Sunday, November 13, 2022

Safe Relationships Facilitate Family Well-Being

Hollywood has led us to believe that the fundamentals of a good marriage are: love, passion, infatuation, romance, and chemistry. In my professional opinion, those are the tier two fundamentals. The vital tier one fundamentals are: respect, empathy, friendship, forgiveness, trust, and safety, which is the focus of this essay.

Back in the early days of domestic violence awareness and prevention, safety in relationships meant there would be no physical abuse. I had the honor of serving as executive director of Shalom Task Force (STF) for three years. The mission of STF is to combat and prevent domestic violence and foster healthy and safe relationships in families. It is a blessing that from 1994 to 2012 the rate of domestic violence declined by 63% in the United States. Sadly however, according to the CDC, one in four women and one in seven men will experience physical violence by their intimate partner at some point during their lifetime. While most events are relatively minor (i.e. grabbing, shoving, pushing) there are tragically fatal injuries as well.

Early in the DV prevention movement, domestic violence referred only to physical abuse and was defined as any intentional act which causes or threatens injury or trauma to another person by way of direct contact. STF brought attention to three additional types of abuse: 1. verbal and psychological abuse – using words to control, devalue, insult, or criticize another person including yelling and humiliating, which destroys the self-confidence of the victim. 2. Emotional - mistreating a person through use of words or gestures aimed at affecting a victim's self-esteem and frightening and isolating them.

3. Financial abuse is using power to control a partner by withholding money. Examples include restricting access to bank accounts and threatening to withhold money if a partner leaves the abusive relationship.

Digital Abuse

In recent years, STF added several more categories of abuse to raise awareness for the general public. Digital abuse is the use of technology assert control and manipulation by stalking, intimidating, bullying, or controlling a person via a social networking platform. Examples of this include stealing a person's digital passwords, threatening to post inappropriate photos on social media, or mocking on social media.

In recent years, abusers have used apps on their smartphones that are connected to internet-enabled devices in their homes. These apps remotely control everyday objects in the home. These can be used to watch and listen in or just to scare and show power. Even after the partner leaves the home, the devices often remain and continued to be used to intimidate and confuse the remaining parties. Examples of this include a woman who turned her air conditioning to a cool setting, only to find it switched off in the middle of the night for no reason. Another victim said that the code numbers on the digital lock on her front door changed daily and she couldn't get into her house. A third victim told an abuse hotline that she kept hearing the doorbell ring at all hours of the night and no one was there (NY Times 6-23-18).

Religious and Spiritual Abuse

This category involves the practice of someone in a dominant position creating a toxic culture using the bible or religion to control, harass, ridicule, shame, or intimidate another, preventing the partner from practicing their religious beliefs, or using their partner’s religious or spiritual beliefs to manipulate or shame them.

Sexual Abuse: any sexual act or unwanted touch performed without a partner's consent. This includes forcing a partner to send sexually explicit photos or distributing sexually explicit images of one’s partner.

Immigration Abuse: abusers exert power and control over their victims because of their immigration status such as preventing the victim from learning English or communicating with family and friends. Intimidation includes destroying legal documents needed in the U.S. such as passports. Economic abuse - getting the victim fired from their job by falsely reporting that the victim is undocumented.

                                University of Denver’s Four Safeties 

Dr. Scott Stanley, a research professor at the University of Denver, conducts studies on marriage and romantic relationships and develops materials that help people in their relationships. Together with colleagues H. Markman and N. Jenkins, he heads up the team at the renowned PREP (Prevention and Relationship Education Program) which produces materials used in pre-marital and relationship education.

Dr. Stanley and colleagues have delineated four primary areas of safety that are necessary in a healthy relationship. 1. Physical Safety is the bedrock requirement for a healthy marriage. There should be no threat of being physically harmed, nor should either spouse be physically or emotionally intimidated by the other. Domestic violence experts agree that fear of being hurt or controlled by one's spouse or fear that others will be hurt is a red flag in a relationship. The most dangerous patterns involve aggression that leads to injuries and/or ongoing control and intimidation. 

2. Emotional Safety: the comfort to be oneself and feel connected to their spouse. When this is present in a relationship, each spouse can raise concerns and express vulnerabilities without fear of rejection. Scores of studies document that those couples who struggle in marriage and are most likely to divorce, are those who have more frequent and intense conflicts. ‎It is fairly easy to recognize when an argument is escalating or when one spouse is demeaning or showing contempt for the other. It becomes more complex when those patterns wear away at what people deeply desire in marriage. Emotional Safety: being able to be yourself and feel connected to your spouse. When a couple has this, each spouse can raise concerns and express vulnerabilities without fear of rejection.  

Commitment Safety should also be prioritized.

Couples in thriving healthy marriages do not merely have a solid day-to-day connection. They share an abiding sense of having a future together, a sense that provides a secure attachment that is beneficial for spouses and for children. Security about the future is crucial because most people do not invest in something, whether a financial asset or a relationship, without some reasonable confidence in its ability to last.

Community Safety unlike the above three, is not in the sole control of the couple. Rather, it refers to the context of the marriage. Is the environment safe? Are there sufficient resources? Jobs? Healthcare? Is there stress from poverty or anxiety about crime? Are transportation and healthy food accessible? These are far from academic questions for many families and they highlight how important context is for marital health. Think of a couple like a plant. All other things being
, the plant with better soil, nutrients, and mix of rain and moisture...thrives!  Shalom Task Force Hotline: 718 337-3700. National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800 799-7233.

Dr. Alan Singer has been a marriage therapist in New York and New Jersey since 1980, with an 80% success rate in saving marriages of couples on the brink of divorce. He serves as an Adjunct Professor for the Touro University Graduate School of Social Work. He is a Certified Discernment Counselor, coordinates reconciliation for family estrangement, blogs at, and is author of the book, Creating Your Perfect Family Size (Wiley). All counseling sessions use ZOOM. His mantra: I’ll be the last person in the room to give up on your marriage.  (732) 572-2707