Survivors are the experts

follow instructions carefully

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.

 

Necessary force

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.

Nine things to know

Nueve cosas a saber

Doing nothing is the worst choice

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.

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Freshman syllabus

college-just-aheadI 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:

Comfort:

  • 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

Confidence:

  • 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

Autonomy:

  • 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.

College bound

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?

College boundSending 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.