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Domestic Violence Can Worsen as Couples Age

Abusers’ desire to exert power and control rarely lets up

By Diana Reese

Janay Rice (the wife of Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice), at 26, is the face of domestic violence right now, but boomers are at risk as well.

Although experts say the numbers are tough to track for those over 45, they see plenty of middle-aged and even elderly women seeking help for what’s sometimes called "intimate partner violence."

More than 39,000 of the calls received in the last two years at the National Domestic Violence Hotline came from people over age 45. (NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said today that the NFL will partner with this hotline to help shape the league's domestic abuse policy.) At SAFEHOME, a shelter and counseling service for victims of domestic abuse in Overland Park, Kansas, about 30 percent of the calls are from people over 40 and 20 percent of the women in the shelter are over 50.

“Just because they get old doesn’t make them any less mean,” said Sally, a domestic violence victim who doesn’t want her last name used because her ex-husband still stalks her. Now 69 and living in Kansas City, Mo., Sally was 40 when she married a 51-year-old man whose ex-wife claimed he’d put her in the hospital.

“I didn’t believe her,” Sally said. It took her husband about a year of marriage “to work up” to physical violence. “He blacked my eye, he bloodied my nose,” said Sally.

(MORE: Why Can't Love Keep Us Together?)

Types of Abuse

But that wasn’t all Sally’s husband did over their 17-year marriage. He isolated her by insisting they move to a state where she knew no one, took control of her money and emotionally and verbally abused her.

“It was all my fault every time he threw a tantrum,” she recalled. “I was dumb, boring and ugly according to him. He said my mother hated me and that was unnatural.”

Of the National Domestic Violence Hotline calls from people over 45, roughly four in 10 (41 percent) reported emotional/verbal abuse, 28 percent cited physical abuse and 3 percent said they were victims of sexual abuse, noted Brian Pinero, director for digital services of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and LoveIsRespect, a program for teens and adults.

Power Struggles Change With Age

Abuse can escalate as couples get older and their children leave home. Physical violence sometimes develops later in life and may result in withholding medical care, along with medications, for example.

Remember that domestic violence isn’t always a fist to the face. It can also be pinching, biting or even grabbing an arm hard enough to leave a bruise.

“Power and control are the crux of what defines domestic abuse,” said Kristin Brumm, associate executive director of SAFEHOME. She suggests looking at what's known as the Power and Control Wheel to see how different forms of abuse are used to gain control in a relationship.

Some women in long-term relationships don’t always recognize the signs of abuse, Pinero said, until they see a TV show like Dr. Phil.

(MORE: Women: Are You Prepared for a Money Emergency?)

Why Don’t They Leave?

If it’s tough for young women to leave their husbands who are abusing them, it can be harder for those in marriages that have lasted 30 or 40 years or longer.

“They may love their partner very much,” Pinero said. “They may have children. Their finances and their families are very intertwined.” For boomer women, losing control of their finances can be one of the hardest obstacles to overcome, especially when leaving an abusive relationship.


Some women stay in their relationships in the interest of their children, even if grown, and their grandchildren. Others want to honor their commitment to the marriage or faith doctrines may keep them in the relationship.

Some find the admission of domestic abuse downright embarrassing and keep silent for decades.

Some don’t believe they have a choice. “One woman, well over 65, who lived in a rural area, said, ‘I got nowhere to go,'” Pinero said. Another stayed because she and her husband raised horses together.

It’s also complicated to start a new life. “Maybe she’s never not lived in that house, and now she has to find an apartment,” Pinero said.

For others, loneliness keeps them in the relationship. “They believe it’s better to be with someone than to be alone,” Pinero said.

On the other hand, “once children are grown, that gives some women the freedom and independence” to consider leaving, Brumm said.

What Victims Can Do

If you’re suffering from physical, emotional, verbal or sexual violence at the hands of your partner, get help. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline or a local shelter. “We don’t require that someone leave [their relationship] in order to get services,” Brumm said.

It takes an average of seven tries to leave, and leaving is the most dangerous time for a woman in a violent relationship, so developing a safety plan is of utmost importance.

Sally felt she needed to figure out a livelihood before she could escape. So she gave up her dream of writing novels to go back to school for training as a computer programmer. A full-time job with benefits gave her the financial freedom to exit her marriage.

Advocates and counselors also say women need an emotional safety plan, since so many lack the confidence of knowing they can continue on their own. “I don’t want to leave, I want to know what to do to survive,” counselors say they often hear.

Emotional well-being might include eating right, practicing yoga and taking walks. “You find the little pieces of life that you can control,” Pinero said. “It helps people get to the other side of tomorrow.”

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kansas who blogged regularly for the Washington Post's She the People. Follow her on Twitter @Diana Reese. Read More
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