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The "Doorknob Syndrome"

As a lawyer, I have been interviewing clients for 38 years. In that time, I have found one particularly sad phenomenon. I call it the "Doorknob Syndrome", but it is really 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 "called me names all the time in very foul language" etc. They 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 could feel as the elephant in the room, it is only as she/he is leaving that she/he 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 or take a course on domestic violence screening 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 the expectation is of the abuser, in effect, that he or she has done it and that he or she can continue to get away with it, and the respective positions in any future settlement negotiations - 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, females or males in same-sex relationships. However, there is a small proportion of victims who are male and abusers who are female. 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, the victim could have been arrested.

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 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 but that he couldn't hit her back to protect himself because he would have injured her, and that he kept seeing the image of his first wife shaking her head every time he felt the need to protect himself and potentially injure his new wife.

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 particularly victimized to the point that they feel ashamed even though they are blameless.

It is also important that lawyers working with victims to seek the assistance of shelter workers and specially trained social workers in dealing with the abuse. The safety plan is key. In the LGBT community there are also specific resources that can assist with safety plans.

To learn more, contact my office online or call me at 905-303-1070 (Vaughan), 416-977-3050 (Toronto) or 866-233-0945 (Canada toll free). 

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