EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 1 of a four-part series on domestic abuse and self-defense. This article explores the physical and psychological trauma experienced by domestic abuse victims.
Sabrina Hendley couldn’t believe her eyes. Her husband, Mark, had never been this violent in front of others before. But now he was forcibly holding their neighbor, Lora Polatz, underwater in the swimming pool of their Tampa Bay area home. The pool was lit, so she could see her friend’s eyes wide with fear and the bubbles escaping from her nose and mouth.
“I gotta get him off of her before she dies,” Sabrina remembers thinking as she got behind her husband, hit him on the head and tried to pull him away. Eventually she succeeded, and Polatz surfaced, vomited while gasping for air, and made her way to the edge of the pool.
Now Mark went after Sabrina.
“He grabbed me,” Sabrina said. “And then he lifted me up by my neck. I was a good couple of feet in the air. And then he tossed me into the pool. He jumped on top of me and grabbed me from behind in a chokehold. He was arching his back as he was pulling me back so my feet couldn’t even have traction in the pool.”
Then, inexplicably, Mark let his wife go, got out of the pool and walked away. Sabrina says she was disoriented and didn’t know what had just happened. She tried to console her friend, who was understandably upset and shouted that Mark was crazy and that she was never coming back to their home.
“He just drank too much,” Sabrina apologized. “He’ll be better tomorrow.”
She had no idea how it had gotten to this point. Until meeting her future husband, Sabrina felt that she had been on the right path in life. She had grown up in a small Indiana town and had joined the U.S. Marine Corps straight out of high school. She worked in administration and was sent to Iraq, where she became part of a task force that bounced around Ramadi, Al Asad and Fallujah.
Eventually, she left active duty to join the reserves and work as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. Mark Hendley happened to be on her route. He was a combat vet in the Army National Guard at the time. They fell in love, married and, in 2015, moved to Parrish, Florida, just south of Tampa, where Sabrina continued to deliver mail.
At first, things were normal. But after the honeymoon period, Sabrina says Mark dropped his mask and subjected her to various forms of physical and emotional abuse. He would throw away food that she had cooked for him if it wasn’t to his liking. He would overpower her by using his martial arts training to sweep her legs and take her to the ground. He even committed marital rape.
“Honestly, my mindset wasn’t good when I was married,” Sabrina admitted. “I was really sad. Because I didn’t understand what was going on. And I was really taking it as this was my fault.”
Domestic Violence Facts and Stats
Needless to say, it wasn’t Sabrina’s fault. She was a victim of domestic violence, which is defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, psychological or technological actions or threats of actions or other patterns of coercive behavior that influence another person in a relationship. This can include any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure or wound someone.
The DOJ indicates that domestic violence can happen to anyone, regardless of race, age, sexual orientation, religion or sex, and that domestic violence affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels. It can occur in both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships and can happen to intimate partners who are married, living together or dating or who share a child.1
A meta-analysis can be useful to tease out relevant trends and data. Specifically, the Partner Abuse State of Knowledge Project, which is a domestic violence research database in which 42 scholars and 70 research assistants at 20 universities and research institutions spent two years researching their topics and writing about what they uncovered, is an outstanding resource. Roughly 12,000 separate studies were considered.2
Overall, 22 percent of individuals are assaulted by a partner at least once in their lifetimes (23 percent for females and 19.3 percent for males). And 25.3 percent of people perpetrate intimate-partner violence (IPV). The rates of female-perpetrated violence are higher than male-perpetrated violence (28.3 percent versus 21.6 percent).
Among large population samples, 57.9 percent of IPV reported was bidirectional (both partners are violent), while 42 percent was unidirectional (one partner is violent). And 13.8 percent of the unidirectional violence was male to female, while 28.3 percent was female to male. The racial breakdown for bidirectional IPV was 50.9 percent for Whites, 49 percent for Latinos and 61.8 percent for African Americans.
The rates of self-defense reported by victims ranged from zero to 21 percent for men and 5 to 35 percent for women.
None of the studies reported that anger or retaliation was a greater motive for men’s violence than women’s violence. However, two papers indicated that anger was more likely to be a motive for women’s violence. Jealousy and cheating by a partner were motives to perpetrate violence for both men and women.
Married couples are at lower risk of IPV than dating couples. Separated women are the most vulnerable. And with few exceptions, IPV risk factors are the same for both genders.
When severe aggression has been perpetrated, such as punching, kicking or using a weapon, the rates of injury are much higher among female victims than male victims. And those injuries are more likely to be life-threatening. However, when mild-to-moderate aggression is perpetrated, such as shoving, pushing or slapping, men and women report similar rates of injury.
Physically abused women tend to engage in poorer health behaviors and risky sexual behaviors. They are also more likely to miss work, have fewer social and emotional support networks, and are less likely to be able to take care of their children and perform household duties.
Psychological victimization is as strongly related to depression, PTSD and alcohol use as is physical victimization. Also, the psychological effects remain even after the physical effects pass.
Studies found that penalties imposed following an arrest for IPV typically have no effect on the offense reoccurring. Among the minority of reported analyses that do report a statistically significant effect, two-thirds of the published findings show penalties are associated with a reduction in repeat offending, and one-third show penalties are associated with increased repeat offending.
Female arrests are affected by high socioeconomic status, presence of weapons and witnesses. And women are more likely than men to be cited rather than taken into custody. But the gender discrepancy decreases when a decision is made on whether to file charges as a misdemeanor or felony.
Victims report feeling safer and having greater psychological well-being after obtaining a protective order. But even so, protective orders are violated 44 percent to 70 percent of the time. Nearly 60 percent of women who had secured a protective order reported being subsequently stalked.
Among the many survivors of domestic violence interviewed for this series, nearly all reported a mindset of despair during their abusive relationships. This, in turn, made it difficult for them to consider escaping their respective situations.
Shirley Watral, author of Heels to Holster (2020), knows all too well that feeling of hopelessness. Now a firearms instructor and competitive shooter, she was an IT director in South Florida in the early 1990s and was trapped in an abusive relationship.3
“I was ridden with guilt and remorse over something I had no control over,” Watral stated. “I was judging myself and thought everyone else would too. Now I have a better understanding of why women remain in abusive relationships and how women can get into situations and feel trapped.”
Watral had grown up on a farm in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Her father worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and farmed as a second job. The family raised beef cattle and grew vegetables to sell at their roadside stand. Watral described them as a typical, hardworking Catholic family.
When she met “Paul,” she was a young professional and he was a subcontractor. At first the relationship was fun and exciting, but gradually things changed, as all abusive relationships do. Paul became jealous, possessive and controlling. The tipping point came when she was in the shower and realized, to her horror, that he had let himself into her apartment and was sitting there in the bathroom, waiting for her to get out. He proceeded to grill her about the volleyball game she had participated in, who she was hanging out with and why she hadn’t invited him to join them.
Not long after, Paul trapped Watral in his home and kept her there against her will for 15 hours. He brought out a gun, which they fought over. He then proceeded to tell her that he had hired someone to kill her parents, at which point she gave up, told him what she thought he wanted to hear (that she’d marry him) and watched in amazement as he decided to go watch TV and order a pizza. She slipped away soon after under the pretense of replacing her contact lenses.
“I think the first thing if you’re still in that situation,” Watral said when asked what advice she would give, “[is] you have to get out.”
It can be an even greater challenge if the abused individual has children.
“I used to be one who wondered why women didn’t just get out of abusive situations,” she admitted. “Now I understand. Fear.”
Watral recommends confiding in friends and taking a self-defense course as two ways of overcoming that fear.
“Learn a tool that you can use to defend yourself,” she recommended. “That’s going to help you feel that courage, independence and empowerment. To keep going on that road. Because it’s not easy.”
Beth Alcazar works for Delta Defense (the operating body behind the USCCA) and advocates for the Second Amendment through the DC Project. She found herself stuck in an abusive marriage not long after she graduated college.
“I think I’m very intelligent. I feel I’m well-spoken. I feel like I’m independent enough to manage on my own, whether it’s professionally or personally. But he made me feel none of those things,” she said when discussing her ex-husband.
“I felt like I was just a shell of a person who was meaningless and tolerated. Maybe a pest or an annoyance rather than someone who was loved, cherished and appreciated. And it just got worse and worse.”
Her ex-husband was from a different culture, Alcazar said. And, in hindsight, there were numerous red flags, but she only wanted to see the good things. He would reach out and be helpful with money or time. But he had a narcissistic and manipulative side too. It was mainly emotional, but it was abuse nonetheless.
“With him, there were times I literally felt insane,” Alcazar indicated. “Like, I think I’m crazy. Because he would say one thing in a conversation and then switch it around completely. An hour later. A day later. A month later.” Alcazar became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. She went through what she described as “terrible” postpartum depression and seriously contemplated taking her own life. But becoming a mother gave her the impetus to get out of her abusive marriage. After a failed attempt at counseling, she filed for divorce and escaped with her child and her sanity.
And while she doesn’t see firearms training as a one-size-fits-all solution for people stuck in abusive relationships or dealing with the fallout, Alcazar does recommend it. And she has personally witnessed numerous women breaking down on the shooting range, having relived an unwelcome memory.
“Listen to your intuition,” she advised. “You are worth more than what this abuse has caused.”
Amy Smith* is a happily married woman living in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. There she works in marketing and public relations consulting. But she has a secret she has not shared with her children: She experienced domestic violence at the hands of her former husband.
“We met as 18-year-olds [during] our freshman year of college and got engaged our senior year of college. And [we] got married a couple of months after we graduated from college,” she said.
They bought a house and had kids after that.
“I thought I had the ideal life,” Smith declared. She said she was a very insecure woman. She never really addressed the problem until she hit her late ‘30s. At gatherings and work events, she felt like an outsider looking in.
“You look at yourself at a different point in your life,” she explained, “and you realize, I don’t know, how sad it was that my insecurities drove my acceptance of bullshit, right?”
After nearly 20 years of marriage, Smith became less and less tolerant of her husband’s possessive and unhealthy behavior. She expressed a desire to participate more in social life without realizing how much this had angered him. She later threw a successful party with some 40 guests, after which her husband responded by violently raping her.
“I don’t know why I was ashamed of myself,” she said. “But I was. I mean, you hear this so often from people who are victims. That it’s the shame.”
Smith moved into a different bedroom, saved up money for an attorney and filed for a divorce. She lived in fear of bumping into her ex-husband at her kids’ games and practices — that is, until she got trained and armed. Then she ran into him unexpectedly at a liquor store.
“It was a life-changing moment for me,” she stated. “Because it was the first time since 2005 that I was in the same vicinity that he was in where I wasn’t feeling like I was going to puke or pass out.”
Jennifer Ellers has spent much of her professional career dealing with trauma and interpersonal violence. And with a master’s degree in counseling (with a specialty in community counseling), she’s well-qualified to address the nuances of domestic violence. At the beginning of the interview, she quickly dispelled the notion that emotional abuse is somehow less damaging than physical abuse.
“[I]f you are physically assaulted, and you have bruises, you have a broken bone, you’re in the hospital, you get a lot of validation that someone hurt you,” she said. “There’s recognition of that. It’s not as obvious when there’s severe emotional abuse and manipulation. And it can do more psychological damage in the long term.”
Ellers said that abusive partners are usually very attentive, loving and caring at the beginning of a relationship. And the abuse starts very subtly with power and control issues that inevitably pop up.
“It can be things like starting to hammer away at a person’s self-worth and self-esteem with comments,” she indicated. “Or just being highly critical. Critical of their appearance. Critical of the things that they do or what they say.”
Another move that an abuser will often make is to isolate his or her partner from friends or family. And this, Ellers said, is one of the warning signs that friends and family should watch out for.
“If that person withdraws,” Ellers stated, that’s usually a sign. “Or [if] they would spend time with friends and family and suddenly they start saying things like they won’t be able to make it.”
Other signs might include a person making excuses for his or her partner or the things that his or her partner does or minimizing the seriousness of what’s going on.
“It doesn’t mean that a person is abused,” Ellers said, advising caution. “But it’s a sign that you might want to dig a little deeper and ask questions.”
When talking about why victims stay with their abusers, Ellers pointed out that they often do it out of genuine love and affection.
“We want to see the best in the person we’re in a relationship [with] and we love,” she stated. “And some of the research out there actually shows that’s helpful in the average marriage. To have rose-colored glasses about our spouse. But when a person is abusive, it can keep you from seeing things.”
Another major reason people stay in abusive relationships, Ellers explained, is for financial reasons. An abusive partner might put the house and bank accounts in his or her name or control the finances in a way that puts the victim at his or her mercy.
Because abusers take so much power away from their victims, Ellers said that she never tells them what to do initially.
“The last thing I want to do is just be another person who’s going to take their power away and say, ‘Here, you have to do this,’” she declared. “First of all, I want to listen. And then I want to help empower that person. And so, my first step is to let them know their worth and their value.”
One exception to this rule, Ellers explained, is when she feels as though someone is under threat of imminent harm. Then she’ll express a concern for safety and push more vigorously toward the resources at hand.
A good starting point, Ellers said, is the Domestic Violence Hotline, which can be reached at 1-800-799-7233 (or text “START” to 88788). The hotline is available to people anywhere in the U.S.
“That can be less intimidating than talking to a friend or family member,” stated Ellers, “because that 800 number is confidential. Anonymous. You don’t have to give them your name. You don’t have to worry that they’re going to immediately call the police.”
One of the main benefits of starting with the Domestic Violence Hotline is that it can connect victims with local counselors, domestic violence shelters and programs.
Should a victim choose to relocate to a shelter, the best time for doing so is when the partner is away (as to avoid confrontation). Ellers stated that all domestic violence shelters take great pains to hide their locations to protect victims.
“And I think it’s really important that you get the right legal representation,” she stated, “if and when you need a restraining order. Or when the time comes that you need to file paperwork to get custody of your children.”
This is especially important because not every attorney will know how to deal with it.
When it comes to advising friends and family of what to do if they suspect a loved one is being abused, Ellers explained that simply being there for him or her is one of the most powerful ways to show support.
“If they can acknowledge the abuse but are unwilling to leave,” she said, “don’t abandon them, but say, ‘I am here for you no matter what. You can call me.’ And then don’t do anything that is actually going to put them in more jeopardy. Don’t confront the partner.”
A Police Officer’s Take
When it comes to a law enforcement perspective, Dianna Muller spent years dealing with domestic violence as an officer with the Tulsa Police Department. She met Watral through competitive shooting and wrote the foreword to Heels to Holster. She offered her expert opinion on how victims should interact with the police.
She encourages protective orders and restraining orders.
“You’re your own first responder,” Muller declared. “And you have to be prepared to protect yourself. Don’t think that a restraining order is going to put some bubble around you that nobody can hurt you. What it does do is give the court, [and] the government, a hammer [with which] to prosecute someone who would not necessarily otherwise be committing a crime.”
She also stresses the importance of documenting incidents.
“That’s one of the things that, whether it be domestic violence or any kind of recurring crime, I always tell people to start documenting,” she said. “Even if it’s in their own calendar. Because it’s important, if it ever comes to that point, that you have a diary. You have a ledger of incidents. Because you think you will remember these things. But you will not.”
Muller also indicated that she’s a proponent of all victims — but especially women — getting armed and getting trained.
“There’s a lot to be said for training,” she stated. “Not just firearms training. But there have been many women who have sought help and sought protective orders and have done exactly what they should have done that have been murdered because they didn’t have that great equalizer.”
Blade to the Neck
Meanwhile, back in Florida, we left off that night in 2018 when Sabrina Hendley had just been attacked in her own pool by her husband Mark. He had stalked off, leaving her alone with her friend Lora. Sabrina was disoriented and had no idea what had just happened. And she was trying to console Lora, who had been forcibly held underwater.
That’s when Sabrina felt the knife at her throat.
Part 2 of the Domestic Abuse & Self-Defense series, discussing how to escape an abusive relationship, will appear in the February/March 2023 issue of Concealed Carry Magazine.
*Amy Smith is a pseudonym.
(2) “Facts and Statistics on Domestic Violence At-a-Glance,” Domestic Violence Research, accessed on Sept. 3, 2022, DomesticViolenceResearch.org/domestic-violence-facts-and-statistics-at-aglance/.
(3) Shirley Watral, Heels to Holster: One Woman’s Story of Surviving an Abusive Relationship and Discovering Her Inner Warrior (self-published, 2020).