In the Raw: Domestic violence in gay relationships

By Jennine Estes
January 2nd, 2014

Emotional abuse is the most common type of abuse reported among both gay and lesbian couples in an abusive relationship. Second most common was physical abuse (Turrell, 2000).

“If I stay quiet and don’t rock the boat, then maybe things won’t get so bad. Maybe things will change.” Wrong! Living in a relationship where you have to suppress your emotions and never share how you feel is not a healthy way to live, and many people find themselves stuck in this type of situation.

Many things can trigger violence: the frustrations from their football team losing, having too many drinks, jealousy triggered by a co-worker’s comment. Or, the explosiveness might just come from something that appears to be insignificant and small, such as a disagreement about doing the dishes or the laundry.

The unpredictable or predictable explosions are life-altering for partners. The violence comes in various forms: pushing, shoving, restraining, punching, kicking, strangulating or worse. Abusive relationships don’t necessarily mean physical. It also can be verbally degrading, financial abuse or sexual abuse. And sometimes the violence can go back in forth, especially in same-gender relationships.

Several psychology professors researching human sexuality found that “legal protection plays a major role in the issue of abuse because there are some states that deny protection for gay and lesbians who have been victims of domestic violence in their same-sex relationships” (Brown & Groscup, 2008).

Most people who experience violence in their relationship report feeling too embarrassed to speak up or ashamed of the situation. They often stop sharing about how bad things get in fear of how other people will react or out of protection to not have their partner seen in bad light. Victims often find their support system decreasing drastically and feeling isolated most of the time. Their self-esteem deteriorates rapidly and fear takes over.

Statistics show that domestic violence affects more than 6 million men and women in any given year (McKenry, Serovich, Mason, & Mosack, 2006; Peterman & Dixon, 2003; Rohrbaugh, 2006). And reports as early as 1987 reveal the seriousness of domestic violence among same-gender couples. In 1997, 47.5% of lesbians and 29.7% of gay men reported being victimized by a same-sex partner (Waldner-Haugrud et al.).

Reach out for support

Reach out to your friends and family to build your community support, even if you are ashamed or afraid of what they will say. Now is the time to get help and love from the people in your life. If your world has diminished and you don’t have people to turn to, join a support group, seek out counseling, talk to your coworkers, or join an online community.

An article last year regarding attitudes towards domestic violence in same-gender couples mentioned that the threat of being exposed was a common reason for couples to stay in their abusive relationships. The threat of being “outed” – exposing the partner’s sexual orientation to others and extreme isolation as a result of being “in the the closet” usually meant having no place to turn for help as far as shelters and the legal system (Banks & Fedewa, 2012). No matter if you are afraid of what others will think or fear of outing your partner, reach out for support.

Don’t take on all the responsibility

Victims often state that they are afraid of rocking the boat and never leaving their partner because they love them. Just having love alone isn’t enough when violence is involved. No matter how much you hope for things to improve, your partner’s job is to take every step necessary to protect you and safeguard the relationship. If they aren’t making active steps to stop the violence, it is your job to create safety for yourself and any children you might be raising.

Avoid debating when things heat up

Some people get this idea that if they stand up for themselves and fight back, things only get worse. Avoid debating or trying to reason with your partner. We naturally have this internal alarm that says “danger,” and it can be suppressed by years of verbal and mental abuse. Stop using any type of substance to help you listen to your body’s natural alarm system. If there is any sense of escalation, leave the house and go to a safe place.

Consider leaving the relationship

If things are not changing in the relationship, maybe leaving may be the only way to stop the violence completely. Set your heart aside and weigh out your options of staying or leaving. A great book to help you through this is “Too Good To Leave, Too Bad To Stay” by Mira Kirshenbaum.

Create a safety plan

Another important thing is to have a safety plan. Write down your safety plan of where you will go and what you will do if things get bad. If you can’t leave the situation, call the police and lock yourself in the bathroom. Set aside a secret money stash that you can rely on if things go bad or that you can use to leave the relationship. A great example is the movie “Sleeping With The Enemy” where Sarah has a stash of money she has put aside and found a new city to live in. There are many shelters in San Diego County (and around the country) that keep your location private.

Be careful and get help

Another thing is to remember that violence can escalate and become very, very dangerous. An angry and frustrated push can easily result in a fatal death. Sometimes leaving a relationship may be very scary and life-threatening. If it feels like your life will be on the line if you leave, reach out to the domestic violence shelters (such as Becky’s House). The San Diego Family Justice Center provides a list of resources with shelters, legal advice, hotlines and more.

Protect your kids

For those who have little ones around, the violence and verbal degrading also impacts the children. The entire family is being impacted and it is important for you to consider how the environment is impacting your kids long term. Watch the video about how emotions impact the brains of children.

Being in a violent gay or lesbian relationship isn’t something you have to go through alone. Often it can feel as if you are playing a game of emotional tug-of-war in your brain of “I love this person” and “this isn’t OK.” And other times the shame of the situation gets very big and overwhelming. If you are struggling, know there is help just a phone call away.