Behavior may be a warning of abuse to come

June 21, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

He grabbed your wrist. He gave you a little shove. He pushed you up against a wall. Is this an abusive relationship?

Almost certainly, local and national experts agree. And it began long before that first violent act, no matter how small. It began the day he told you he didn't want you to talk to other men, or the day he announced: "I'll take care of all the money." It began whenever he started trying to control you.

In the wake of O. J. Simpson's arrest on the charge of murdering of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and the revelations about their abusive relationship, some people wonder if it's possible to spot -- and thereby prevent -- behavior leading to domestic violence and its sometimes fatal outcome.

In the United States, a spouse is beaten every 15 seconds, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The victims are overwhelmingly female, but about 5 percent of the reported cases involve male victims.

Every week, at Baltimore County's Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center, calls come in from women attempting to figure out if their relationship has crossed the line that marks it as abusive.

"A woman will say, 'He shoved me, but it's only the second time in four years of marriage,' " director Bonnie Ariano said. "I'll say it might be helpful for her to come in for some counseling."

The experts say women -- and men -- who want to assess the health of their own relationships can look for certain characteristics.

Batterers tend to be from violent homes and can be unusually jealous or possessive. They often insist on rigid, traditional sex roles within a relationship. Even frequent, intense arguments may be a sign of trouble. And the behavior can be found at every level of society, say experts.

"Some of this is going to have to be a judgment call," Ms. Ariano admitted. "But one thing is clear -- a batterer very much wants to be in control." In theory, people have no trouble identifying domestic violence and most say they would never tolerate it. In practice, when people have invested time in relationships, they might not be so quick to acknowledge their situation.

"There's a lot of bravado," said Carole Alexander, executive director of Baltimore's House of Ruth. "Women say, 'I'll walk out the first time he touches me,' but that's hard."

When women do walk out, their risk for serious injury may increase. In one study of spousal assault cases, almost 75 percent of the victims were separated or divorced at the time of the attack.

For one 32-year-old Baltimore secretary, getting away from her abusive boyfriend meant quitting a better-paying job in another city and moving here. But she didn't leave until he had backhanded her and split her lip. It was one of many injuries over four years -- abuse that began with a backhand slap.

"We went full circle," said the woman, who asked for anonymity because she still fears the man who beat her. "If this were about being intelligent, no one would be in this situation."

The woman sought counseling but said it didn't work until she left the man. She remains pessimistic about the possibility of any batterer changing his behavior.

But Rodrick Bingham, a juvenile counselor arrested two years ago for threatening his girlfriend, believes men can change. For him, a night in jail was enough to convince him he had a problem. He went through 26 weeks of counseling at the House of Ruth, then started his own support group, Men Against Violence, for those who wanted to go beyond court-ordered therapy.

"Men must assume some ownership of the problem," he said. "I can say for the first time that I have been violent all my life. I have to practice self-control on a daily basis."

Yet of the more than 200 men who have completed the House of Ruth's counseling session this year, Mr. Bingham said, only six have joined his group's monthly meetings. Some men -- about one out of six -- will not attend the center's programs -- even under court order.

Little information is available about those who do finish counseling, because the study of the perpetrator's role is relatively new. While counseling centers try to follow up six months or a year later, they prefer to concentrate their limited resources on treating others.

The out-and-out failures -- those who are arrested again -- are more visible than the possible successes. However, the Baltimore County Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center reported a 70 percent success rate six months after completion of a 16-week program for abusers.

If you need more information about counseling or domestic violence, call the House of Ruth at (410) 889-7884.

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