THE DOORKNOB SYNDROME
As a lawyer, I have been interviewing clients for 42 years. In that time, I have found one particularly sad phenomenon. I call it “Doorknob Syndrome”, but what it really is, is the reluctance of an abused person to call themselves abused because the reality of being a victim is overwhelming. As a result, they leave out relevant and important disclosure necessary to help them.
I often spend one, two or three hours with a person and I can tell they want to talk about abuse, but don’t. There is something below the surface, but she (most often) will say nothing until she gets up to leave, has her hand on the doorknob of my closed office door and, as she is exiting the room, she will turn and say over her shoulder “and my husband hit me repeatedly”, or “spat on me”, or “forced me to have sex when I didn’t want to” etc. She may even talk in the interview about psychological abuse but will not respond to questions about hitting or spousal rape.
Despite many leading questions attempting to illicit what I can feel is the elephant in the room, it is only as she is leaving that she is willing to state what was very clear to me from the beginning.
Therefore, it behooves any lawyer or professional person dealing with potentially abused spouses to ask the questions again and again until they are finally able to get to the bottom of the spousal dynamic. Firstly, it is important to protect an abused person from being abused again. It is equally important to know what the dynamic is between the couple and what is the abuser’s expectation is, in effect, that he or she has done it before and that he or she can continue to get away with it to subjugate the victim, plus to understand their respective positions in any future settlement negotiations including how fearful is the abused spouse and how “powerful” is the abuser in their eyes?
The majority of victims are women and the majority of abusers are male, or as we are seeing more now, it also happens to women or men in same-sex relationships. There is a small proportion of victims who are male with abusers who are female who are heterosexual couples. As a group, abused men are even more reluctant to reveal their abuse than their female counterparts as they feel emasculated and that somehow they should have been able to protect themselves. This ignores the fact that their abusers have them at a disadvantage, as, if they had called the police and claimed to have been victims themselves but also had protected themselves physically, the victim could have been arrested on the say-so of the abusive woman.
I remember having a man in my office that had been married for many years and had buried his spouse and later met a new partner. She had hit him and, in fact, he took off his shirt and showed me his injuries and it looked like he had been attacked by a werewolf. It was some of the worst bruising, discolouration and swelling I have ever seen. I asked him what had happened and he said that his new wife threw things at him constantly, hit him, scratched him and bit him repeatedly, but then he couldn’t hit her back to protect himself because he would have injured her. He kept seeing the image of his first wife shaking her head every time he felt the need to protect himself and thus potentially injure his new wife, so he let her assault him.
It is very important that a safety plan is developed immediately for those spouses who fall within the “doorknob” group. These people tend to be people who have been abused repeatedly and have been abused to the point that they feel ashamed even though they are blameless.
It is also important that lawyers working with victims seek the assistance of shelter workers and specially trained social workers in dealing with the abuse.
The safety plan is key.
In the LGBTQ community there are also specific resources that can assist with safety plans.
An abused person needs to regain their self-respect and to be protected. The protection aspect has to occur first, but the second component, which is returning their own self-respect and feeling of self worth, must follow.
The greatest societal misconception is that the only abuse that exists is physical abuse. That is simply not true. Abuse can be physical, sexual, psychological/mental/emotional and it does not have to be a daily occurrence. It can even be a rare occurrence in the relationship but, as long as the abuser knows they can control by abuse and the victim knows that they can be abused, the power imbalance between them continues to exist.
I particularly note all of the above for mediators. Mediation is becoming an increasingly popular form of Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) to handle resolution of family law cases, which is wonderful as a resolution tool in most ways, but it may not be suitable where there is, or has been, a history of abuse which results in the victim being unable to bargain in their own best interests in the presence of, or even in the absence of their abuser, but with the knowledge that the other person is in the next room or they will have to deal with them..
Lastly, men or women who have undergone abuse must seek psychological counselling. This makes them smart, this makes them proactive, this makes them self-aware and this can make them strong. This can also make them safe.