For Older Women, Domestic Abuse Often Isn't Physical
Recognizing — and fighting — emotional, verbal and financial abuse later in life
“Well — he doesn’t hit me.”
It’s a phrase I hear when talking to older women through Humble Warrior, a free compassionate listening service aimed at providing support to those in distress. While the women recognize they are miserable in their marriages, they often believe that if they aren’t being hit, they have no legitimate reason to leave. Somewhere along the line, they’ve come to accept that emotional, verbal and financial abuse are just part of the marital package. To be honest — it’s hard to blame them.
Indeed, for many older women, domestic abuse is still a relatively new concept. The majority did not see physical abuse become “criminalized” until much later in their lives, and the concept of emotional or financial abuse remains even more foreign. In fact, many have been living in abusive relationships for 20, 30 or 40 years, which makes the definition of a “healthy” relationship even more blurry.
For those struggling in a relationship in which you feel demeaned or dependent, please know this: “not hitting” is the minimum baseline for what anyone should expect in a relationship — not a reason to stay in one. And yes, emotional, verbal and financial abuse are legitimate reasons to leave.
Defining Domestic Abuse
Domestic abuse is not just about causing physical pain; it’s about power and control on the part of the abuser. In fact, many relationships that begin with physical abuse may change to emotional and financial abuse later in life because the abuser no longer needs to physically assault his partner to control her. The National Domestic Abuse Hotline defines abuse in many non-physical terms:
- Demeaning and embarrassing you, in public or private
- Controlling who you talk to (including family members) and where you go
- Controlling money and your financial “allowance” in the relationship
- Making all decisions without your input
- Forbidding you from working or volunteering
- Threatening to leave you
It’s almost impossible to know the prevalence of domestic abuse later in life, largely due to the lack of research on the topic. In fact, in some cases, social service agencies do not even include those older than 59 in their domestic violence surveys. Couple this with the fact that older women are also less likely to report physical or emotional abuse and it’s clear we as a society have a long way to go in providing the necessary support to these “forgotten victims.”
Recognizing Domestic Abuse in Older Women
When domestic abuse is depicted in the movies and media, it often focuses on younger women or mothers of young children, creating the false notion that older women are unlikely victims. The truth is, older women are not only just as likely to be abused (the United Kingdom recently noted that more than 10 percent of women killed by a partner or ex-partner were over the age of 66). They’re also more likely to be ignored when signs of abuse are evident:
- Health care professionals have been shown to attribute signs of physical or emotional abuse to aging, rather than abusive relationships.
- Health care professionals may know about the abuse but attribute it to an abusive partner’s deteriorating health condition, such as dementia— without offering support to the victim.
- Law enforcement personnel may choose not to press charges against elderly abusers because they see them as a lower risk factor or unfit for prison.
- “Domestic abuse” is often dumped into a generalized bucket of “elder abuse,” creating an even more complicated veil around the issue.
There’s a reason that older women have traditionally accepted abuse within their romantic relationships: we as a society have taught them to do so.
Breaking the Cycle of Domestic Abuse in Older Women
Countries like the United Kingdom and Australia have taken steps to bring greater attention to the problem of domestic abuse in older women. The following are a few ways older women can take back their power and begin to recognize — and fight — signs of domestic abuse in their lives:
Get real. Familiarize yourself with modern definitions of abuse and be honest with yourself about whether there is abuse in your marriage or partnership. Note the ways it has impacted your life. Name it. Acknowledge it. Allow yourself to grieve the parts of your life you have lost to it.
Speak up. Find a counselor or support group where you can share your story and find empowerment from others who have experienced and overcomesimilar challenges.
Define your options. It’s possible that you don’t feel comfortable choosing divorce or living on your own in this season of your life due to physical or financial limitations. You still have options. For instance, an assisted living community could provide the safety and shelter you need to recover your physical or emotional health. Women’s shelters, Adult Protective Services (APS) or friends and family may also offer short-term solutions. Make a list of possibilities and talk to a trusted friend about which might be best for you.
Get your finances in order. One of the main reasons older women choose to stay in abusive relationships is financial dependence. Many spent a large part of their lives in the role of homemaker and may have no financial savings of their own. Check out these tips for preparing financially before leaving your partner.
Be your own advocate. Repeat this sentence: “I deserve better.” Know that your voice matters. If a health care professional, member of law enforcement or even a son or daughter minimizes the abuse happening in your marriage, do not acquiesce. Be your own best advocate and refuse to take any less than you deserve: a safe, happy life and relationship.
The truth is this: women are living longer than ever. You may have 20, 30 or 40 more years to live on this planet. You still have time to be happy. You still deserve a season of joy. Domestic abuse does not need to be an acceptable part of your life. You can write a different ending to your story.
Although this article focuses on older women experiencing domestic abuse, men may also be victims of the same behaviors. If you are a man or woman experiencing domestic abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at www.thehotline.org.