continued.
“Police were able to track my phone, and one night, he called my phone 365 times,” she said. “He was trying to find me, threatening to murder me.”
Lewter shared her story during October’s Therapy Thursday, Urban Health Media Project’s monthly event on Instagram Live focused on mental
health issues affecting youth. This month’s topic was Domestic Violence.
Unfortunately, Lewter’s experience of trying to leave an abuser only to face more threats of violence is all too common.
“One third of all people who get a restraining order because of domestic violence die within two days, and one fifth within two months,” said panelist Christine Cocchiola, a licensed social worker and coercive control educator, researcher, and survivor.
In 90% of coercive control cases, the moment a victim decides to walk away from an abusive relationship, they suffer from post separation abuse where the abuse severely intensifies, Cocchiola said.
That makes the decision to leave extremely complicated. “It is a mental battle because you know what has happened (before) you have tried to leave,” said panelist Lis Hoyte, author of Break Free, a book that offers tools to leave coercive relationships. “You know what this person is capable of that nobody knows.”
On average, it takes women seven attempts to permanently walk away from an abusive relationship. Fear of post-separation violence, a lack of support system, feelings of embarrassment and failure and financial dependency on an abusive partner play into committing to the decision to leave.
A highly manipulative abuser’s strategic moves to entrap the victim, also referred to as intimate terrorism, often leaves the victim feeling like there is no other option but to stay, the experts agreed.
While anyone of any race or economic status can fall victim to domestic abuse, some people are at higher risk. Women make up 86% of all victims, with those who lack education and have low self-esteem especially vulnerable.
Women of color are at higher risk. Native and African American women suffer the highest reported rate of intimate abuse, according to YWCA, an organization that helps victims of domestic violence.
Love Bombing– intense affection, connection, and attraction offered at the beginning of a relationship --can hide red flags. For Lewter, who met her ex-husband in her late teens, he was a “knight in shining armor” and he made her feel protected after growing up in an abusive home during her childhood.
“By the time it [violence] started to happen, it caught me off guard and I wondered ‘what did I do to cause this? How can I get things back to the way it was because it was perfect,” she said.
Culture plays a significant role. Societies founded on patriarchal beliefs, such as many in Middle Eastern countries, are more likely to accept abusive behavior, Lewter said.
“Depending on what culture you are in, some things are seen as more acceptable and other things are seen as less acceptable in different cultures, and I think sometimes that can help perpetuate that cycle of abuse with things like arranged marriages,” Hoyte said.
A shift in culture is needed. “This is not ‘men are the problem.’ This is ‘we need to look as a society at the problem of how we are raising both young men and young girls in a position of patriarchy,’ ” said Cocchiola.
The experts agreed that victims need more government protection, such as reinforcement of protective orders, providing legal advisers to navigate the judicial system as well as offering shelter and other basic needs.
Still, victims must take steps on their own.
“You absolutely need to leave, contact the police,” said Lewter, “but also hold the courts accountable, make sure everyone knows you, let your voice be heard. Contact your local county and find out what resources are available. Advocate for yourself.”
Julianne Hill is Urban Health Media Project’s managing editor. Yesenia Barrios is an intern at UHMP who recently graduated from CUNY's Baruch College in New York.