October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Many organizations are bringing awareness on how 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men become victims of domestic abuse in their lifetime. It is an epidemic that many do not know how to deal with if it is brought to their doorstep. Whether it is a neighbour, a co worker, a friend, family member there are ways that you can help.
- LISTEN – When a victim is caught in a domestic abuse relationship they have probably been hiding the fact that they are being abused for a very long time. It could be months or even years. There self esteem is probably battered. They have probably been told that no one will believe them, that the abuse is their fault and that they deserve what is happening to them. They are also probably pretty ashamed that they are being abused. So when they finally take that deep breath and reach out for support they really just need you to listen. They need to share their story without judgement. Offering your advice will come later. To begin with they just need someone to listen.
- BELIEVE – One of the tactics an abuser uses to keep their victim under their control is telling them that no one will believe them if they speak up. So when they do finally speak up do not doubt what they say. Even if you know their abuser and he or she seems like such a great guy or woman believe this person. Know that it takes great strength and courage to finally break their silence. Also most abusers save their abuse for an audience of one, their victim. They abuse behind closed doors in order to protect themselves and often what you see is a very fake person.
- DON’T TELL THE SURVIVOR WHAT TO DO. LISTEN TO WHAT THEY WANT TO DO. – When someone is in an abusive relationship they are being told all the time how to be, what to think, what to say, often what to wear, who they can be friends with, where they can go etc. Their whole life is being controlled by their abuser. Their thoughts and opinions are not important in this relationship. They do not need someone else, although well intentioned, to come in and tell them how to deal with this abusive relationship. What they do need is someone to ask, “What do you want to do?” Don’t be surprised if at first they stumble over their response, remember their thoughts and opinions have meant little for some time now. They might be afraid to express their opinions as they were probably abused in some way if they did. Abusers operate under a “It’s my way or the highway” way of thinking and if you do not go on their highway you pay the price in some way through abuse. So be patient, offer support and listen to what they want to do.
- RESPECT THEIR DECISIONS – It’s important, as you support this Survivor, that you remember this is their life. Not yours. They may make decisions that you do not agree with, like staying with or going back to their abuser. Please understand that breaking free from an abusive relationship is hard to do. The Survivor has been manipulated and brainwashed by their abuser for some time. Often they are told that no one else will love them or they may think it is best for their children (if they have some) to have their parents stay together or they may face financial difficulties if on their own. 99% of abusive relationships involve financial abuse. The abuser may have been the bread winner, they may have limited the Survivors access to funds, made them stay at home so they do not have a job or their abuser may have created debts in their name. These are all ways for the abuser to control their victim and making it difficult to leave. Also the Survivor may be threatened that if they leave their children, a pet, or a family member may be hurt or worse. The Survivor may have religious pressure to stay in their marriage. Myself I struggled with breaking my marriage vows if I left. Eventually I did learn that God does not sanction abuse or expect you to stay in an abusive relationship and I was able to then leave. Lastly your friend, family member or coworker might go back or stay because they love their abuse. As insane as you may think that is because how can you love someone who abused you well let me explain. An abuser is not always abusive, especially in the beginning of the relationship. Often they are sweet and caring, someone that the Survivor falls in love with. In the end the abuser was probably nice to manipulate the Survivor into the relationship, but your loved one will remember those good times. Survivors of domestic abuse have genuinely loved their abuser at some point even if the abusers love was not real. It is not easy for anyone to walk away from someone they love. Also remember that abusers are master manipulators. Often when you are trying to leave an abuser will make all sorts of promises that he or she will change. It can be hard to leave when the man or woman you have always hoped would change promises that he or she will. On average a woman will leave a domestic abusive relationship 7 times before they finally finish the relationship. So I urge you to be patient, feel free to voice your concern if they do return, and let them know you are there for them if they need you. Knowing they are not alone is important.
- OFFER TO GO WITH THEM IF THEY DECIDE TO VISIT A SUPPORT NETWORK – There may come a time that the Survivor in your life needs to report the abuse to the police, or wants to go to counselling, or visit a local shelter to get advice. These are scary steps for the Survivor. Admitting to strangers that you need help and that you have been abused takes a lot of courage and strength. Having a supportive friend or family member with them can make all the difference so offer to be there and be supportive.
- SPEAK OUT AGAINST VICTIM BLAMING – Let’s face it we live in a society that blames the victim. You may hear things like; “What were you wearing when you got raped? or “You should not have looked at him like that. He wouldn’t have hit you if you had not looked at him” Or some other nonsense. Let me say this once, loud and clear; THE VICTIM IS NOT TO BLAME. THE ABUSER IS COMPLETELY RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT THEY CHOOSE TO DO. Period.
- LOOK AFTER YOURSELF – Supporting a Domestic Abuse Survivor can be draining. They have been holding in a lot of secrets for a long time and when they start speaking out they may not be able to talk about anything else. Understand that they are verbally sorting out what has happened to them. Survivors do live in in a world of denial while they are a being abused. They tell themselves that it isn’t that bad or that he or she was just having a bad day and he or she didn’t mean to hit them. They live in this denial so that they can mentally survive the abuse. When they start “waking up” to what has been done to them they will need to talk out what happened. Sometimes they may across as needy or demanding of your attention. Perhaps you are the only one they have told. Please be understanding that their world is completely shaken up and they have been silenced for a long time. Their overpowering needs will lessen as they heal, as they get into counselling or other some other support system. If it is too much for you, you do have the rite to set boundaries around what you can and cannot do for them and you can refer them to the National Domestic Hotline for support at 1 800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1 800-787-3224 (TTY).
- HELP BRING AWARENESS TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE – Whether it’s attending a public event that brings awareness to Domestic Violence or sharing a post about Domestic Violence on your facebook wall you are helping break the silence that surrounds this epidemic. You are helping all Survivors, not just your loved one, have a voice and take their power back.
- VOLUNTEER – Shelters, Victim Services and Hotlines are always looking for volunteers. Often your extra set of hands can be just what they need to meet the high demands they need to meet.
- TALK TO THE MEN IN YOUR LIFE – We still have some pretty old and hurtful ways of looking at women. Women are still objectified in our society. Talk to the men you know. Tell them how this feels and if you see them carrying out this behaviour call them on it and ask them to stop. Encourage them that if they know of a friend who is hitting his girlfriend that they don’t look the other way, that they speak up. If we all work together, if we all shine a light on Domestic Violence we will support the Survivors everywhere. It is important to expose the abuser and hold them accountable.
- LASTLY, SHOW COMPASSION – There is group of Survivors that I have not really mentioned and that is our silent brothers. Men who are being abused by their partner. Often these Survivors do not speak up because they are deeply ashamed that they are being abused. Men are often taught from boyhood to be tough and “suck it up.” I cannot say how wrong that way of thinking is. Men have just as much a rite to speak up about their feelings and receive help if they are being abused. So if a male friend, family member or coworker discloses that they are being abused please show compassion and offer support. Understand that they have taken a great personal risk in telling you so please respond accordingly.
The recovery from abuse is a roller coaster ride. The Survivor in your life will have good and bad days. Sometimes you may not understand why they choose to do what they do, but remember that they are on a journey. They will take two steps forward and one back quite often. Your support though will make the journey that much easier.