October is officially Domestic Violence Awareness month. We at Help & Emergency Response believe that everyone deserves a healthy relationship, free of violence. We also recognize that we cannot do this work alone. Everyone can play a part in helping to support victims of domestic violence and help to end this public health crisis.
When we learn of a friend or family member who is involved in an abusive relationship the first thing we often ask is “why don’t they just leave?” This seems like a logical response right? When it comes to relationship abuse, it’s never as easy as “just leaving.” Leaving an abusive relationship can be hard for many reasons. Leaving is often the most dangerous time for a victim because abuse is about power and control. When a victim leaves, they are taking control of their life. This threatens the abuser’s power and could cause him or her to retaliate. The following are just a few of the reasons why someone might be making the decision to stay:
Fear: A person may be afraid of what will happen if they leave the relationship.
Believing Abuse is Normal: A person may not know what a healthy relationship looks like. They may not recognize that their relationship is unhealthy.
Fear of Being Outed: If someone is in an LGBTQ relationship and has not yet come out publicly, their partner may threaten to reveal this secret.
Embarrassment or Shame: It’s often difficult for someone to admit that they’ve been abused. They may feel they’ve done something wrong by becoming involved with an abusive partner.
Low Self-Esteem: Abusers erode their partners’ self-esteem with constant put-downs and blame. It can be easy for the victim to believe those statements and think that the abuse is their fault.
Religious or cultural beliefs and practices may not support divorce or may dictate outdated gender roles and keep the victim trapped in the relationship.
Lack of having somewhere to go (e.g. no friends or family to help, no money for hotel, shelter programs are full or limited by length of stay).
Fear that homelessness may be their only option if they leave.
Lack of means to support themselves and/or their children financially or lack of access to cash, bank accounts or assets.
Fear of losing custody of any children if they leave or divorce their abuser or fear the abuser will hurt, or even kill, their children.
This list includes just a small sample of the reasons/barriers for why a victim may choose to stay in an abusive relationship. What this list does show though is why it is not always possible to “just leave.”
It IS still possible for you to support someone who is struggling in their relationship. Survivors have often said that what matters most is having someone in their life who is there for them, without judgment, to bounce ideas off, get support, and lean on when things get tough. You can be that person.
What can you do to support someone experiencing abuse?
Ask a Question Asking “How’s it going?” and really caring about the answer is powerful. Some other possible questions to ask:
What is your biggest concern?
What do you need or want?
How can I help?
Do you get to do the things you like to do?
What happens if you disagree?
What does arguing look like in your relationship?
Really listen. Listen without having your own agenda. Being heard helps. Acknowledgment makes all the difference.
You are listening to hear what the person is experiencing, what they want and how you can help. You are not trying to get your point of view across, you are trying to hear their perspective.
Things to say to people who have experienced harm:
*I believe you. *I am so sorry this is happening to you.
*Thank you for sharing this. *You don’t deserve this.
*I don’t even know what to say right now, but I am so glad you told me.
*Thank you for telling me. *It’s not your fault. *You are not alone.
*You get to choose what you do next.
It can take a long time for things to get better, and it can be difficult to hang in there through it all but staying connected is one of the most helpful things you can do. When someone is isolated, the abuser has far more power and control over their lives. You do not need to know all the answers or agree with every decision to be helpful.
Connection also means no ultimatums. We’ve learned that tough love is not what people need. You might be the only person they are reaching out to. If you give them an ultimatum that they can’t live up to, they won’t have anyone left. Instead, try to leave the door open to make it easy to keep coming back to you.
Even if the person you’re concerned about doesn’t reach out, you can be the one to reach out. This takes some of the power away from the abuser and can be a lifeline for your loved one. It might be that they aren’t calling or reaching out because they can’t, not because they don’t want to or don’t need support.
If you are hearing something that makes you concerned they are in immediate danger, you (or both of you together) can call your local domestic violence agency to come up with a safety plan to stay as safe as possible. Some particularly risky things to listen for: access to firearms, prior strangulation, suicide threats.
Everyone has a role to play in ending domestic and sexual violence and the good news is that you don’t have to be an expert to help. It doesn’t take much to make an impact. Your continued presence, connection, and support are what people need to get safer and thrive.
If you or someone you know is in need of assistance please reach out to our hotline at 757-485-3384. We are available 24/7.