How Are We Helping Women Like Yeardley Love?

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Last week’s People magazine cover featured the beautiful University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love, who died when her ex-boyfriend, George Huguely, reportedly hit her head against a wall in a fit of rage.

The death of this talented, promising young woman is a tragedy for Yeardley’s family who must somehow find a way to cope with this unimaginable loss. And it is also a tragedy for George’s family whose lives will be forever scarred.

When reports of the killing surfaced earlier this month, the media quickly latched onto a possible connection between Yeardley’s death and George’s history of bad-boy behavior, namely his heavy drinking. He had been arrested in 2008 for public intoxication and accosting a police officer. A men’s lacrosse star, he belonged to a circle of serious partiers, known as much for their boozing as for their athletic prowess.

While we do not yet know whether alcohol played a role in George’s actions, we do know that substance abuse often plays a role in dating and domestic violence. According to the Office of Justice Programs, two-thirds of victims of intimate partner violence reported that alcohol was involved in the incident. Another study found that women whose partners abused alcohol were 3.6 times more likely than other women to be assaulted by their partners.

But we can’t assume that alcohol and drugs are only involved in the perpetration of violence.  From working with women in treatment at Phoenix House, I have seen the complex dynamic between substance abuse and intimate partner violence come into play on a number of levels. All too often, batterers use their drinking or drug use as an excuse, claiming that their substance of choice made them act “out of control.” For those who are victims, alcohol and drugs are a common way to numb the pain.  And kids who witness violence against their parents often grow up to repeat the same patterns of behavior—and adopt the same unhealthy coping strategies. A quick look at a sample of our New York City clients showed that more than a quarter had experienced domestic violence or witnessed it as a child.

Yeardley Love was in the national spotlight, but sadly, we as treatment professionals know that stories like hers are not unique. Although we see such cases constantly, Yeardley’s killing caused me to consider several questions about how we address domestic violence in the treatment setting. When working with a domestic violence survivor, what services should be offered? How often do we offer specialty support groups for survivors and witnesses? How do we protect clients from their abusers while they’re in treatment—and once they leave our care? How often do we acknowledge that chronic relapse may be a reaction to a destructive relationship, not simply a poor choice by a person new to recovery?  How do we instill a sense of responsibility and accountability in batterers?  What services should they be offered?  To what extent are we concerned about the impact of witnessed domestic violence on the children of our clients?

These are questions that deserve serious thought—and action.  As treatment providers, we need to make sure our programs have thoughtful policies and protocols that acknowledge the presence of intimate partner violence in our clients’ lives. As Yeardley’s story demonstrates, all too often, cases like these have tragic endings. We must strive to end the cycle of abuse for our clients—before it’s too late.

Naomi Weinstein
Director, Center on Addiction and the Family
Phoenix House
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1 Comment

  • Domestic Violence is a symptom of a culture of male dominance. American society, in particular, sends strong, clear messages to men, from the time they are children, that they are bigger, stronger, and better than women. This is particularly true in the athletic environment where athletes feel they are entitled to behave toward women in any manner they choose to. There are varying levels of control used by men, which is often a synonym for abuse: emotional, financial, spiritual, and physical. Many men now know to stop just short of physical violence, and as the article indicates, a third of controlling/abusive men do not abuse substances or alcohol. The addition of substance abuse and alcolhol abuse increases the chances that controlling/abusive men will use violence. The underlying issue remains the messages men get from our culture: superiority to women, that men are king of the castle, women are to love and obey, that men are paid more for the same jobs as women, and that women are objects and property to be owned by men. Until these cultural messages are addressed and are used by trained professionals, women will continue to be the victims of violence and emotional abuse, live in danger, and are in danger of being killed when they try to leave abusive relationships. If American social workers and counselors are not trained in these particular issues for women, they can place them in great danger if women are not guided to understand this phenomena of our culture, and are helped to get out of these kinds of relationships safely because most women are killed or hurt by the partners when they attempt to leave the relationship. The problem is, that this is a very pervasive issue, and there are many, many men out there that hide their controlling/abusive behaviors behind masks of caring, concern, and manipulation, and work hard to appear, at first, to be “nice guys,” because all the men in our culture receive these messages of male entitlement: control/abuse cuts across all economic and ethnic lines. When women truly become equal in our society, it will not only help women, it will also help men to have a better, more fulfilling life. Men will no longer feel entitled to use violence to get what they want, whether they are drinking, abusing substances, or not.