DV Awareness Month: What you can do to help

As the final segment of my DV awareness month series, I wanted to talk a little bit about what YOU can do to help someone who is in an abusive relationship.

I think the first and most important thing you can do is not be judgmental.

Unconditional positive regard is one of the first things I was taught in graduate school, and it has become the tool that I use most often. Don’t judge the victim. Don’t judge her choices. Don’t judge the abuser. Provide unconditional support by listening and reaffirming her feelings and validating her experiences. Don’t underestimate the power of listening.

It takes an average of eight times before a woman leaves an abusive relationship for good. So if a friend comes to you at attempt number two and then eventually takes him back and is met with judgement, it’s unlikely she will turn to you next time. It makes complete sense for you to feel upset if you spent time and effort into helping a friend and then she goes back into the same situation. Which is why unconditional positive regards is a skill; it’s not something that always comes naturally, it’s something that has to be developed and worked on.

I often speak to women who are still in their abusive relationships or end up going back. I know that it can be hard to speak with someone about the violence she is experiencing, and then let her walk back into it year after year. But I also know that it takes time for women to actually leave the relationship, and now so do you.

In Psychology there is a model called the Stages of Change: Pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

You might have a friend in the contemplation stage, where she is thinking about leaving and exploring her options and beginning to speak about the abuse to those she trust. She might not be ready for the preparation or action stage, it takes time to get there.

Be the person they want to come to when they are finally at the action stage. You become that person by listening and providing unconditional positive regard. Don’t judge them if they go back to the relationship. Don’t judge them for not leaving sooner.

The second most important thing that I think a person can do to help a friend is educate them on DV.

I often speak to women who tell me “it’s not that bad” or “I don’t think he is really abusing me”. When I talk to them more and hear examples of the behavior their partner is exhibiting, I am often surprised at how violent and abusive it actually is because they downplayed it so much. He may not be hitting her, but he is throwing things, threatening to hurt her and the children, trapping her in the room and yelling at her, refusing to give her access to money, etc. ALL of that is abuse. But because of the slow and gradual build up of behavior, victims often don’t notice the escalation or categorize it as abuse. Especially verbal and psychological abuse, which is much harder to identify then a broke nose or a bloody lip.

Education needs to be carefully balance with support. There is a way to educate someone without telling them that they are in an abusive relationship and that they need to leave. The most likely response to that is for the victim to jump to the defense of her partner and downplay the abuse.

For example, you can provide reading material, along with a supportive email letting them know that you are there to listen when they want to talk. You can suggest a support group and provide resources, then let them take the time to read them over and decide on their own if they want to seek counseling or group therapy.  Education should always be coupled with support and never with judgement. 

Finally, you can also offer assistance. Concrete assistance is always welcome; a place to stay, financial assistance, a job, etc. A general “I’m here if you need me” is wonderful, but you can always step it up with something specific like a place to stay or an offer to use your car while they seek employment, etc.

I find it best to let the woman decide on her own what kind of assistance she needs, rather than pushing my own plan that I feel will best help her. At the end of the day, she is the only one living her life, and she knows best what she needs.

You can’t force someone to leave an abusive relationships, and you can’t burden yourself and take responsibility for their choices. The best thing you can do is be there to support them when they are ready to leave. 

Domestic Violence: Why don’t they just leave?

It’s never really bothered me when people ask “dumb” questions about deployments or military life.

“Can you visit him in Afghanistan?” or “do you miss him?”, have never riled me up. I just see it as simple curiosity and a lack of knowledge about the topic.

But lately, when my friends and family talk to me about my work, I do find myself getting riled up when people ask “why don’t domestic violence victims just leave?” and “if a man put his hands on me I would be gone”

I know that those comments come from a lack of knowledge and experience as well, but they rile me up because in an unintentional way, they are putting down victims. They are saying victims should have made a different choice, and that the person making the statements would have the confidence/self worth to do the right thing and leave, and clearly these victims don’t if they aren’t leaving. And maybe they don’t really want to leave, otherwise they would have left already.

So I just wanted to do a little psycho-education about domestic violence as part of my Domestic Violence Awareness Month series, and explain a bit why victims may stay in abusive relationships.

I think it’s easier for people to understand concrete reasons, such as financial dependence and lack of knowledge about services available. Both of those are reasons why women stay, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Financial dependence can play a huge role. Especially if a couple has children, the woman has been a stay-at-home-mom who has no job skills, she has no family or friends to help her, no access to the bank account nor the money to hire a good divorce lawyer to fight for child support and alimony. She may feel like she has no other option than to stay and feel that leaving and financially supporting herself and her 1/2/3/4+ children is an impossible feat.

These are the women that I work normally work with, those who come to social service agencies and DV shelters because they have decided to leave but don’t have the financial means to support themselves.

Imagine having multiple children, no job skills or work experience, and having to support your family on your own with only welfare and social services to help you until you get a job. A job that may not even pay for the cost of child care and housing. Imagine what you would put up with to keep giving your children the lifestyle you want them to have.

Which brings us to another reason women stay, children.  It may be the desire to keep their family together; the belief that the children need their father. Even if he is abusive to her, at least he is a good father. She may also feel like she cannot get a divorce, that because of her cultural or religious beliefs she will be looked down upon or not supported by her family by ending the marriage. There can also be the fear of losing their children. If she leaves the relationships and cannot support the children financially, she may fear that the abuser will get custody.

Children can also be a motivation to leave, if the abuser is hurting the children or they are scared of him, many women will leave then, even when they have been putting up with abuse towards themselves for years.

Another barrier to leaving is isolation and lack of support from friends and family. Abusers often isolate their victims. It may begin by a comment of “I don’t think you friends liked me”, and later down the road you find that you no longer have friends, because he has gradually isolated you. A woman may feel she no longer has friends or family to turn to once she finally realizes how abusive the man really is. She may in turn feel afraid or ashamed to reach out to her family, people who may have tried to warn her in the beginning when she couldn’t see how the behaviors were abusive.

For relationships that have become physically violent, there may also be the fear keeping a woman from leaving. Fear of physical retaliation if she tries to leave. Fear of making him more angry. This fear is not irrational, the most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship is when she leaves.

However, what society doesn’t often see, are the psychological/emotional reasons women stay. These reasons are harder to understand then children, isolation, fear or financial dependent, because they aren’t so concrete. It’s like trying to understand what depression feels like when you’ve never been depressed.

So let me try to describe what being in a DV relationships feels like.

One thing to understand is that abuse doesn’t begin all at once. It’s a slow gradual build up. I would hope that every women would run the other way if a man hit her on the first date, but that isn’t what happens in these relationships.

These abusers are charming, they woo and work their way into your life. Before you know it, you are in a committed relationship, a marriage, having his children, etc. And suddenly, the things that may have seemed sweet and loving at first (his jealousy and possessiveness of you), have turned into attacks of rage. “why are you wearing that to work? Are you trying to impress some guy at work? You are such a slut”.

What started out as insults has turned into verbal threats, which then turn into small physical attacks like holding your arm to hard or shoving, which then turn into hitting or choking.

And once a woman finally realize that what is happening is abuse, she may instead blame herself for the abuse, rather than the abuser. These abusers are experts at making you think that it is the victims fault. “I yelled at you because you wore a low shirt and I know you are trying to get attention from other men. If you didn’t dress like a slut I wouldn’t have to hurt you”.  These constant comments work their way into a woman’s mind, and soon she is blaming herself for the abuse and trying to fix it.

They may think, “if I just cook a better dinner, don’t piss him off, nag him less, etc. etc….he won’t be abusive”. Abusers often feed into this. As I stated in my own story, my ex would often tell me I was “so difficult to please” and that I was the reason why he would get so upset and throw things. And I believed him. A confidant, smart woman who grew up in a supportive and loving family. I was not what society often pictures as the “typical” victim.

Another thing to realize, in addition to the slow build up of abuse and victim blaming, is that these men are not abusive all of the time. There is a cycle, and for most cases, there is a honeymoon period that draws women back in. There is a hope every time that it was the last time. Every honeymoon phase draws you back in because things are good again. He is sweet. He is apologizing. He is saying that he will never hurt you again.

This often connects to a hope for change. The hope that if YOU (since you are clearly the problem), just do “better”, than he will change. You can help him and heal him. I remember feeling that way. Telling myself that I was going to be the girl who would stick by him and help him. I would be the one to help him change. If I just loved him enough, supported him enough, was a good enough girlfriend, etc. etc.

But eventually the realization comes that nothing will ever be “enough”. This abuse has nothing to do with the victim, and everything to do with the abuser.

If you made it to the end of this: THANK YOU!

I know it was long, but every time I tired to cut something I felt like I didn’t want to, because it would take away from the story, from the message and the feeling. You can’t know what sometime feels like unless you’ve experienced it yourself, but you can understand better if it is described to you in the right way. My hope was to describe these emotions, feelings and stories into something that people can begin to understand. And with that understanding come compassion and support.

Next week is my final post in this series where I will talk about what YOU can do to help a woman who is in a DV situation.

Stay tuned!

DV Awareness Month: What is Domestic Violence

Sorry for the delay it posting this, I got caught up in life and missed my own deadline! This is last week’s DV post that I was planning on sharing last Tuesday: What is Domestic Violence?

Like I briefly mentioned in my previous post about my own story, I used to think that DV was only physical abuse. If you didn’t have a bruise or a broken nose, then it wasn’t really DV. I believe this is a common misconception, for those who are experiencing these relationships (which they use to downplay their experience or justify their partners behavior), and for the general population, who may not work with this population nor ever experience a DV relationship.

There are actually 6 types of abuse: Physical, Verbal, Emotional, Psychological, Financial and Sexual

I think most people can picture what Physical abuse is. The typical idea that society has of a battered woman with a black eye and a broken nose. However, I was surprised to learn through the course of my career and education, that “trapping” is also a form of physical abuse. Trapping a victim in a corner with your body, blocking the door and not allowing them to leave, etc. That is also considered physical abuse and is eligible for arrest (at least in CA).

Verbal abuse, Emotional Abuse and Psychological abuse I often see tied together. This is the abuser that insults their victim, learns their weaknesses and what aspects of themselves they are ashamed of and exploits it. This is the abuser who shreds a victims self-esteem, telling her she will never be successful, that she is stupid and ugly.  The abuse is verbal, but it has a huge effect on a victims emotional and psychological health.

From my experience in working with victims, many of them say that the verbal/emotional/psychological abuse is often worse then the physical, and that the effects are deeper and harder to repair. When they finally leave the relationship, they are no longer the self-confidant successful women that they were, their mental health is so broken that it takes years to even begin to put themselves back together. Where as a bruise or a broken bone will heal with time, psychological and mental damage may never go away.

Financial abuse is fairly straightforward, and something that most people can understand. It can involve withholding money or stealing money. However, it can also be withholding resources (such as food, clothing, shelter) or preventing someone from working or choosing an occupation.

Sexual abuse extends beyond what most people immediately think of as sexual assault/rape. It can also be coercion, sexual harassment, cheating, forcing someone to watch pornographic material or videotaping sexual intercourse without permission.

I realize that his post was very explicit, perhaps I should have put a warning in the beginning. But in some ways, I don’t think it’s something that should be glossed over. This is the reality of DV, a reality that many women are experiencing on a daily basis. Should we turn a blind eye just because it’s ugly and makes us uncomfortable?

This Tuesday I will hopefully catch up and post about Why Women Stay. I believe it is the most misunderstood topic relating to DV, and one that I have a real passion for and hope that you all read.

DV Awareness Month: My Story

I never considered my self a domestic violence victim until this last year. I knew it had been a bad relationship, and I knew it hadn’t been healthy, but I always thought of DV as physical abuse. Broken noses. Black eyes. If there wasn’t an injury, then it wasn’t DV.

The realization came to me by accident. I had just began my final internship for graduate school and I was offered the opportunity to co-faciliate one of the therapy groups at my new agency. One of the options was a DV group. 

In that first session I heard a lot of stories, and they all resonated with me. Everything those women described was exactly how I had felt when I was with my ex.

That night when I got home, I called my mom and I told her for the first time what had happened to me when I was 17, when I was dating my first boyfriend.

He was a few years older than me, 20 I believe. I had never had a boyfriend, never even been kissed! He was my first everything and I fell hard. Still to this day I don’t know if I loved him, or just loved the idea of a boyfriend.

Things got bad pretty quickly, but being new to relationships I didn’t know what was “normal” vs. what wasn’t.

He was very emotional and had a short temper which he had kept hidden while he was “wooing” me, but came out quickly as we began dating. 

He would often get upset completely out of the blue. And that upset usually resulted in him throwing things around the room. He would then blame me for his tantrums, saying that I was so “difficult” to date. That he kept messing up and couldn’t make me happy. This would lead to me comforting him and trying to assure him that I was happy and that I loved him. He would tell me that he was messed up, that he was sorry for throwing things and breaking things, that I should be with someone who wasn’t broken. That dragged me in even deeper and I was determined to “fix” him, to be the girl that stood by him and made the relationship work (I’ll talk more about this when I post about “why they stay”)

I felt like I was walking on egg shells all the time, never knowing what I would do to set him off.

I remember one incident inparticular that perfectly describes his typical behavior. 

He had just moved into a new house and needed to get some plates and cups. We went to Target together and he picked some stuff out. We walked out to the car and I put my bag in the back seat and got in the front seat. He then came around and moved my stuff to the floor so it wouldn’t fall over when we were driving and put his bag down as well. When we got back to his house he grabbed the bags out of the back and we started walking toward the house. He stopped when we got to the front door, swung both of the bags over his head and slammed them down on the ground. 

I jumped back, startled and completely taken back. I asked him why he had done that and he said that he knew I was mad about him moving the bag I had set down from the back seat to the floor. Although I denied being upset about that, the discussion turned again into how messed up he was and how trying to make me happy so so stressful and set him off. 

I stayed with him after that incident, and after many more similar ones. He broke phones, he broke dishes, anything that was in his reach when he got set off. 

One night, during our final fight, I was in his reach and he hit me. 

Still to this day, I don’t believe that it was on purpose. Maybe that’s denial, maybe it’s the truth. I will probably never know.

He was having one of his fits, yelling and throwing things, when he grabbed his backpack and swung it around in a fit. It hit me across the face. 

At this point I was crying. I remember standing in the doorway, about to leave. I told him “I know you have issues, but I never thought you would ever hit me”. What I should have done was leave, but I didn’t. He apologized, and I accepted it. 

I was young, I was in love, and I thought I could fix him.

I would like to end this narration with some inspiring story about how I gathered my self-confidence and left him, realizing that I deserved to be treated better. But I can’t, because in the end, he broke up with me. 

It was probably the most noble and selfless thing he ever did. 

We had been together for 3 months when he ended things. I shudder to think how things could have escalated with more time.

I used to rationalize to myself that it wasn’t DV, because he didn’t “mean” to hit me, it was an accident. 

But physical abuse is more than just hitting someone, and DV is so much more than just physical abuse. 

From the first time I told me mom what had happened, and actually labeled it as DV, I have felt healed. Labeling it has given me ownership, which has given me control. Sharing my story with you all helps me heal.

I hope my story, and the following psycho-education posts I plan on sharing this month, help you all understand what DV is. What it looks like, what it feels like and what you can do to help.

Domestic Violence Awareness Month

In honor of October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I have decided to do a four part series surrounding domestic violence; education and awareness.

I know have mentioned in some of my blogs that I am a social worker. However, I don’t believe I have shared exactly what I do or what population I work with. I am a case manager at a local non-profit working exclusively with domestic violence victims. Additionally, I have a personal connection to the work I do. I briefly shared in my first ever blog post that I am also a survivor of domestic violence.

Both my personal and professional experience have given me a wealth of knowledge regarding domestic violence (DV), and I want to share that knowledge because I think DV largely goes unspoken about in the community. As a result, when presented with DV, people often don’t understand what it really looks like or what to do to help someone who may being going through it.

I have decided to share four different post, which I will be publishing during the next four Tuesdays in the month of October:

First, my own story and experience

Second, what domestic violence is (hint, it’s not just physical abuse!)

Third, why people don’t always leave

Fourth, what you can do when someone you know is experiencing DV

I hope these post will be information and enlightening (I’ll try to keep them from being too lecture-ish!). Although I don’t wish anyone to go through a DV relationships themselves, or to ever encounter a friend or family members in that situation, I think that the knowledge is still important to have.