In my work as a parent coach, I’m privy to what most often stays behind closed doors. Parents come to me seeking help with their children, and soon discover how both their own well-being and the environment in the home play a large role in their children’s behavior.
Sometimes, moms would recount happenings in their homes that were devastating, but they didn’t think it “counted” as domestic violence because “He has never hit me.” These moms had been gaslighted for years, emotionally tormented, made powerless, screamed at and verbally abused, been locked out of the house without shoes in cold weather and had their finances controlled.
It was still hard for them to understand that the hell they experienced was domestic violence.
Good Life on the Outside, Living in Hell Inside
Some of the women were working to rebuild their lives on their own, while others were at home with their spouses and children, trying to make it work. In both instances, the women had similar patterns of self-doubt, thinking they must be overacting and that it was somehow their fault.
Their husbands had lucrative careers — heading up corporations, or working as successful lawyers and surgeons — and were charming and well-liked by their friends and extended family. The moms also felt immense shame. They were accomplished, smart, educated and lovely women who judged themselves harshly, and felt they should know better and not tolerate such behavior. They wondered how they got here — and frankly, so did I — so I reached out to the Domestic Violence Crisis Center (DVCC) for education so that I could better understand and support these moms.
Although I work with parents nationwide and internationally, the Norwalk- and Stamford-based DVCC’s Associate Director Ann Rodwell-Lawton was happy to meet with me. She helped me understand how these wonderful moms might have ended up with narcissistic husbands, about the challenge of loving someone who is hurting you, and how domestic violence is often something that creeps in slowly.
“It’s like the story of the frog in a pot of water. If the water were hot from the get-go, the frog would jump out. Instead, the frog is first comfortable in the cool water, the heat is increased slowly and incrementally, without notice, and suddenly the water is boiling,” Rodwell-Lawton explained. And it could happen to anyone.
What I learned was that what I was witnessing was a struggle faced by many. Victims often wanted to end the abuse, but not their marriage. They had good moments as well as bad ones and that gave them hope for change. Others wanted to get out immediately but didn’t have the financial ability to do so or they were scared for their safety.
Impact on the Children
The moms worked so hard to protect their children mentally and emotionally, but the truth is that it’s impossible to hide and they are impacted regardless. The children’s anxiety, stress, and trauma from their home environment manifest in many ways. It might be expressed as anger and in behavior acting out or channeled towards perfection in trying to be good; they might mimic the words of the abuser or try to protect and defend.
Without intervention, the impact can last a lifetime and even into the next generation. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study shows that as an ACE score increases, due to childhood trauma, so does the risk of suffering from immediate and long-term mental health challenges, like depression, as well as medical problems like cancer, or coronary heart disease later in life. Exposure to domestic violence and abuse as a child is the greatest predictor of being an abused victim or an abuser in adulthood.
If any of this resonates with you, know that there is a spectrum of options and the DVCC can support you in all of them, meeting you wherever you are in your journey. Maybe you want to stay, but just need someone to talk to; maybe you want a quick exit or a five-year plan.
“Clients do not need a criminal case, restraining order or wish to leave to receive our services. So many of our clients are experiencing emotional and financial abuse and could use our support exactly where they are. Every client has different needs and wishes. It’s about helping them in whatever way we can,” Rodwell-Lawton explained.
Most amazing thing is — everything the DVCC offers is free. Anyone that has dipped a toe into the mental health world knows the rarity of this. Individual and group counseling is available for moms, as well as for kids of all ages in addition to legal services.
The Town Proclamation of Domestic Violence Awareness month is the first of several events that will help raise awareness and funding. On Thursday, Oct. 13, give and get support by grabbing some java with a friend at Starbucks or Tusk and Cup in town for Coffee Sleeve Outreach Day and then head over to Champagne Taste where 10% of all purchases will be donated to DVCC. Then join supporters on the evening of Friday, Oct. 21 for DVCC’s Harvest Fest fundraiser at Shorehaven Golf Club.
The DVCC served 103 individuals from Wilton last year. The need is there and lives can be changed.
If you struggle with imagining all the complexities of domestic violence, I highly recommend you watch the Netflix series “Maid,” based on a true story. We watched it as a family and it was eye-opening, educational and a great launching spot for conversation with our daughters.
I close with a recent quote from my cousin. Michelle was a domestic violence advocate and educator who worked in shelters — and then became a domestic violence victim herself. “Anyone can be a victim. Anyone can be an abuser. Educate the young women and men in your life that domestic violence isn’t just hitting. It is also control, isolation, manipulation, gaslighting, and financial abuse. Love shouldn’t hurt.”
(all set up to help you go online or call securely)
Domestic Violence Crisis Center in Stamford and Norwalk: 888.774.2900 (24-hour hotline)
National Domestic Violence Hotline or 800.799.SAFE (7233)
About the Author
Vanessa Elias is a mental health activist, certified parent coach, speaker, and writer featured on NPR, PBS, and in the WSJ. She is the founder of Thrive with a Guide, LLC and serves as a group facilitator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Block Party USA is her passion project. Vanessa helps parents achieve healthier family relationships and lasting, meaningful connections.