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The warning signs of a bad relationship

August 07, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

For several weeks now, I've been talking to a woman who's gotten herself in a jam. Pregnant for the first time by a man she says she now realizes isn't yet up the challenge of being a father, she broke off the relationship. According to her, he's not taking it well and has behaved in a way that makes her fearful of what he might do. Nothing violent so far, she said, but scary nonetheless.

I've explained to her that because none of this has gone to court, it's impossible to write about it in any detail, even if I don't name names. Then talk to the prosecutor, she said, about what's wrong with the present laws which don't protect women.

Because this incident allegedly took place in Pennsylvania, I spoke to Tim Wilmot, assistant district attorney for Franklin County, who told me that the law is not a bulletproof vest. No protective order, he said, can stop someone determined to do the wrong thing. The best protection, Wilmot said, is to take care when getting into relationships.

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"We have pretty stiff drunk-driving laws, for instance," he said, "but the only way we can guarantee a drinking driver is not going to reoffend is if we lock him up."

But until that happens, Wilmot said, the driver can't be arrested based on what he might do.

Wilmot said that women often come into the district attorney's office and say that they know that their ex-husband or former boyfriend is going to do something.

"We can't convict someone for what they might do in the future," Wilmot said.

Those people are referred to Woman In Need, a victim service agency that provides help in Franklin and Fulton counties. Other agencies in Maryland and West Virginia provide similar services.

In some cases, Wilmot said, a relationship can go from pleasant to homicidal without warning, but there usually are some signs of trouble.

Why do men seem more prone than women to hang on to a relationship that's over?

That's not always the case, Wilmot said, although "men will more frequently have a more violent response, but I see a lot of vindictiveness and retribution going back and forth between the sexes."

Wilmot said "the break-up of a marriage or a live-in relationship...it's very painful. The healing is very much like what takes place after a death. It's the old notion that when you marry, people become part of one another. And when you divorce it's like you are ripping them apart. Some people can do that civilly, but some are hostile."

Do you find yourself counseling the people you're trying to help navigate the court system?

Yes, said Wilmot, especially in regard to the no-contact orders issued to keep an abuser away from his estranged wife or girlfriend.

Women who seek such orders need to know that if they do something like accepting phone calls from the ex-boyfriend, Wilmot said, "Then he's thinking that you're okay with him contacting you. If you want to achieve what this order is designed for, then you have to help us."

How bad is the problem now?

"We see about 10 to 12 cases a month where charges are filed. Maybe 15 a month," he said, adding that the frequency increases around the holidays, when emotions run high and things like custody exchanges are more frequent.

"Officers probably see double that," he said.

Is there a way to avoid being a victim?

There could be, Wilmot said, "if people were more cautious about getting into intimate relationships" especially where the other party is a substance abuser. Break-up time is particularly dangerous.

"People need to look very carefully at the decision to break off a relationship. The most violent episodes take place when an initial separation occurs," he said.

In my experience in talking to victims of domestic abuse, the violence often continues because women believe, despite all they've experienced, that if they only try a little bit harder or say a few more prayers, that their abuser will change. Miracles do happen, but as the old-time farmers knew, you can trust in God, but only a lock and a sturdy door keeps the raccoons out of the chicken house.

Watch for the warning signs on an unhealthy relationship - someone who "plays" too rough, who wants to control all your time and who doesn't want you to spend any time with your friends.

None of this helps the lady I've been talking with, but it might help you to think about her troubles the next time you're tempted to give the jerk who smacks you around just one more chance.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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