Domestic violence survivor and expert Philippa Sklaar said although women are never to blame for being abused, they must take ownership of their role in an abusive relationship if they hope to break the cycle.
Speaking to The CJN at the offices of Act To End Violence Against Women, a Jewish non-profit organization that serves female domestic abuse victims, at which she has volunteered since moving to Toronto last fall, Sklaar said she hopes her book, When Loving Him Hurts, will help women unravel “the complexities of abuse,” and emphasize the need to look inward to understand their role in the “dance of abuse.”
Having been married three times since she was 20, each time to an abusive man, Sklaar has years of experience with domestic abuse.
She was raised in a tight-knit South African Jewish community where the misconception that the Jewish community is immune to domestic abuse flourished, and said she didn’t realize that abuse could involve something other than physical violence.
“I had no idea that a majority of abuse takes place without a fist or a hand being raised,” Sklaar said.
While her first and third husbands were emotionally abusive, it was her second husband, a South African media mogul, who was “not only violently abusive, but he was also addicted to substances. For the longest time, I blamed the substances every time he hit me,” she said.
She recalled an incident while they were on vacation in Thailand. She overheard him having a flirtatious phone call with a woman. When she confronted him, the argument escalated to the point that he hit her.
“He hit me so hard that I fell on the floor… He left me crying into the carpet,” she said.
“In the cab on the way to the airport, he put his arm around me and he was apologizing. I felt so important and so special and so empowered. He was telling me how much he loved me, and the lesson I taught him that day was that it was OK to beat me.”
She said although she eventually left him, she didn’t examine her first two marriages or her own contribution.
“I just saw them as these horrible, abusive men and I wanted to go live in America so I could start my life afresh. All I did was relocate my pathology and myself to America, and there I met husband No. 3. After I married him, I started noticing the same syndrome, without the violence,” she said.
“It was after that marriage that I finally had to look at myself enough to see what it was about me – it wasn’t a coincidence that I just happened to choose all these men.”
Sklaar’s therapist Sue Hickey, who practised for more than 30 years, asked her to co-write When Loving Him Hurts, to share her experience as a woman who contributed to the “dance of abuse” and learned to overcome her self-destructive pathology. “Until we understand what that is, we’ll continue repeating the pattern. My story is proof of that,” Sklaar said.
She said that until she was able to understand why she felt she needed to be loved and validated by a damaged man, she would continue to jump from one abusive relationship to another.
“How do you explain to someone why you want to hug a shark? That the hands that beat me, I wanted them to comfort me? How do I explain to myself that the man who hit me, kicked me, punched me, pulled out my hair, spat in my face, that I wanted him to love me? I mean, it’s insane.”
Although she acknowledges that some people may confuse her message – that a woman must acknowledge her role in an abusive relationship – as a kind of blame-the-victim mentality, she said, although women are “never, ever to blame for the abuse,” they are part of the solution.
“As soon as I took responsibility for what my contribution was, I can’t begin to tell you how empowering that was. I was no longer at the mercy of anybody,” Sklaar said, adding that the book outlines five skills and strategies that women can do to work on a solution.
Since her third marriage ended seven years ago, Sklaar said she is content being on her own. “Now I value my time alone and I love who I am now,” she said. “My worthiness isn’t dependent on anyone else’s opinion of me. That took a long time.”