You Can't 'Fix' an Abuser

Black women continue to be at greatest risk for lethal violence in intimate relationships. As the tragic case of a murdered marriage counselor shows, thinking you can help an abusive partner may be one of the most dangerous mistakes you can make.


Love apparently brought Tonya Hunter paroxysms of pain during the final months of her 42 years of life.

The Cleveland marriage and family counselor was enamored with her job of helping people through crisis, but she couldn't help herself. Her husband of seven months, Maurice Lyons, 38, is accused of murdering her in their home on July 25, according to The Plain Dealer.

Lyons, a repeat felon with a history of drug abuse, reportedly stabbed Hunter over and over and over again and then dumped her body in the family's garage before fleeing the scene, the news report said. He was later arrested and charged with aggravated murder and domestic violence. Hunter had met Lyons through an anger-management class she was teaching.

Hunter's tragic death illustrates a pattern found in some domestic violence situations: seemingly strong partners who go into relationships to help struggling mates but who end up becoming victims themselves, enmeshed in a web of deceit and dysfunction.

Some experts refer to the relationships as projects, or fixer-ups, like an old house that becomes a money pit. Some women take on these so-called projects out of fear of being alone, while others are struggling with their own issues. Some experienced domestic violence as children or saw a parent endure it, including sexual, physical, emotional or verbal abuse. They think they can right the past by fixing an abusive partner, says Marcus Hummings, a counselor at Howard University, who also sees adults and adolescents in his private practice.

"Childhood abuse sets up a dynamic where a person's foundation is rattled and they are conditioned to see themselves as flawed or damaged,'' Hummings says. "They try to work through the issues through their relationships, following whatever trauma they had in their early childhood.''

Intimate-partner violence is a major problem in the United States. Each year, women experience about 4.8 million related physical assaults and rapes, according to a 2009 fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Men are the victims of about 2.9 million intimate-partner-related physical assaults. In 2005, the most recent year for which numbers are available, there were 1,510 deaths attributed to intimate-partner violence, and 78 percent of the victims were female.

For African-American women, the statistics are grimmest. According to a 2008 study of 2006 data by the national nonprofit organization Violence Policy Center, black women are killed at a rate nearly three times higher than that of white women. In the study, which identified 1,818 women by race who were murdered by men, 1,208 of the victims were white and 551 were black.

The reasons for the higher death rate among black women are still unknown, but according to the CDC, several factors -- including drug or alcohol abuse; being exposed to violence as a child; and unemployment, which may cause stress -- can increase the risk that someone will hurt his or her partner.

Indeed, exposure to violence as a young child was an impetus for Harold L. Turley II, a former abuser who wrote a memoir about his healing, My Darkest Hour: The Day I Realized I Was Abusive. "I had pent-up aggression,'' the Washington, D.C.-based author and performance poet told The Root. "I had problems dealing with and channeling my anger. My breaking point came when I put my hands on a woman with whom I had been in a two-and-a-half-year relationship. I did not want to become what I hated most, which was my stepfather, who was abusive toward my mother. That wasn't the man my mother raised me to be. That's when I decided to get help.''