Poverty is not an indicator of meanness. In my experience, generosity of spirit is not proportionate to the size of one’s bank account or future prospects. Economic hardship, poverty, career setbacks — all are very tough challenges, but none cause a fundamental belief that it is okay to mistreat the people we love. In fact, people who love and respect their family pull together to survive such hardships most of the time. That doesn’t mean that they don’t argue, get impatient with each other or feel trapped by their circumstances. It may lead to people saying or doing things they later regret, but that is not domestic violence.
Domestic violence is an ongoing pattern of coercive, controlling behaviors that perpetrators use to assert and maintain their position of power over their family members, including partners, children, elderly parents and siblings. People who believe they have the right to such power and authority and are willing to use whatever means necessary to get it, without regard for the cost to their victims, will act from that belief system regardless of their economic circumstances. People who call Spruce Run for assistance come from all walks of life, and many have abusers who are well-paid professionals.
While economic hardship may not cause a person to be a perpetrator of domestic violence and abuse, it certainly strengthens the trap in which a victim is caught. To break free from an abusive partner is expensive emotionally and economically. Victims of abuse may be clear that they want and need to get away from their abusers, but they face the harsh realities of our economic climate: expensive housing, food, transportation, heat, health care and child care, just to start the list. There are few jobs that pay enough to support a household, and the public stigma associated with receiving welfare or being a single parent is severe.
Unemployment intensifies situations where abuse was already happening. An abuser with a full-time job is busy and away from home for much of the time. An unemployed abuser is home, with time and a readymade excuse to harass, denigrate, manipulate, judge and intimidate everyone in the household. The pervasive idea that bad times lead inevitably to bad behavior serves to bolster the abuser’s entitlement and pressures victims to tolerate abusive behavior out of sympathy for the abuser’s circumstances.
Couples with limited financial means can live “happily ever after,” and couples with lots of money can too. How we treat each other is about our core beliefs, our hearts and minds, our sense of what behavior has a place in our homes, not our relative poverty.
I feel a sense of foreboding as winter settles onto Maine this year. Growing up in rural Aroostook County, in an old farmhouse heated by the wood my father cut and split, and fed with the food we raised and my mother preserved and prepared, winter meant a change in our daily routines, not a change in how we treated each other. I have always enjoyed the cold time of year. I never imagined that a winter would come when we would be talking about “warming shelters,” people at risk of freezing in their homes or going without food and medicine in order to buy fuel, or people rendered homeless because the cost of simply living has so quickly outpaced the wages paid for a hard day’s work.
When public officials are considering tight budgets and limited revenues, it is important to keep in mind that the “safety net” of public assistance, from domestic violence agencies to general assistance to food stamps to MaineCare, is often an essential support for victims of abuse. It is often the “net” that makes the difference between being trapped in an abuser’s web of coercive, controlling behavior and violence and being able to create a life, even one of modest means, free from abuse.
If you or someone you know is being mistreated by their partner, call Spruce Run at 1-800-863-9909 or your local domestic abuse agency to talk about it. We are not in the business of telling people what to do, but of listening to them talk about what they are experiencing and helping sort out whether this is an ongoing pattern of abusive behavior or an isolated incident of hurtful, regrettable conduct. Even in these difficult times, we all have a right to feel safe in our homes, and if you are not, we will help explore your options.
Will this challenging economic time cause more domestic abuse? Maybe. But it will not make abusers out of people who choose not to be. Tough times should not lessen our capacity for or expectations of love and respect, kindness and self-discipline.
Francine Stark is training coordinator for Spruce Run Association in Bangor.