New Domestic Violence Finding at the Univ of Illinois Codifies Process of Leaving


Theresa M. Johnson is a Minnesota state employee, who left an abusive marriage after 25-years.  Lyndal Khaw, a University of Illinois scholar at Urbana-Champaign, is researching domestic violence and “the process of leaving.” Her work is unique because it integrates boundary ambiguity (uncertainty about one’s role in the family dynamic) into a Stages of Change model.  By placing a proverbial transparency page of the domestic violence phenomenon over another transparency of that five-steps of grieving, she found that victims/survivors go through stages of “denial, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.”

a woman in pain

a woman in pain

Johnson was surprised to hear that the University of Illinois had proven what she and other activists knew: there’s a process to leaving violence.  “I find it very, very interesting…,” Johnson said.  “It’s kind of funny…  Because that’s exactly what we’ve been talking about at the Domestic Abuse Project,” (DAP) an advocacy and support organization, in Minneapolis, MN, for those who want to leave behind the abuse.  “Strange that it’s ground-breaking thinking.”

So while neither the knowledge, nor the tactic is new, having it codified in scholarship is; it may mean something for those organizations that need scholarly evidence to plead their case for continually shrinking and scrutinized money.

Khaw and I hope that this news can help the victims/survivors feel and act with more control, safety, and self-confidence in the face of those who ultimately might either hurt them or lose patience with the victims/survivors path through those five steps.

Johnson affirms that the five-step process for leaving does that.  “Just knowing that there’s a reason for it.  Because leaving…sometimes takes years.  But understanding it on a bigger scale was extremely helpful.”  Her story seems atypical…  Or maybe it’s more typical than one might suspect.

Her husband, a pastor, was a community icon, a pillar.  Her family was “extremely grounded in the community.”  The fallout from her leaving? “I lost everything.  Friendship.  Work acquaintances,” Johnson said.  “So it just made perfect sense – the amount of loss I was suffering on a daily basis,” after she saw an example of that five-step process.

“When you’re leaving a domestic violence situation, you are consumed by day-to-day activities of…just being safe.  Just maintaining – cuz you gotta play that game (of complying) and it’s hard to step out of the world and think rationally.”

“…When you make the decisions to leave – that’s the absolute most violent time,” Johnson insists.

Another woman who felt that daily stress and physical & emotional pain, didn’t feel compelled to wait 25 years.  Even though Peggy Schmitt had been raised amid abuse, and the relationship seesawed due to her husband’s confusing deceptions, she kicked him out of her apartment – that into which he had moved.

“I met him at Christmas.  He moved in about April.  And I got engaged in August.  And then I kicked him out, but we kinda went back and forth.   It escalated very quickly, got very violent.  That was 13-years-ago,” Schmitt said.

At one of her marriage’s dire points, outside of her car,”he broke through my car window and ripped off my clothes.”

Three weeks ago, an event brought back her unnerving memories and her hunger for safety resurged – Her ex-husband tried to “friend” her via Facebook.com.  Thirteen years had passed since she needed DAP’s support.  Just as long as it had been since I had trained there to volunteer in crisis intervention.  Now they’re there for her again.

Those many years ago, without the benefit of a five-step process to buoy or calm her ideas or fears, she had come to a proverbial line in the sand.  “It was my birthday in October, that I looked in the mirror and I said, ‘I don’t want to live this way.'”

When asked if she knew that there was a five-step “process for leaving..?”  “I had no clue.”  The idea, she says, “…gives you something to hold on to.  There has to be…   It made me feel like I had a little power.
I hope that Ms. Khaw’s research findings will empirically clarify the realities, and ease the lives and burdens for women like Ms. Schmitt and Ms.  Johnson.  DAP already knows this “secret,” but I hope that it will serve those who hadn’t quite connected it.

Johnson may have phrased it best: “I’m fully educated and fully aware of the stages of grief…  Just having someone hand me the map and put the pieces together.  …Like you said, was a ‘lifeline.'”

I only hope that Lyndal Thaw’s research at the University of Illinois-Champaign Urbana will empirically gird that lifeline.

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