From the outside, it looked like Roblyn Lewter had a good marriage with a wonderful man. What no one knew was that, for years, she endured violence by his hands and feared for her life.
Finally, she said, “enough is enough — because I am going to die,” and filed for a restraining order.
“The day the restraining order was delivered. He decided he was going to kill me that night,” said Lewter, an international psychologist and domestic violence expert who lives in Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, North Carolina.
She did not dare go back home that day in the early 2000s. Instead, she drove to multiple police stations, asking for help, she said.
“Police were able to track my phone, and one night, he called my phone 365 times,” she said. “He was trying to find me, threatening to murder me.”
His threats and attempts to contact her continued — until he faced felony charges. Until that point, Lewter said he never even had a speeding ticket.
Lewter shared her story in an Instagram Live session about the impact of domestic violence on mental health hosted by Urban Health Media Project. The organization’s monthly “Therapy Thursday” conversations include experts and people with direct experience and are moderated by UHMP students, alums and interns.
Lewter’s experience of trying to leave an abuser is all too common.
In a study of 231 women who were killed by an intimate partner, only 11 percent had restraining orders. Of those who had a restraining order in place, one fifth died within two days of obtaining it, and one third within a month, according to the research.
In 90% of cases of coercive control — controlling behavior that gives the perpetrator power over their victim — when a victim decides to walk away, the abuse severely intensifies, said panelist Christine Cocchiola, a licensed social worker and coercive control educator, researcher, and survivor from Connecticut.
That makes the decision to leave extremely complicated.
“It is a mental battle because you know what has happened [before] you have tried to leave,” said U.K.-based panelist Lis Hoyte, author of “Break Free,” a book that offers tools to leave coercive relationships. “You know what this person is capable of that nobody knows.”
On average, it takes women seven attempts to permanently escape an abusive relationship. Fear of post-separation violence, lack of a support system, feelings of embarrassment and failure and financial dependency on an abusive partner can make it harder to leave.
Lewter left her abuser in 2004 two years after getting her first of three master’s degrees, this one in counseling psychology. She was training and counseling domestic violence and rape victims while experiencing violence herself. She earned a PhD in International Psychology in 2014 and also has an MBA and an MS in Health Care Administration.
As co-owner of Lewter and LaRow International Consulting Group, she has done extensive work to introduce mental health services to countries, especially in Africa and the Middle East, where it is not often a priority. When countries have been affected by war, corruption and poverty, survival is often the focus, she said. This work is rewarding as it benefits the larger population and not just one person at a time, said Lewter in a follow-up interview.
Lewter has also worked for years in higher education, teaching at the University of the District of Columbia, the Chicago School of Psychology and Stratford University, where she’s worked since 2007, including as a Dean and President of several Stratford campuses.
All of those credentials and accomplishments, however, often leave former victims like Lewter feeling like there is no other option but to stay. A highly manipulative abuser’s strategic moves to entrap the victim is called “intimate terrorism,” the panelists agreed.
While anyone of any race or economic status can fall victim to domestic abuse, some people are at higher risk: women make up 86% of all victims, and low levels of education and a history of childhood abuse from either the victim or perpetrator made a woman more susceptible to domestic violence, according to the World Health Organization’s Multi-Country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence.
Other common factors including women’s young age, abusers having outside sexual partners, cohabitation without marriage, women in new relationships (less than five years), and alcohol abuse.
Women of color are also at higher risk. Black and indigenous women suffer the highest reported rates of intimate abuse, according to YWCA, which provides services to victims of domestic violence.
Growing up in an abusive home can increase the likelihood of entering an abusive romantic relationship.
“My father was very abusive, physically abusive to my mother and I didn’t realize until later how impactful that was for me,” said Lewter.
“Love Bombing”— intense affection, connection, and attraction offered at the beginning of a relationship — can hide red flags, said Cocchiola. For Lewter, who met her ex-husband in her late teens, he was a “knight in shining armor” who made her feel protected after growing up in an abusive home.
“By the time it [violence] started to happen, it caught me off guard and I wondered, ‘What did I do to cause this? How can I get things back to the way it was because it was perfect?'” she said.
Culture also plays a significant role.
“Depending on what culture you are in, some things are seen as more acceptable and other things are seen as less acceptable,” said Hoyte. “I think sometimes that can help perpetuate that cycle of abuse with things like arranged marriages.”
A shift in culture is needed, agreed Cocchiola. There needs to be more focus on changing the way many children are raised in patriarchal societies and advocating for an egalitarian society, said Cocchiola.
The experts agreed victims need more government protection, such as reinforcement of protective orders, providing legal advisers to navigate the judicial system as well as offering shelter and other basic needs.
Victims should and must advocate for themselves.
“You absolutely need to leave, contact the police, but also hold the courts accountable, make sure everyone knows you, let your voice be heard,” Lewter said. “Contact your local county and find out what resources are available.”
Lewter, who has never told her story publicly, was “too proud” to tell others as it was happening, having married a man people considered her “lucky” to have.
She’s telling it now because, “I do know there’s a lot of people who go through this,” she said. “You have to be diligent, but you have to seek help and demand the systems work on your behalf.”
Yesenia Barrios, a graduate of Baruch College in New York City, is an intern with the Urban Health Media Project.