Stay with me here. This is perhaps the most important blog post I’ve ever written. In fact, this topic relates directly to my upcoming book Inner Peace Prescription which I plan to have ready for release this fall.
Recent events on the news are garnering national attention saying that all of the recent shooters in the mass shootings have something in common: they all have a past filled with domestic violence. Please, hear my heart on this.
If you are currently in an abusive situation, please make sure you are on a safe computer before you read this, your computer may not be safe.
Please read to the very end before forming a reaction or opinion. I beg you. The safety of people you love depends on it, and perhaps your own safety depends on it.
We know that abuse is wrong. Domestic violence, we say, is unacceptable. Yet there is very little legislation that actually protects victims of domestic violence. We know that 1 in 4 women will experience intimate partner violence in her lifetime so that means 25% of have already experienced domestic violence or will. We think we know how we would handle it if it happened to us. Most of us, including people who are actual victims of domestic violence, believe that it won’t happen to us. And if it did happen, most of us say that we would leave after the first slap. Then we take it one step further and we judge those who stay with abusers.
What would you think if I told you there are subtle ways we actually endanger each other and that there are ways we inadvertently try to keep each other in abusive situations including domestic violence?
Your first reaction would likely be to disagree. You are a good person who means well and knows what abuse looks like. You would probably inform me that I couldn’t be more wrong. And I know you’d mean it. After all, we don’t condone abuse. Right? Of course!
In case you are new to my blog, before we get too much further there are some things you should know about me. Nearly 12 years ago, I left an abusive marriage. My then five-year-old daughter and I moved into a domestic violence shelter where we lived for several weeks while we got back on our feet. Since then, I have made it my life’s work to heal myself and help others heal from traumatic events. A lot of what I know to be true about abuse and healing comes from my own experiences while the lion’s share of my knowledge comes from the experiences of others and the research I’ve performed since getting out of the abusive situation. I’ve taken it upon myself to become an expert on recognizing and healing from abuse by conducting scores of interviews and studying everything I can get my hands on about trauma and abuse.
Men are also abused, it isn’t only women being hurt. In fact, the stats for men being abused aren’t all that much better than the stats for women. But, for the purposes of reading clarity, I’m going to use the feminine pronouns of she and her. Please understand that while I use the female pronouns I am empathetic to what any man OR woman may be going through/have gone through and am not trying to be insensitive.
Here is what we say that can be dangerous to someone living in an abusive situation:
We don’t mean to be insensitive to each other. No one would purposely encourage a friend to stay with an abuser. After all, we’re good people, right? Of course we are!
There are some things that are commonly said to women after they confess to being hurt by their domestic partners that they often hear from the people closest to them. A new friend recently said, “We keep each other in bondage by being unwilling to talk openly about abuse”. And she’s right. The phrases you will see below are things that people have actually said to me AND all of the women I’ve interviewed over the past 12 years. Here are things that are commonly said to women in abusive situations:
- How hard did he slap you? I mean, could he have been playing?(Negates the experience and normalizes “play” that the abuser uses to torment the person abused. If there isn’t a smile on her face when she tells you she’s been slapped, SHE was not a willing participant of the “play”)
- Did he hit you? I mean, was it physical? That’s not the only type of abuse!! Abuse can be physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, financial, and more. There is a great graphic on the http://thehotline.org (National Domestic Violence Hotline) called “Is it abuse”. Check it out here.
- Could he have been joking? A joke is only funny if the audience laughs. Abuse isn’t pretty and is often causes shame. It’s not something anyone would share unless they wanted help or for you to understand their perspective. If the person living with abuse feels that perhaps their feelings aren’t warranted, it becomes a lot tougher to believe she is in an abusive situation. She is being encouraged to make excuses for her abusive partner, by you.
- Were you actually hurt or just upset? I wasn’t hurt the time someone threatened to kill me, but I was certainly upset. If someone has just began to talk about abuse with you, be assured that the parts she is sharing are the most neutral and benign of the things that have happened. Asking if it could have been a joke minimizes.
- Oh, he didn’t mean it! I know him! You have just chosen a side with this statement, and it isn’t hers. She will never tell you anything else or ask for your help again.
- He is a nice man, he would never do that!This is heard by the women being abused as “I don’t believe you, and if it is true, it must be because you deserved it” because this is what she is often told by her abuser.
- But you seem so happy…? We all compartmentalize and no one is better at this than someone with something to hide, like abuse. Her life depends upon her being able to pretend to be happy, so of course she seems happy. She has likely been threatened that bad things will happen if she lets anyone in on the secret.
- What?!? How could that happen?” Your being incredulous communicates to her that she is wrong to think there is a problem. This incredulous statement puts the blame squarely on the back of the person being abused, no matter how you intended it to be received. She is already blaming herself, her abuser is blaming her, and now you just did, too. Questioning the abuse causes additional shame, and I can promise you she is already feeling very shameful.
When we make someone justify and explain why their abuser hurt them or how they were hurt, we are re-victimizing them.
There is a growing body of research surrounding trauma that supports this. (Source) Not only are we inadvertently re-victimizing the people we care about, but we may be actually encouraging those people to stay with their abusers. You see, if someone garners the courage to talk about abuse, she is sharing something deep and dark.
All of these statements play directly into her abuser’s hand. Her abuser has already told her there isn’t a problem, it’s a term often called “gas lighting”. If you aren’t sure what gas lighting is, here is a great explanation. She’s already been told the following: she is too sensitive, too demanding, too stupid, too fat, too thin … whatever. When you doubt her, she questions her own perception of reality even more.
Part of what makes people stay in abusive situations is that abusers often tell victims any perceived problems are in their head. The abuser makes literally everything her fault. This is more gas lighting.
If someone tells you about abuse, she is being very vulnerable. She is exposing the shame she feels. She needs your support and maybe even needs your help.
She has told you about what has happening to test her perceptions of reality. If you are also shocked or horrified to hear about her abuse, she begins to think maybe her instincts are correct and she has a reason to leave. But when you question her, even while you mean well, you communicate to that wounded woman that her feelings are invalid, her fears unfounded, and that the abuse must be justified. The wounded woman thinks she must be wrong, again.
I know I just metaphorically punched some of you in the gut. You feel terrible and perhaps even angry. You didn’t know. That’s ok. As Maya Angelou said, now that you know better, you can do better.
Here is what you can say instead:
- This isn’t your fault. No one deserves to be abused, and no one can cause an abuser to abuse. That is a choice the abuser makes. She will need to hear this. Often. Not doing the dishes correctly is not license to be screamed at or hit. Having friends of your own is not a reason to be backed into a corner and threatened. Yet, she’ll need to be reminded this isn’t her fault because her abuser will have gas-lighted her into believing she caused this. This is THE MOST important thing you can say.
- How are you feeling about this? Give her a chance to connect to her own emotions.
- What are you thinking of doing? This communicates that you believe in her ability to figure this out. She will very likely need some help along the way, but letting her know you believe in her will powerful in her decision to get help.
- Is there something I can do help? There are a lot of resources on The Hotline. There are things that may not be safe for you to do, and things that would be very helpful to do. The Hotline is the National Domestic Violence Hotline and they have a list of things to say and do for families and friends. Here is that link.
- Would you like to share more with me? This opens the door for her to talk to you. A caution…Only ask this if you are truly prepared to hear what she has to say. Keep in mind that she is very likely going to need professional help and therapy so you don’t have to step into that role. In fact, you shouldn’t try. It will be better for your relationship to be supportive but not try to be the therapist.
- I’m so sorry this has happened. It isn’t ok for you to be treated like that. Let her know you value her and her safety. This is one of the most valuable things you can say!!
In fact the last one is the most important. I’m so sorry this happened. It isn’t ok for you to be treated like that.
When you say that to an abused woman, you will be validating her pain and fear. You will give her courage she may not have on her own. You could even be saving a life.
Let’s create a new norm
When we heal our own wounds, we are more able to offer loving kindness to others. If you have unhealed wounds and are sometimes unkind, don’t be hard on yourself, but do begin to work on those wounds through therapy, meditation, journaling, dance or yoga. If you are in the market for a journal, I invite you to take a look at the book of journal prompts I recently published. Click here for the paperback copy or see below for the eBook version available on Amazon Kindle.
By allowing our loved ones to feel and express their emotions, we promote their healing. Emotions are normal and healthy, even negative emotions. We get into trouble when we try to stop feeling them and they come out in unpredictable ways.
Take a break. If you are tired, hungry, angry, sad… take a break. Take even a moment to breathe to regulate your emotions and help yourself move from your reptilian/reactive brain into your thinking brain. This will prevent you lashing out at loved ones.
Would you please help by sharing this? Let’s get the word out to end domestic violence.