They were the perfect family. You know, that family that has it all: the beautiful yard surrounded by the white picket fence in an ideal neighborhood, nice cars, a boat, active in the community, the center of multiple social networks. Dad held a prominent professional position in the community, Mom was developing a high-powered career, and they were raising beautiful children who were active in after-school activities and had busy social lives. Everyone admired their perfect life. In fact, many were envious and could only hope to one day have what this family had.
Until the unthinkable happened.
Late one fateful night, this seemingly perfect, happy family could hardly be recognized amidst the public exposure of “domestic violence,” the image of their perfection now shattered … but how? How could this have possibly happened to this family, of all families?
Domestic violence knows no boundaries. It does not discriminate. No demographic is immune.
Many assume that social status or other factors can insulate some from abuse. For example, what about the educated? They’re too intelligent to let abuse happen. What about the working professional? Certainly they’re smart and capable enough to leave, right? What about the wealthy who have resources and means to leave an abusive partner? Surely they would leave. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. Our perfect family shows us it simply is not so.
Most assumptions about domestic violence include images of physical abuse, with black eyes peering through lenses of dark sunglasses and a cracked swollen lip, amidst other visible injuries. Yet some of the worst cases of domestic abuse do not involve physical injury. The words “violence” and “abuse” are, at best, misleading. Intimate partner violence involves numerous invisible forms of control and exploitation. When we hear about domestic abuse, how often do we consider emotional maltreatment and psychological torture? Financial control? Sexual assault? These types of abuse can be more damaging than physical harm as shared by survivors who have courageously broken their silence.
It is also important to acknowledge how abusive relationships develop and to understand that they are rarely tense or controlling in the beginning. In fact, the opposite is often true. Take the example of our perfect family. From the beginning, their love story was like a fairy tale, where the couple felt “love at first sight,” and everyone expected them to “live happily ever after.” Where in this plot would anyone suspect abuse?
While abuse dynamics may look different for each couple, the abuse itself is not just a product of losing one’s temper. It is driven by underlying fear and insecurity generated by an insatiable desire for power and control. Jealousy and possessiveness take over what once looked like enchanting romance. Tension builds and a cycle of abuse gradually unfolds. The cycle then evolves into a reinforced pattern, and the abuse inevitably escalates behind closed doors.
This is when the mask develops and concealment begins.
Creating a mask of concealment is the process an abused person goes through to disguise their maltreatment at home and keep it hidden from friends, family, coworkers — even themselves. Concealment is often perceived as the safest response by many living in the throes of private violence. It allows them to diffuse tension and reduce risk of danger, keep the peace, and maintain appearances and reputations. But this so-called protective shield can actually become very dangerous, even lethal. Over time, the mask becomes so effective that there are no obvious clues about the terror being inflicted in private. This explains why so many cases of domestic violence happening to a “perfect family” escape the attention of outside observers and loved ones.
Domestic violence is unsettling regardless of which household or community is affected, but it is especially mind-boggling when it is exposed within the most unsuspected families, in the safest of neighborhoods. Who would believe it? What would outsiders think of the victim if they readily admitted they are experiencing abuse and yet remain in the relationship anyway? These are the thoughts and questions that haunt abuse survivors.
In “Not to People Like Us,” Susan Weitzman writes, “I didn’t want to tell anyone about what was going on in my house. They all thought I was living a Cinderella life, and they just wouldn’t believe it,” “I didn’t know anyone that this happened to … it didn’t happen to women like me,” and “I told myself, ‘You made your bed and now you have to lie in it.’”
Traumatic bonding also plays a powerful role in concealing abuse. Humans are hardwired for connection and belonging. The emotional attachments that develop in the early stages are, paradoxically, strengthened during the cycle of abuse, which is just one of the many reasons survivors conceal the harrowing truth — even in the face of mistreatment, psychological torment, and the risk of physical danger. Love is a very real part of the toxic attachment, which further strengthens through enduring the good and the bad together. There are also very meaningful attachments created within the relationship circle, including friends, neighbors, and family, which are additionally binding. The fear of losing those critical relationships reinforces the silence and concealment. Although damaging and dangerous, survivors hide the abuse to hold on to these meaningful connections that are a very significant part of their life, leaving them emotionally tethered to the abuser and to the hope for better days ahead.
The concealer gives great energy to maintaining appearances while perfecting their concealment, but eventually clues surface and the cover weakens. Concealers may give insufficient explanations for broken personal effects, create questionable stories to explain suspicious injuries, or make excuses for the abuser’s seemingly uncharacteristic behavior when red flags begin to surface. After a while, exhaustion sets in and the subtle fluctuation in voice tone permeates the mask when attempting to reassure others that “everything is fine.”
We don’t see these subtle indicators because we are blinded by the nasty stigma that society allows to hang over this issue like a heavy rain cloud. What is it that drives the assumption that perfect families don’t have problems like abuse or domestic violence? Why are we quick to assume that appearances are the truth and perfection really exists? And why do these secrets feel so shameful?
The answer is a flawed consensus that family violence is caused by drug or alcohol abuse, involves only certain demographics, and is primarily perpetrated by people with anger management issues. The truth is that our society places high value on image and status that in order to maintain requires keeping certain private matters behind closed doors. These stigmas and flawed assumptions are dangerous, leaving families at greater risk where the lines of abuse become incredibly blurry. Sadly, the more on-display the family is, the deeper this secret lies buried under a guise of strength.
So how do we as bystanders see what needs to be seen and not the diversions that block a clear view? Those on the outside can all help break down barriers of fear and shame by eliminating that “perfect family” image, challenging the flawed consensus, and accepting the truth that no one is immune. We can all learn how to detect warning signs if we listen without being distracted by the external illusion. We can also help break the silence by starting the conversation for those who remain silent.
“For many survivors who remained in silence for many years … it was the piercing of the veil of silence that finally set them free,” Weitzman writes.
If we learn how to detect concealment, fewer will remain hidden. Let us all become part of this solution. Ask. Voice concern. Listen and validate. Offer support. With an open mind we become approachable, and the silence and isolation that shield domestic violence will undoubtedly begin to crack. Your courage to speak up could be life-saving and at the very least will send the message that abuse is never okay.
Remember to be patient when offering support. Honor the right for others to be self-determining. Provide resources if a survivor you know is ready to break their silence.
If you need support, have questions about domestic abuse, or want information on how to help a friend you suspect is in need, please call DOVE’s 24-hour Helpline at (435) 628-0458 or visit our website at dovecenter.org for more information.
Boyer resides in Washington County where she has worked professionally serving children and families in crisis for 15 years. In 2014 Lindsey became executive director of DOVE Center where she thoroughly enjoys channeling her passion to eradicate violence in hopes of increasing safety and wellbeing for all.