By Casey Gwinn, JD
As we all celebrate and promote October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month across this country in the days ahead, we must take a moment to remember and thank all those who work tirelessly in the trenches to make a difference for survivors and their children. We should also celebrate the courage and perseverance of each and every woman, man, and child that has struggled to overcome violence and abuse this past year. People who care, those who overcome abuse, and all those who donate time and resources to help us in this global struggle all deserve to honored during October (and year around). We have made tremendous progress over the past 30 years but we are not done. The struggle must continue until no one lives in fear of their partner, their parents, or someone who has professed their love and then uses violence, power, and control against them. Many years ago, Sarah Buel challenged me to carefully think through how to speak to those we love that are being hurt and suffering in secret and in silence – speaking to them without judging them and without using power and control to try to help them. I never forgot Sarah’s challenges and put them in a book written with Gael Strack in 2010 – Dream Big: A Simple Complicated Way to Stop Family Violence (Wheatmark Press). Let us be reminded during this October of those five powerful statements and how we can lovingly and with care support all those still trapped in violent and abusive relationships:
I am afraid for your safety.
Most victims of domestic violence know when they are in danger. My friend Gavin de Becker, in his New York Times bestseller, The Gift of Fear, identified the problem that often occurs with domestic violence victims and others who know instinctively when they are in danger. They ignore their instincts. They let other mental processes overcome their fears. Victims of domestic violence, specifically, deal with so many complex emotions that they do not pay adequate attention to their fears. Many times they have lived with the fear for so long that it is normative. They need to be validated. They need an objective third party to express concern for their safety. They do not need to be blamed. They do not need someone to minimize the past violence or threat of future violence. Victims minimize on their own, without any help from others. They need someone to speak honestly, personally, and lovingly. They need someone to validate the intense fear that obsesses the recesses of their mind but is often buried beneath immediate life needs. They need food and shelter. They need money. Their children are acting out. They need to find a job. They miss their abuser. They love their abuser. They believe he will change and that they can help change him. When we say, “I am afraid for your safety,” we dig through the immediate needs. We reach into the recesses of the victim’s mind and find the raw fear that is there.
I am afraid for the safety of your children.
Working with battered women, and years of research and evaluation have confirmed something that many in the domestic violence movement have known for years: Women are more likely to leave their abusers when they realize the impact of the violence on their children. Battered women do not intentionally put their children in harm’s way. They do not intentionally ignore the profound impact on their children. But they minimize the impact. They ignore the impact. They choose to believe their children are resilient and protected from the impact. Those working in the movement now know that is not true. Some children are resilient and do bounce back quickly from witnessing violence, but most children are significantly impacted. Children who witness violence between adults carry it with them for the rest of their lives. And children in domestic violence homes are often physically and sexually abused themselves. So the challenge is to focus the adult victim, usually a woman though sometimes a man, on the effect family violence has on her(his) children. Telling a victim that you fear for the safety of her children is tricky work because a slight, even subtle, variation in this theme of expressing fear for her children’s safety can become victim blaming. We can quite unknowingly point the finger at the victim, as we discussed earlier in the chapter. “Why aren’t you protecting your kids?” “Do you see what you are doing to your kids by leaving them in this violent situation?” It does not take much. Suddenly, it is her fault. You are not on her side. You see her as a bad mother. You see her as part of the problem. And instantly you have lost an opportunity to build a bridge with someone desperately in need of your help and support. However, the statement, “I am afraid for the safety of your children,” is neutral. It does not blame her. In fact, it likely validates her. Again, at some level, she knows that her children are caught in the cross fire. She knows that her children are experiencing the pain and the trauma. But she does not want to believe it. She is trying to save her marriage. Her children become secondary. She wants them to have a father. She is focused on her primary relationship, and it needs major attention. But when a caring friend says, “I am afraid for the safety of your children,” it focuses her on the honest concern of another for her children’s well being. The victim of domestic violence quickly begins to focus there as well. And when she does, her deep love for her children helps her begin to evaluate objectively the costs and benefits of being in an abusive relationship. As she weighs the pros and cons of staying with her abuser or leaving, she begins to factor in what he is doing to her children and what he may still do to them if she stays. Expressing concern for the safety of her children may plant a seed in a victim’s mind, even though she has returned to her abuser over and over in the past. It may begin to help her see why she must seek help and why her abuser must be held accountable for his conduct.
You do not deserve to be treated like this.
Perhaps the greatest struggle for victims of family violence is the tendency to blame themselves and to believe the abuser’s verbal and emotional abuse which, even more powerfully than the violence, demeans them, ridicules them, and puts them down. Counselors, advocates, and therapists working with battered women identify low levels of self-esteem in any clinical assessment. After months, years, and even decades of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse, victims believe they deserve to be treated badly. They must deserve it, or so they reason, or they would not have been treated like this. Indeed, many batterers tell their partners they deserve it. The children too come to think and talk like their father and mother over time. Whenever you communicate value and inherent worth to a victim of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse, you counteract the poison that has soaked into their lives over many years.
There is help available.
Few other messages are as important today for those caught in the web of family violence and relationship abuse. Not only do many victims become isolated and hopeless, but many do not realize how much help is available. Thousands of community organizations and caring professionals exist to deal with the aftermath of family violence. Specialists abound. Police officers and prosecutors are specializing in family violence intervention. Advocates and attorneys are specially trained to meet the needs of family violence victims. Doctors, nurses, therapists, teachers, and even many judges now have significant knowledge and training about issues related to abuse in the home. Pastors, priests, and rabbis are becoming educated and available to help. There is help available and everyone should be able to deliver that message. Simply offering victims the phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline gives them a sense of the help available: (800) 799-SAFE. Memorize it! Then be prepared to offer it to anyone in need. You can obtain brochures from the local domestic violence shelter and distribute them in your business, school, or place of worship. Today, in many communities as well you can contact your Family Justice Center and ask for posters or other materials to distribute.
I am here for you no matter what.
Now the platitudes about loving our neighbor and caring for our fellow man end. Now the moment of truth arrives. If we are going to engage in the high calling of caring about the abused and terrorized in homes everywhere, we need to be there for them. We need to deliver the statements here with passion and commitment even if victims choose to return to the abusive situation over and over. When we come in contact with a friend or loved one in need, and offer help and they do not accept it, what are we going to do? When we explain the conduct they are tolerating is a crime and they return to their criminal abuser anyway, what are we going to do? When they tell us to “butt out,” what are we going to do? The right answer for those who want to do the right thing is to deliver this simple message: I am here for you no matter what and whenever you want my help. There should be no judgment. There should be no ultimatums. There should be no emotional or financial manipulation. There should be no victim blaming. The research tells us that many victims of family violence leave five to seven times before they leave for the last time.
Victims are emotionally invested in the abusive relationship. They believe they can change their partners. They believe love can conquer all and that their love can transform evil to good. They are financially committed to the abusive relationship. They, like all of us, want to make their relationship work. They don’t want to give up. They want an intact family. They want the violence to stop. They want their partner to get help. But they may not accept the help of outsiders initially. They may leave and return. They may get angry when others try to intervene. They may even view interveners as the enemy. But we must remain available for that moment when they are ready for help. We must remain ready no matter how many times it takes and no matter how many times we have to offer the same words of encouragement.