Ever wonder why domestic violence survivors don’t leave their abuser? Here’s one reason.
Domestic violence survivors are the experts on their lives and their safety. Does that strike you as an odd thing to say? We think of the person doing harm as the one who doesn’t respect the survivor by continually undermining her decisions and questioning her judgement. But sometimes it’s hard for survivors to get respect from anyone, even the people whose job it is to help them.
Survivors are constantly weighing their actions and anticipating the reaction of the person causing them harm. They know what has worked in the past and what will work now to keep the violence and coercion to a minimum. No matter how messy or complicated it looks, survivors know what they need to protect their bodies and increase their safety and autonomy. Survivors don’t need outside experts to tell them how to survive. All we have to do is ask the survivor what she needs, then listen and follow instructions.
It’s the time of year when college acceptance letters are arriving. What do you want for the college-bound young people in your life?
People who are abusive only use the amount of force necessary to maintain dominance in their relationship.
When I say this to someone, I often see them pause in their reaction. Most people imagine that abusive people are out of control, or lash out when angry. And that the use of physical abuse―like hitting, slapping, punching, or forcing sex―is frequent and consistent over the length of the relationship. From that perspective, the idea that they “only use the amount of force necessary” doesn’t make sense.
But survivors tell me that their partners are often manipulative and violent in ways which do not include physical violence. No matter how an abuser’s behavior looks to an outsider, their tactics are deliberate. Like embarrassing a partner at a party or undermining their participation in religious activities. Or sabotaging a survivor’s connection with their child. Taking a child and disappearing for a couple of days is an effective way exert control over a partner. Also charming other people to get them on the abuser’s side, like the abusive partner I heard of who gratefully and coolly greeted law enforcement with “oh, I see you’re here to help me with my wife. She’s disoriented because she’s been in a car accident.”
Abuse can be pressuring a partner to have sex to prove their commitment to the relationship. Or asking a partner not to call friends or family because it interferes with their relationship―a subtle way to isolate someone. And if that doesn’t work, scaring friends or threatening a family member until the survivor returns to the relationship.
Any time we question a survivor―it doesn’t seem that bad, you say he doesn’t hit you, he doesn’t seem out of control―it gives the abusive person even more power. When we really listen to and believe a survivor’s experience, we take power away from the abuser. It’s one thing we all can do to make a difference for survivors and their children.
Someone asked me if the current national conversation about sexual assault is helping our organization with increased interest or support. The answer is, not really. And I think the reason is that it’s hard for human beings to connect individual responsibility with community responsibility.
Often, I get supportive comments when I say that I am employed at a non-profit that works to prevent domestic violence. The term “domestic violence” can have different meanings; but usually people tell me that they believe that violence is rooted in individual behavior and poor choices. They don’t see what I see―that preventing violence requires, in part, government policies that support safe, affordable, accessible housing, child care subsidies and a livable wage for everyone. I guess it all sounds too impersonal and far away from daily life. And, yet, it matters. And it follows then that who is on the Supreme Court matters also. And who is in charge of Health & Human Services. If how you treat people does matter, than our leaders’ behavior and ideas matter.
I hear people say it is hard to vote at all with two imperfect presidential candidates. But this election reminds me of the importance of voting. People who came before me literally died for my right to vote. And, the right to vote is facing increased restrictions across our nation. Maybe your ability to vote isn’t restricted, but it could be happening to someone else in your community.
This October is Domestic Violence ACTION Month. Having a conversation with my children about the potential for abuse happening to them or their friends can be overwhelming. But, just like with voting, doing nothing is the worst choice. It is always harder to make things better after the worst happens. Exercising your right to vote and starting a conversation with your children about domestic violence are actions that matter. Your actions can be part of preventing more bad things happening and creating a world we all want to live in.
I dropped off my twins at college. Two separate colleges. They were handed all sorts of orientation materials – maps, rules, class lists. But nothing to orient them to this life transition: learning how to believe in yourself in a competitive environment, trust a friend with secrets, or figure out if a friendship is becoming intimate. There is no syllabus for having a fair fight or managing jealously.
Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a life transition syllabus? It would be helpful to know something about what is ahead when building new community and habits in an unfamiliar place. Here are a few benchmarks that I would include:
- People may look fine from the outside, but lots are struggling and not talking about it
- Finding people that make your heart sing takes time―lots of time
- You have to introduce yourself over and over again and it is really awkward
- Say hi to the person sitting alone in the dining hall
- Exposure to different people and experiences will build your skills for the next time
- You are stronger than you think
- Fantastic teachers will inspire you
- You will figure out how to balance class demands with all the rest of campus life
- The first people you connect with may not be your friends at the end of the year
- How you look, sound, move through the world is unique
I want my daughters and all young people entering college to know that they are good enough even if other people feel smarter or cooler. You are fabulous enough to take up space, get your questions answered by a professor, and be taken seriously by your peers. You, just you, are enough.
It is senior year of high school for my twin daughters and I find myself talking about college applications with all kinds of people. I was getting my nails done when the owner of the salon―a Vietnamese immigrant―asked me for information about the application process and due dates. She was relying on her son to translate and she wasn’t sure that she was getting all the information she needed. It took me several days, but I managed to find a free college counseling resource that could communicate in Vietnamese.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to try to navigate this process when English is your second language. We had to hire a college counselor to help us. We filled out 28 pages of different financial aid forms. We checked our daughters’ online applications and read their college essay questions. Even with the resources, time, and teamwork at our disposal, it was still hard.
And what about people who have another whole layer of chaos in their lives? How do you manage this transition in your child’s life if you are in an abusive relationship? What if you have to anticipate and work around a partner who humiliates and controls you? When all your decisions are undermined by your partner, how can you figure out what questions to ask and if there is help to get answers?
Sending your kid to college is a dream for many parents, and it can feel even more pressing if it is their ticket out of an abusive home. But that’s not possible if it takes professional help just to fill out the forms. We can change this system and we must make it accessible. The vision of all girls moving forward depends on us.
A couple of weeks ago, I got to spend time with advocates from across Washington to talk about how we approach our work with survivors. I was reminded of two things: advocates are doing incredible work; and that work is as unique as the person sitting across from them. We call it survivor-centered advocacy. What does that mean?
- listening deeply to survivors about what is most important to them;
- recognizing what they see as their priorities;
- and working with them to find solutions.
Here’s a great example:
And here it is in Spanish:
You may wonder why I’m always blogging about emergency contraception (EC) and birth control. What does it have to do with domestic violence? Why would an advocate need to talk about this with a survivor of abuse? And why should domestic violence programs have EC, pregnancy tests, and condoms available on site?
If you have never experienced it, it might be hard to understand how birth control sabotage, or reproductive or sexual coercion, is an incredibly powerful way to exert power and control over someone. Imagine someone flushing your pills down the toilet or poking holes in a condom. What about stopping you from getting to the clinic to get your Depo shot? Or forcibly pulling out your IUD by the strings? If you’re in an abusive relationship, negotiations around birth control and whether to have—or not have—children might happen without your opinion being respected or even considered. The harm of this may be invisible to an outsider, but when survivors of abuse are not allowed to make their own decisions about pregnancy, they lose control over the trajectory of their life and their connection to the abuser. And they have to constantly weigh the risks of any act of resistance, any attempt at independence.
Domestic violence advocates know that survivors coming to their programs are experiencing a range of abusive behaviors. But even if they are experiencing reproductive or sexual coercion, it is usually not something they bring up. If we want long-term solutions for survivors and their children, then we need to bring it up. Offering EC and birth control information, and having it available on site, is a liberatory act.
We need to offer it because Plan B or Levonorgestrel (emergency contraception) is effective within five days after unprotected intercourse and is available to anyone, no matter age or gender, without a prescription. We need to offer it so that survivors know we are comfortable talking about sex, birth control (especially forms that are less likely to be felt by a partner), and reproductive health. We need to offer it because access to timely information and practical help can change the circumstances of someone’s life. And we need to offer it because advocacy is about supporting someone to determine their own life—to live in a state of freedom.
I read this editorial, A Toxic Work World, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I have 18-year-old twin daughters that I am about to launch into college, and I wonder what kind of world I am sending them into. I imagine my children getting a job, building their careers, providing for their families. But what if it is a low wage job? They will be lucky to get sick time and enough hours to make ends meet. What happens if someone gets sick? Or even if they are working in a lucrative career, it’s hard to succeed unless you live as if you are childless and don’t have any family members who need you. Most of our workplaces are still structured as if there is someone at home, usually a woman, providing free care for children and elder family members. Low wage or high wage earner, this equation is impossible.
Then I think about the many women I’ve worked with over the years who are in a battering or coercive relationship. When you need to get a job to help secure your freedom, what are your options? Are we telling them that they might as well go back home, because at least they can provide for their children and keep a roof over their head?
Let’s stop pretending that we are productive and humane when we force people to work when they are sick, quit their jobs to take care of others, work longer regardless of family responsibilities, and make it harder for people in abusive relationships to achieve financial independence. I don’t want an illusion of economic independence for my daughters, or for anyone.
What I want is a work environment that nurtures your soul, supports your family responsibilities, and values your loyalty and evolving experience and skills. Organizing for change in the workplace structure doesn’t have to be all or nothing—think about the recent success of the Seattle School teachers strike. But we do have to get clear about what we want. One thing I am clear about—our lives and our communities are intertwined. No one is untouched and that is a deep and giving source of power.