Survivors share helpful & unhelpful responses to their experience with domestic violence

I just feel like there needs to be so much more education about it and there’s a lot of blame that people still put on the victim. ‘Well, if you didn’t like it, you should have left’ or ‘you’re stupid for going back,’ which only makes you feel more like crap and then you are definitely not gonna get away. So, I felt like I didn’t really get any support from my family or my friends, really. Because they couldn’t understand. They couldn’t reason it out. They couldn’t rationalize my decisions. They couldn’t. They just didn’t understand.”

– an Indiana Survivor

Our tagline for this month – from awareness to understanding – was largely inspired by the voices we heard from survivors in the Re-Centering Report. In an era where gender-based violence is discussed in the mainstream regularly, thanks in part to the #MeToo movement, most people are relatively aware of the problem.

However, more often than not, at some point in a conversation about domestic violence, a person will utter the phrase, “I don’t understand why they don’t just leave.”

That is where the understanding piece comes in.

The truth is, leaving isn’t easy. On average, a person experiencing intimate partner violence will leave and come back to an abusive relationship seven times before they are permanently gone. For some, leaving may never feel like the best option. Though it may be very difficult for the people who love that survivor to accept that decision, it is a valid one that many survivors make.

Survivors told us that they define safety as both the absence of violence and having their basic needs met.  Ending a relationship is never easy and even harder in a situation where your partner has isolated you from friends, family, and in many cases, financial resources. The fear of the unknown, from losing stable basics like housing, money and food, to the confusion and sadness of “starting over,” for themselves and their children, make this decision especially hard for survivors.

Every survivor and every situation is different. If someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, it is important to be open and honest, let them know what you see and why you’re concerned, but also let them determine what is best. The abuser will usually try to interrupt their relationships with friends and family, so it is crucial to reiterate that you will always support them unconditionally and be there to help.

In the Re-Centering Report, survivors elaborated on what responses from their friends and family, workplace and faith communities were helpful to them and non-helpful.

When we move beyond the overly simplified response of “just leave” and try to center survivors’ perspectives in our understanding of and response to domestic violence, we eliminate a lot of the perceived judgment that prevents them from reaching out for help.

From their friends and family:

Responses survivors described as helpful

  1. Emotional support
  • “Having someone to listen and to hear it over and over. I knew what they were going to say, I just needed to hear it again.”
  • “I think the biggest thing for both of them is that I did not feel very strong or capable and they held me . . . Like, they knew that I could do it. And I didn’t know I could do it.”
  1. Material support (temp. housing, etc.)
  • “My friends helped me move all of my things out. They gave me a place to stay, food, time to find a job, a place to vent my emotions, patience, and general support.”
  • “I lived with her for a while.  So, I get on my feet and for my face to clear, because I could not go and look for a job.  My face was really, really black and blue . . . And she’s very supportive, she didn’t bother me, and she would let me lay down, because I needed to just breathe.”
  1. Held abuser accountable
  • “One of his best friends seen him come at behind me and slammed my ears like this when I have the baby in my arms, our six-week-old baby, you know. And I was lying over on the couch after I handed the woman, my baby, and his best friend went in there with him in the kitchen and he said, ‘I don’t know what you did that for, you got one of the best wives there is.’ he said, ‘There’s no excuse for that.'”

Responses survivors described as unhelpful:

  1. Judgment/lack of understanding of DV
  • “But as far as like friends and family, there’s still such a stigma about domestic violence. I had a lot of people say, ‘Well, you’re smarter than that. Why did you get caught up in that?”
  • “I only had one friend that I felt comfortable enough [to tell], and she didn’t understand the cycle of abuse. The first time I called her, she came and rescued me, if you will, and . . . we talked and, of course, with the cycle, he’s, ‘I’m sorry, this will never happen again and blah, blah, blah.’ And I was in love. And so you go back, and then she was like, ‘Well, if this happens again, don’t call me.’”
  1. Pressure to leave/not return
  • “I know my family stopped talking to me, because I would never leave. And they got tired of hearing it.  I got another black eye today, I have to cover it up.  I got to go to work.  I don’t want to hear it.  You’re not going to leave, so don’t call me.  And that’s your family.  But they don’t understand.”
  • “My family, but they didn’t really understand. They just thought that you can just walk away and that you’re being stupid if you keep going back.”
  1. Pressure to stay
  • “Because of my family pressure, I went back.”
  • “When I was leaving, I had to block his family because they were contacting me on social media talking about how I was ruining their son’s life. Everything I was doing was wrong.”
  1. Didn’t believe/didn’t help
  • “And his mom, somehow, she knew where I was. Got a hold of me at the shelter and called me and said that she talked to him and that he said that I made everything up that he didn’t really hurt me. And I think to this day, she still would like to believe that I’ve made it all up.”
  1. Disparaging the abuser
  • “What I found never helpful was when somebody tried to attack the person that was abusing me. I already know that he’s a crappy person.”

In the workplace

  • “I think making people aware of what’s going on. I know some people don’t talk about it. I work in a small office and so, anybody knew that if he came in, to shut the doors and to let me know, you know what I mean?”
  • “my friends at work. There was two girls had an apartment together and if they hadn’t said, hey, come live with us. No, I don’t know if I would’ve gotten out of there or not because at the time, I didn’t know that there was any people who could help and they didn’t make me feel, I didn’t feel ashamed with them.”

 

Faith Community:

Helpful:

1. Non-judgmental support

  • “I called my Pastor.  Back to the first meeting when I had told her what was going on, she said, ‘Do you want to leave right now?  I’ll take you right now.  If you want to go, If not, that’s fine.  If you want to go later, if you want to stay, that’s fine, I’ll support you.’  I called her up and I said, I need to go right now before he gets home from work.  She came and got me and brought me here.  Then she sent me a card from the elders of the church that had signed it, ‘We’re praying for you.’”
  • “. . . minister from the local church. She was also there from the very beginning. She wasn’t there to give me advice. She was there for me to vent to. And that was one person that was critical in me going through the process. Even when we tried to make it work, we tried to get back together, she didn’t judge me. If I asked her, what do you think, she would stay pretty neutral. Unless it was a situation where it would be in danger, she’d say, well, that’s not a good idea. So, when I would be thinking through that, should I go back, should I not go back? I knew that I could say that to her and just get that out that I was thinking that because that’s not something you want to tell somebody else, like thinking about going back and then they’re mad.” 

2. Getting strength from faith

  • “I went to my church just to have prayer. I am very spiritual. Everything I lean on when it comes to stress and pain and anything, I’m like, let me pray about it or let me go to the church for a safe place to release. But I leaned on my church and I feel like that was, depending on your level of engagement with your church, that is very beneficial to help get through things.”

 

Nonhelpful:

  1. Denial/minimization
  • “I think, for the most part, Christians in the Christian community don’t want to see that. They’re very resistant to it.  They don’t want to, or they want there to be reconciliation.  Instead of providing — they don’t really provide any services other than counseling.  Even the church that I received Kroger gift cards from, they try to encourage me to come in for counseling.  They don’t know anything about my situation.  I’ve already had church counseling, local counseling.  This is not my problem.  I’m not an abuser.  He is.”
  • “I tried when I was at church, I told the counselor that I was abused by my father for seven years. And he just said, ‘Oh, that’s too bad.’ And that was the end of it, so it’s like okay.  That was too bad.”
  1. The pressure to maintain the relationship
  • “For me, a lot of it was just the way that I was raised in the church. The church that I went to never talked about it and it was not, divorce was not acceptable and that’s how I was raised and so having never, having that viewpoint and then never having any of my youth pastors or pastors ever talk about that and seeing people who were divorced looked down on, made me stay longer than I should have. And then have that mind-set of this can’t happen to me and so I think that I wish I would have been talked to more about it and that the reality of this happens to people. That conversation should have been happening when I was growing up.”
  1. Judgment/lack of understanding of DV
  • “Unfortunately in a lot of Christian based faiths, what I learned after all these years . . . is that they really just don’t know domestic violence like the professionals do. You know so when you’re working within a religion, you know, it’s unity, it’s forgiveness, it’s ‘be submissive to your husband.’ So what they don’t understand that domestic violence, is not primarily a spiritual problem because you can know God and love God, it’s a psychological one. So when is something like that a woman or survivor, it’s okay to get help from an organization that’s been taught to deal with this population of people.”
  • “Well, I reached out to my church first. They were supportive in some ways.  But unfortunately, they lack some of the understanding and education that comes with a domestic violence victim.  They were doing their best.  But at times, I would just feel even more confused, because they would tell me, do this, do that.  Other people would tell me, do this, do that.  They did line up.  As a person who’s already down and out, and already feeling controlled, you just have a really hard time making decisions and standing up for yourself.  That wasn’t the best.  I think if we could educate that group about empowering, things like that, tactics, or approach. They’re just doing their best, trying to help.  That was kind of not as helpful.”

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