Looking Through the Lens of Abuse: The Katie & Tom Divorce

It’s over, 5 years of “TomKat”. Celebrity divorce is almost constantly in the media, it seems as though lasting relationships are almost extinct in Hollywood, save for the adorably normal Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson (no scandals as far as I know). Divorce rates aside there is something different about the split announced last week of Katie Holmes (called Kate by her soon-to-be ex) and the infamous Tom Cruise: all the signs of a preplanned escape from an abusive relationship. As a psychologist, especially working with college and graduate students, relationships are often the topic of focus in sessions. Abuse in those relationships is frequently the norm. Abuse does not always turn physical, however the scars of psychological, emotional, verbal, financial and even spiritual abuse are long lasting and affect many areas of life for those who are victimized. The most insidious part of this sort of abuse is that it is often explained away, excused, justified and internalized as the “norm” or something to be expected and accepted. I have worked with male victims of abuse and know that this is not an infrequent occurrence; some statistics show that as many as 30% of abuse victims are male and we know than men under- report abuse due to gender role expectations. With that being said I would like to take a moment to focus on women and relationship abuse.

Gender role stereotypes which are still alive and well in our culture, as well as portrayals of women being dominated and/or victimized in media images, contribute to a culture in which abuse of women is normalized. Often times we see a woman being talked down to by her partner, intimidated, controlled financially and otherwise rendered voiceless, and do not intervene.  Clinically it is indicated that one should not push a women to leave and abusive relationship before she is ready and before she has an escape plan in place to preserve her safety. This can be a difficult journey when the psychological abuse has been so prevalent that a woman has become isolated from any resource (including other relationships) that might help her escape. Because of the shame and guilt associated with being a victim of abuse women are reticent to come forward and share their stories. Katie Holmes has provided at least one very public example of a woman who in her own time was able to make an escape plan and free herself from the control of a very powerful man. Although it is unclear the extent to which abuse was present in their relationship we can speculate due to Katie’s exit from her marriage that these dynamics were in play. Reportedly Katie secretly filed for divorce while Tom was out of the country, she had changed her cell phone number, moved to an apartment in NYC, surrounded herself with family and as per reports today has registered at a Catholic Church- Katie had become what some people called the “First Lady of Scientology” during her marriage to Tom.
My hope is that this pop culture story becomes more than just media fodder but takes on a greater purpose: an example of a woman who decided to leave and claim her life back. I want to express that I understand that Katie has resources most women in abusive relationships do not- and that her story is not typical, but it can be a spark that lights the flame in advocates and victims to open a dialogue about escape, taking back power, and starting over.

~Emma Wood, Psy.D.

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