by Lynn Fairweather
Seal Press, 2012
Review by Keith E. Davis on Dec 10th 2013
Lynn Fairweather is a survivor of an abusive relationship who has gone on to become a well-educated professional providing risk assessment and treatment programs for thousands of women during the last twenty years. She earned an MSW in Social Work and received advanced training with Gavin de Becker's Advanced Threat Assessment Academy and with the Department of Homeland Security's Law Enforcement Training Center. I am familiar with several other self-help manuals and I find this to be the best among the lot. She is up-to-date on the relevant research, has a wealth of pointed vignettes, and a wonderful clarity about the complexity of the issues for women ensnared in abusive relationships.
Stop Signs is divided into 13 chapters, each devoted to a specific issue but also having cross-references to other issues. There is an overview of the book, which addresses how she came to evolve from writing a purely professional volume to one aimed in women in their world of relationships. The reason that I am so high on this book is her ability to address personal relationship issues and to filter her advice through the lens of high quality research. For example in the first chapter she addresses three of the most damaging myths that undermine women's ability to leave abusive relationships. These are (1) "Why doesn't she just leave?" (2) "Isn't most abuse equal, with women being just as abusive as men?", and (3) She asked for it, didn't she?" Since these myths are so prevalent that victims may find their own family and friends believing them and acting from them, it is important to point out their limitations.
In the case of "Why doesn't she just leave?", the question leaves out both the psychological reality of the woman's world and the economic and social reality of her situation. The research shows that women stay for a variety of reasons, foremost of which is that they often still love their partner, but also they are often without financial resources, they fear what he may do to them or loved ones if they leave, and their own cultural and religious beliefs are not consistent with leaving. The real question should be "Why doesn't he stop hitting her?"
The equality of abuse myth rests on an unfortunate misinterpretation of social science research. The Conflict Tactics Scale has been used to measure relationship violence and many studies with it do show equal levels of "hitting, slapping, or throwing things." But the scale does not measure the level of brutality involved in many abusive relationships. When one asks "Who gets hurt enough to require an emergency room visit?" the overwhelming victims are women and children. A recent meta-analysis by Caldwell, Swan and Woodbrown (2012) showed that women are much more likely to have injuries, lasting fear, and posttraumatic stress than men who have been abused. [Some men are in abusive relationships and their lives deserve attention and protection, but this fact should not divert us from dealing the vast majority of cases--consisting of women (and their children)].
The third myth , "She asked for it, didn't she?" is a product of the abuser's playing a victim game and painting the woman as the cause of his distress. We can dismiss this as just one of the unfortunate misogynistic myth about women. No data support it.
The second chapter is a tour-de-force on how to recognize an abuser before he has begun full-scale abuse. She opens with stories of how she did not count or see his abusive acts for what they were over three years. It is just too embarrassing to admit that one has chosen another who is willing to hurt to get his way and to dominate. The chapter contains a full listing (with details) on types of abuse from verbal to sexual. Also it has a very useful section on the patterns of abuse and how abuse tends to wax and wane, often being followed by short honeymoon periods. The message is "DO Not Trust These to Last!"
For me, the meat of book begins with the chapters on what she can do to protect herself. There is a review of the research literature, which unfortunately focuses on traits that to tend to protect one, such as resiliency. You cannot change your traits, so I found the second half of the chapter, focusing on what women could do much more useful. Three of her suggestions were especially useful. 'Map your allies' refers to knowing who and where your true friends are and cultivating more if your resources are small. They will be essential for a successful escape. "Just Say No" involves practicing being assertive and sticking to one's guns. You do not owe a stranger anything and do not let him into or back into your life except on your terms. My favorite is "Flip the Script," which means to take control of the dating and relationship initiation situation so that you are not in his power. You can do this by driving your own car, not going to bars and others places where the temptation to drink may lead to impaired judgment and greater intimacy than you want. Ask for his number, but do not give yours. Go on dates with friends so that you have other eyes on the way he treats you.
One of Fairweather's more creative chapters in that dealing with how abusers' pick victims. She believes that they intentionally (but perhaps unconsciously) pick women with certain characteristics. These women would be high in empathy and altruism, resourceful, not impulsive, and looking for love. Once a prospective victim is found, he will go into a full-court press to woe her and get her under his control. After that she is ready to be victimized. This chapter is based more on her clinical work with groups of victims than on a research literature, but it rings true to me.
But the tables can be turned and women can learn to choose their partners' intentionally rather than just letting love happen (or letting him manufacture love with his deceit). I will not itemize the details of this very useful chapter, but will mentioned the final point--trust your gut instincts when they say that something is not right about him.
The detailed enumeration of risk factors to partners is one of the most comprehensive in the literature. And she issues an important warning at the end. There is no simple correlation between previous forms or levels of threat and the risk of being killed. Circumstances, such as ending the relationship, getting pregnant, having a child, can all be triggers to higher levels of violence depending upon the abusers' psychological makeup. Nearly 30% of intimate partner homicides reported no previous physical abuse.
What about interventions to change the abuser, how effective have they been? The story is dismal (Babcock, J. C.. Green, C. E., & Robie, C. 2004). Most highly respected experts did agree that change is rare even in good behavioral Intervention programs. "[Too often] men just learn how to abuse without looking bad [switching to psychological abuse so that no physical marks are left to show what they are doing]". (Fairweather, p.182) But more recent research would suggestion a qualification to her strong conclusion. Seriatim, Murphy, and Jeffrey (2013) report that men who accepted responsibility for their previous abuse, showed lower rates of relapse into partner abuse than those who do not. Still Fairthweather's focus is appropriately on how to escape as the best bet for future safety.
Chapter 9 goes into detail on ending the relationship. I found it especially useful on how and when to include children in the planning and execution of a departure. Many of the points in this chapter have been covered in other handbooks for victims, but the rationale and detail are exemplary. Preparing for the distinct likelihood that the abuser will not easily let one go even far away is essential. At some point, you will probably be dealing with the police. Knowing what to expect and how to relate is important. Fairweather's summary of handling the police is one of the best parts of the volume. Women, who understand the police and the rest of the criminal justice system, stand a much better chance of being heard, believed, and ultimately getting the protection they desire. Note however, that they may not get the protection that they truly need.
As research by T. K. Logan and T. Faragher (2010) in Kentucky has shown, women in rural areas face these problems: (1) the abusive partner may have friends on the police force and thus unduly influence the case and (2) judges are often seen as biased against women and reluctant to treat the abusive behavior as a felony stalking/abuse case. In SC, I have heard the judge say, "Let's call it a misdemeanor, or otherwise we would have to take his hunting gun away." That same gun may become part of a spouse killing.
The world of the post-escape victim has changed in remarkable ways. Beginning in the 1970s, a wave of legislation and consciousness-raising has led to the creation of genuine services for victim/survivors. There are specialists in post-abuse therapy, offices of victim assistance; officers in sheriff and police department who have been trained in the distinctive issues of abuse/stalking victims. Victim advocates are crisis managers who know the system and can help victims get the resources that they need in ways that friends and family members may not be able to. Analyses of other victim supports are presented in some detail.
For whom is this volume intended? First and foremost, for victims who want to become survivors. It is one of the most comprehensive treatments of all relevant issues. It will also be a useful resource in any advanced undergraduate or graduate level course in partner violence. It is a worthy addition to the Seal Press's series of books by women for women.
Caldwell, J. E., Swan, S. C., & Woodbrown, D. (2012). Gender differences in intimate partner violence outcomes. Psychology of Violence, 2, 42-57.
Logan, T. K., & Faragher, T. (2010). Perspectives on civil protection orders in domestic violence cases: The rural and urban divide. NIJ Journal (No. 266). Retrieved on November 16, 2013 from www.gov/journals/266/perspectives.htm.
Semiartin, J. N., Murphy, C. E., & Jeffrey, D. (2013). Observed behavior during group treatment for partner-violent men: Acceptance of responsibility and promotion of change. Psychology of Violence, 3, 126-139.
© 2013 Keith E. Davis
Keith E. Davis, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.