Combating Domestic Violence – The Arlington Catholic Herald


A black eye, a broken arm – these are images we often conjure up when we think of domestic violence. But did you know that domestic violence can happen without ever leaving a physical trace? As we observe National Domestic Violence Month in October, think about how verbal abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse. In addition, it is almost always present before a physical explosion.

At the Family Services Office of Catholic Diocesan Charities, we counsel women and men who have survived domestic violence.

The The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic violence as “a pattern of behavior used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” Although I refer to the abuser as a man and the assaulted partner as a woman, both men and women experience abuse with equally destructive effects.

When a woman is in a relationship with an abuser who she believes wants the best for her and enjoys spending time with her, that abuser can effectively shape her behavior by making her doubt her own perception of the world.

How do the aggressors create this doubt?

Insults; insult intelligence or skill; dismiss concerns; minimize feelings; responding angrily to neutral statements; and play “silly” on the impact of his behavior on his partner. Abusive behavior is predictable and unpredictable, which makes it difficult to say “enough is enough” and leave the relationship.

Part of instilling this self-doubt is alternating these punitive behaviors with “honeymoon” phases of apparent apologies and promises of change. Eventually the behaviors return and the tension mounts until he is back where he started. Survivors described the stress-building phase as holding their breath or walking on eggshells. The whole model is like walking on quicksand with no solid ground to stand on.

I have had the privilege of working with several women at various stages of abusive relationships. Here is a composite story of some of them with credentials removed and details changed to protect privacy.

Joséphine is 32 years old. She grew up in a rural area in France, met the love of her life, Jack, while he was traveling there, and moved to the United States to be with him. She had a hard time learning English and he laughed at her for not understanding him. The more stupid he called her, the more she believed in it – after all he was fluent in French, why couldn’t she learn English?

He refused to use his mother tongue to speak with her, “for her own sake”, arguing that total immersion is the fastest way to learn a new language. Her self-confidence decreased, as did her ability to learn new information. Her visa did not allow her to work and, living on one income, money was scarce after the birth of their second child.

There was a French-speaking church in the area, but he insisted that they attend the nearby English-speaking church, to save money on gasoline. He always had a reason to limit his world. When she tried to explain that the way he spoke to her – the insults, the name calling, the rolling of the eyes – hurt her, he just told her that she was too sensitive and that there was nothing hurt his behavior. Jack never hit her, so she figured he must be right that it was okay. He told her she was the problem. That’s when Josephine came to therapy.

She had developed depression. She had become so disconnected from her emotions that tears were streaming down her cheeks, and she would have no idea why. She was surprised when I told her that I could easily understand her English; he always told her that she made no sense when she spoke to him.

At the end of the line ? Jack’s abuse had made Josephine believe that she was worthless and unlovable, two of the most insidious lies that break our ability to trust the God who made us good and who loves us. Husbands are supposed to love their wives as Christ loves the church (Eph 5:25). Instead of acknowledging that this was not how Jack treated her, Josephine believed that Christ considered her worthless since that was how Jack made her feel.

At Catholic Charities, our counselors show clients that they can and deserve to be treated with the respect due to children of God; we validate the ability of survivors to make their own decisions; we hope they will refuse to live with violence; and we help them hold on to the rock of truth when the sea rages.

Strenio is a registered clinical social worker with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington.

Find out more

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233, or text “START” to 88788. Access a directory of local resources at

For advice, visit Catholic Charities,

For more information,

“The verbally abusive relationship: how to recognize it and how to respond to it”, by Patricia Evans.

“Why is he doing this?” In the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, ”by Lundy Bancroft.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021

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