When you ask survivors what their last straw was during domestic violence, their answers will likely range from “the first time they threatened to hit me” to “the first time they put me in the hospital.”
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Survivors can pinpoint that moment in time when abuse took a sudden escalation and for many that’s their cue to find a way to leave, and fast. Others may feel trapped, either by circumstances like finances or housing that make it seem impossible to leave, or by the hope that they can still change the abuser. Either way, escalation is often a glaringly red flag that indicates a survivor’s life is at risk.
What Does Escalation Look Like?
According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, escalation can happen either gradually or all of a sudden.
Gradual Escalation: Verbal abuse, like insults, slowly become more harmful and degrading. Control goes from “I’d rather you not go out with your friends tonight,” to a more demanding “I’ll tell you when you can leave the house.” Threats become more alarming, going from “You make me so mad I could punch a wall,” to “I’m going to punch you if you say that again.”
Sudden Escalation: Abuse abruptly intensifies from, say, threats to physical violence. It’s the first time the abuser pushes, hits or strangles a survivor. For the first time, the abuser may threaten, yell at or physically harm pets or children. It may be the first time a survivor can admit to themselves that what’s happening is actually abuse.
While an abuser may say they “lost control” or “didn’t mean it” when their abuse escalates, that’s not true. Escalation is a choice abusers make when they feel like they’re losing control of the survivor or when they want to send a very clear message—they hold the power in the relationship.
Why It’s So Dangerous
When abuse escalates, an abuser is basically showing that they have a new way to exert power over a survivor. The abuser is becoming more emboldened. They are moving on to the next phase of their plan to trap a survivor.
Escalation is not caused by something a survivor did. A survivor did not make an abuser “more mad” by something the survivor did or said—abusers choose to escalate abuse just as they choose not to deescalate it.
When an abuser has clearly shown that their abusive tactics have gone to the next level, the survivor should know two things: 1) It’s only going to get more dangerous to leave later on and 2) Things can escalate even more.
Criminology expert Dr. Jane Monckton Smith studied 372 intimate partner homicides in the UK and found an eight-stage pattern that almost all the murders had in common:
- A pre-relationship history of stalking or abuse by the perpetrator
- The romance developing quickly into a serious relationship
- The relationship becoming dominated by coercive control
- A trigger to threaten the perpetrator's control—for example, the relationship ends or the perpetrator gets into financial difficulty
- Escalation, or an increase in the intensity or frequency of the partner's control tactics, such as by stalking or threatening suicide
- The perpetrator has a change in thinking, choosing to move on either through revenge or by homicide
- Planning—the perpetrator might buy weapons or seek opportunities to get the victim alone
- Homicide—the perpetrator kills his or her partner, and possibly hurts others such as the victim's children
After the relationship developed quickly and became dominated by coercive control, there was escalation in almost all of the relationships, at which time the partner’s control tactics ramped up. This was followed by planning—the perpetrator might have bought a weapon or planned a time to get the victim alone, and then committed homicide.
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For more red flags that can predict homicide, read “Will an Abuser Kill You?”
Escalation When Things Aren’t Physically Violent
For those who are with a psychologically abusive partner, someone who isn’t physically violent but who manipulates, degrades and gaslights a survivor, escalation can still occur. It might look like the abuser....
- Not respecting a survivor’s boundaries.
- Blaming the survivor for the abuse and not taking responsibility for his or her choices.
- Isolating the survivor from friends and family.
- Threatening to harm or take away a survivor’s children.
- Threatening to harm pets.
- Acquiring a weapon as a means of intimidation.
- Displaying excessive jealousy or paranoia.
Remember that verbal and emotional abuse can, at any time, escalate to physical violence. The most dangerous thing for a survivor is to underestimate what an abuser is capable of. It can be hard when a survivor feels like they love their abusive partner and, consequently, keep giving them more chances to change.
Where’s Your Line?
Even if a survivor isn’t ready to leave yet, creating a safety plan is always a smart idea. Within that safety plan, a survivor should think about what their final straw will be. What is a survivor willing to put up with and what will they not? While no abuse is acceptable, it may be that a survivor needs to tell themselves they can handle someone who yells, but as soon as that person yells at their child, the survivor is out. When their limit is reached, a survivor should have a plan in place of where they’re going to go or who they’re going to call.
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