Why the more successful you are, the more dangerous your relationship could get

Daily Telegraph, 5 April 2017

No woman is immune from domestic abuse. It affects those from all kinds of backgrounds. Indeed, in some cases it appears that success actually increases the risk of violence.

Concerns about the welfare of former Spice Girl Mel B, whose real name is Melanie Brown, have surfaced in recent years. The 41 year-old has appeared in public with visible bruises and abrasions which, at the time, she explained away, claiming to have fallen and hurt herself.

But she has painted a very different picture of her marriage since filing for divorce from the producer Stephen Belafonte, who has consistently denied allegations that he has been violent towards his wife.

Brown has now taken out a restraining order against her husband of a decade. Documents filed with a court in Los Angeles lay out a catalogue of alleged abuse, including claims that Belafonte punched and choked her, as well as forcing her to have sex with him and ‘random women’.

One of her key claims, which will be horribly familiar to organisations that help victims of domestic violence, is that Belafonte’s behaviour got worse as she became more successful.

Brown alleges the abuse followed a pattern in which her husband ‘would beat me down to let me know he was in charge’. She claims he was so jealous when she filmed a segment with the singer Usher for the X Factor in 2012 that he punched her and split her lip. Another claim refers to the closing ceremony of the London Olympics, when Brown was due to make a high-profile appear with the Spice Girls.

The day before, according to Brown, her husband punched her and pushed her to the floor, causing carpet burns on her body. The marks were so visible, she claims, that Belafonte forced her to tweet that she had injured herself by running in heels.

Many victims of domestic violence will hide the violence they are subjected to, suffering crippling feelings of shame and fear of their abuser. Brown’s allegations, if true, offer insights into a form of abuse that often hides in plain sight- not least because it’s commonly thought that a successful, rich, apparently confident woman cannot be a victim.

The link between poverty and domestic abuse is well-known, with research published by the Office for National Statistics showing that women who live in poor households are three times more likely to become victims. But that doesn’t mean that affluent women have nothing to worry about, with a Norwegian study pointing to a specific risk to women who have a higher income or education that their partners.

The research, published three years ago, highlighted the effects of a perceived power imbalance within relationships. Crucially, it identified some men’s inability or refusal to cope with having a successful partner as a key factor.

“Violence or control is used as a compensation for the partner’s weak position in the relationship, and may thus be regarded as an attempt to balance what is perceived as an uneven division of power,” said sociologist Heidi Fischer Bjelland.

The same theme is emerging in new TV series Big Little Lies, where the character played by Nicole Kidman is abused by her husband when she decides she wants to return to work. To outsiders, the idea of marriage as a contest is unpleasant and disturbing. But in this type of toxic relationship, the man is initially attracted towards a successful woman, using her to big himself up.

As time passes, however, her success turns from a source of self-congratulation – a form of reflected glory – into something that makes him feel small and neglected. Brown’s court documents contain allegations that suggest that her husband was supportive when they first married, at a time when she claims her self-esteem was low, but changed dramatically when her career took off again in the US.

Power can be as significant in some abusive relationships as economics. Women may assume they’re safe because they have a supportive partner, who makes a point of telling friends how well they’re doing. But men who seemingly like a ‘mentor’ role sometimes feel very differently when the woman they see as their protegee begins (in their warped view of the world) to outperform them.

Domestic abuse comes in many forms. What’s important is to spot the signs – and make sure every victim gets the support she needs to escape from a violent partner.

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