LIFESTYLE Relationships  >  Dangerous Liaisons – Domestic Abuse in Midlife

Dangerous Liaisons – Domestic Abuse in Midlife

Dangerous Liaisons – Domestic Abuse in Midlife
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By Nina Malkin

When Anna James* moved in with her boyfriend in 2010, loved ones were surprised. Anna, then 62, had been dating Phil only five months, and he lived in a suburb an hour from the city where Anna had social, community and family ties. But Anna seemed so happy—swept off her feet, as the saying goes—and people who cared about her had been hoping she’d find love again after losing her husband.

Unfortunately, the romance soon took a cruel twist, with Phil harshly criticizing Anna’s cooking and housekeeping, her weight and the way she dressed. Then he began to literally—physically—push her around. “Once he ‘had’ me, he became a different person,” Anna says in hindsight. At the time, of course, she simply tried harder to please Phil, who also disparaged Anna’s children and friends, whom she saw less of. In fact, when Anna wound up in the emergency room after a “fall” down the stairs in 2013, she hadn’t seen her daughter in nearly a year. Clutching the arm of a nurse, Anna desperately whispered a request to call her daughter. It was the first step in breaking free of what Anna had been loath to admit: that she was a victim of domestic abuse.

Anna’s hesitance to acknowledge her plight is not uncommon. According to the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life (, 84 percent of elder abuse incidents go unreported. People 60-plus are less likely than their juniors to report incidents due to shame, fear of retaliation and/or reluctance to implicate a partner or family member. More mature victims also tend to have less information about, and access to, services and resources than perpetually plugged-in younger counterparts. Yet the tragedy is domestic abuse in the middle and elder years is a significant problem. We may be older, but when it comes to destructive situations behind closed doors we are not necessarily wiser.

A Different Kind of Danger

Domestic violence is generally defined as a pattern of abusive behavior used to exercise control over an intimate partner or family member. It can include physical, sexual, psychological, emotional and economic abuse. While statistics show that women aged 20 to 24 are the most likely victims, domestic abuse defies gender and age boundaries—not to mention race, sexual preference and economic status. “Domestic violence impacts all populations,” says Tricia B. Bent-Goodley, Ph.D., MSW, director of the doctoral program at the Howard University School of Social Work. “No one is exempt from having the potential to experience this issue.”

Yet domestic abuse can take a distinctive tone in midlife. Unlike Anna, who found herself in an abusive situation for the first time after 50, many mature people have been in theirs for decades. That type of unhealthy relationship may be all they know. “A young person who experiences abuse but never receives proper support and intervention will very likely continue the cycle of accepting abuse later in life,” notes Tania Araya, coordinator of the Mercy Family Violence Response Program in Baltimore, MD.

The longer they continue, the worse abusive relationships may become, because at midlife our support systems can dwindle.“As people age, friends and family pass on, and abusers capitalize on this isolation as an opportunity to exert control,” Araya explains. “Physically challenged individuals experience significantly higher rates of physical and sexual abuse because they’re vulnerable.”

David Wilson* became susceptible to abuse once his MS confined him to a wheelchair—and an unemployed nephew, his only living relative, moved in with him. The nephew convinced David that this was preferable to paying for home care, but the living arrangement quickly proved dysfunctional. “He bullied and insulted me,” David says. “I was already sick in my body; he made me sick in my soul.” The situation might have continued indefinitely had the nephew not been arrested on a drug charge. A social worker ultimately intervened, and David is now in assisted living.

Getting Beyond the Abuse

The figures are staggering: One in four women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime. Nearly a third of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. The cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $5.8 billion each year. Learning these facts would surely make the average person wonder: “Why don’t they just break up, get out, move on!?”

“It is not simple to walk away from these relationships,” says Bent-Goodley, a spokesperson for the National Association of Social Workers and author of The Ultimate Betrayal: A Renewed Look at Intimate Partner Violence. “Older adults are often vested in a particular position or place of employment, and also likely to be anchored in their community.” Leaving a relationship may also necessitate leaving friends, neighbors and extended family, and people over fifty would naturally be reluctant to sacrifice a lifetime of hard work, deep connections and developed networks. A more frightening reason to stay is the possibility of recrimination. “The threat for more serious violence increases after separation,” Bent-Goodley says. “That is a reality for survivors.”

Clearly, escape requires a plan. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, money should be set aside and important paperwork (IDs, car title, birth certificates, etc.) gathered. A restraining order may be required. Arrangements must be orchestrated in advance; impulsive, dramatic scenes should be avoided. The good news is, help is available. “Don’t go it alone,” says Bent-Goodley. “There are resources in your community to assist you, providers ready to help you even if you’re not ready to leave yet, so don’t wait to get help.” A great place to start is

How can you tell if someone you know is in an abusive situation? Trust your instincts. If a person becomes isolated, makes excuses for a partner’s behavior or has visible marks or bruises that they justify with other reasons, pay attention and gently reach out. “And if someone says he or she is being abused, believe them and be supportive,” stresses Araya. “All too often, when a survivor tries to tell, they are shamed, blamed and made to feel as if they are responsible for the abuse, which simply is not true.”

* Names and some identifying details have been changed.

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An all-around wordsmith, Nina Malkin is a journalist, novelist, copywriter and memoirist. She’s also an avid collector of lovely things from eras past—read her musings at