Building skills

In honor of Domestic Violence ACTION Month I’ll be blogging all month about what it takes to end domestic violence. It is our view (at the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence) that to prevent violence we need to:

Address root causes of violence, Shift culture, Build Skills, Promote healthy relationships

Earlier this month we tackled root causes and shifting culture. This week we’re looking at building skills. How do we do that and what does it look like?

First, I have a confession to make…I am not a perfect mate. (I know, it’s hard to believe!) Don’t get me wrong, I bring a lot to the table, but I’m sure my partner would agree that I don’t always get it right. For a long time this made me feel unqualified to talk about how to have healthy relationships.

Not anymore. Because here is the reality: I have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to what NOT to do, and that’s a good start. I’ve seen it in my 20 years of domestic violence advocacy and through my whole life of being a human. And so it occurred to me one day that while I may not be perfect, no one else is either. We all need a little help to know what TO do in relationships.

Building skills looks like admitting that we are going to fight, but it’s how we do it that matters.MakingAMove-for-Facebook

Building skills sounds like talking about our feelings rather than hurling accusations when things get tough.

Building skills feels like working up the courage to ask for what you want, and checking in before making a move.

This is a subject that we should be learning in school. It’s part of the basics—reading, writing, arithmetic, AND relating. And not just in schools. I want relationship skills integrated into our sports, our clubs, our hobbies. It is of paramount importance, and we shouldn’t leave it to chance.

Just remember, it’s ok if we don’t exactly know what we’re doing. We still have knowledge to offer and can ask for help when we need it.

What skills do you want to build and how are you going to get there?

 

Shifting culture

In honor of Domestic Violence ACTION Month I’ll be blogging all month about what it takes to end domestic violence. It is our view (at the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence) that to prevent violence we need to:

Address root causes of violence, Shift culture, Build Skills, Promote healthy relationships

 

Last week I wrote about root causes. This week let’s look at shifting culture. How do we do that?

Ultimately we want to challenge our communities to reject all types of violence while at the same time expecting that all people will be treated with respect in their relationships. I know it sounds a little “pie in the sky.” But in our everyday lives, there are simple things we can do to shift culture:

  • Instead of asking, “Why don’t victims just leave?” we could ask, “What can we do to stop abusers from being violent and controlling?”
  • Instead of telling women how not to get raped, we could point out that only rapists can prevent rape.
  • Instead of saying, “I can’t imagine he would do such a thing, he’s so nice,” we could say, “What must it have been like to be with him behind closed doors? Let’s ask her.”
  • Instead of telling little girls, “He must really like you if he hit you,” we could say “Violence is never a way to show love.”
  • Instead of asking what someone did to set someone off, we say, “You didn’t deserve that, how can I help?”
  • Instead of throwing our hands up in the air over teenagers’ relationships, let’s dive in and ask them how it’s going.
  • Instead of thinking that domestic violence is inevitable, we can embrace our huge capacity for love and compassion and learn to Love Like This.

All of these seem doable to me. They aren’t “pie in the sky”—they are right there in front of us, like pie on our plates! Can you commit to making a culture shift this month? Let’s try it and move forward. Together we can end domestic violence!

dvam

“Why don’t victims just leave?”

I recently wrote this guest column for publication in Sound Publishing community newspapers.

nomoreThose of us who work at domestic violence programs hear this question all the time. The truth is, they do. Every day we hear from survivors of abuse who were able to find the support and resources they needed to be safe and self-sufficient.

Every day we also hear from people who are unable to leave because they fear the abuser will be more violent if they do. This fear is very real. According to the Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review, in at least 55% of homicides by abusers, the victim had left or was trying to leave.

Many people are unable to leave an abusive relationship because they have nowhere to go. Our communities don’t have enough affordable housing, and shelters and transitional housing units are limited. On just one day last year, domestic violence programs in Washington could not meet 267 requests for housing. People often stay with or return to an abusive partner because they don’t have the money to support themselves or their children.

We also hear from people who don’t want to leave, but want the abuse to stop. Research consistently shows that people in an abusive relationship make repeated efforts to be safe and self-sufficient, but there are many barriers—both external, such as limited resources or support; and internal, such as an emotional connection to their partner or a desire for their children to be with both parents—that makes this very difficult.

But here’s the thing: This is absolutely the wrong question to be asking, as it implies that victims are responsible for ending violence. They aren’t. Instead, we should be asking what we can do to stop abusers from being violent and controlling.

From the Supreme Court to the WNBA

ruthshirtLast week I was eagerly anticipating the gay marriage arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court. I even bought this shirt because I’m a big nerd who could listen to Nina Totenberg on NPR recount Supreme Court arguments all day long and I’m a big fan of justice. But when I went to check my news feed, I saw the news of the domestic violence arrests of engaged WNBA stars Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson instead.

I know that abuse happens at the same rate in same-sex relationships as it does in opposite-sex ones, but some folks are thrown off by this. The media had a hard time figuring out how to talk about it. ESPN reporters published their email chain debating how to cover it: How could they report on this in a way that holds the abusive partner accountable and calls for the WNBA to treat this as seriously as other sports leagues have recently promised to do, without feeding into the myth that women are just as abusive as men? Yeah, they didn’t come up with an answer either.

Here’s the thing—power and domination over others is a part of our culture and it rears its ugly head in a lot of different places. We are seeing it in the police brutality in Baltimore and around the country, in the wage gap between races and genders, and in the anti-LGBT backlash to marriage equality. With all this institutional violence it’s no wonder we see abuse in personal relationships as well. Straight or gay, it happens. Not exactly the kind of equality I was hoping for, but one we must recognize and address.

Striving to improve personal behavior is not the only work to be done to end violence in relationships. We have to work on institutional violence as well.

I won’t be asking permission

tattooI always knew that I wanted a tattoo. They are a beautiful and unique way of expressing one’s self. I’m sure that anyone who’s gotten inked has their own story of the why, the where, the when.

I got my first tattoo ten years ago, shortly after I moved to Seattle. I didn’t tell my family or many of my Indian friends. It was an act of rebellion only because of my assumptions of what others would say. I also knew that it was what I wanted.

My tattoo has gotten a lot of responses. I’ve heard: “I didn’t think you were the kind of person who got a tattoo.” or “Why did you get a tattoo there?” or “What did your parents say?”

Last week I got a new one:

Dude: Would you get another tattoo?
Me: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it.
Dude: What would you get?
Me: Maybe a half sleeve.
Dude: Don’t you think you should wait until you get married?
Me: No, why?
Dude: Wouldn’t you want to get permission from your husband? What if he’s not attracted to it?

Seriously?! I was so mad I can’t remember exactly what I said, but (1) I have never gotten permission for any of my tattoos or what I do with my body and I am not going to start now, (2) if someone is not attracted to me because of my tattoos or thinks that I need to ask their permission for the choices I make, then they have no business being with me, and (3) it’s 2015, buddy, do you really want to be saying that kind of thing?

Women are under an incredible amount of pressure to meet other people’s expectations. Women are judged for their tattoos and people make all sorts of weird assumptions about them. But I do not plan on ever asking for permission from anyone about what I do with my body; I may decide to get other people’s opinions, but ultimately it’s my choice.

Relationship advice

This past year, domestic violence was in the news quite often. But lately, I’ve noticed the stories that have really made me stop and think about violence and relationships are the ones that didn’t set out to do so. They are just good stories, with violence woven through as it is woven into all our lives.

This Senator Saved My Love Life is an episode of the podcast Death, Sex & Money. Political reporter Anna Sale tells the odd and charming story of how former Senator Alan K. Simpson and his wife Ann Simpson became sort of relationship mentors to Anna and her boyfriend, dispensing pearls of wisdom about intimacy, sex, and commitment. In a million years, it would not have occurred to me to look to an 83-year-old Republican Senator from Wyoming for relationship advice, least of all Al Simpson. Before listening to this story, my only memory of Senator Alan Simpson was his disgraceful role on the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. His open hostility  and dismissive attitude toward what he called “this sexual harassment crap” was typical of the all-male, all-white committee. I don’t know how many times I have heard a politician spouting some sexist garbage and wonder how that goes over with the women in his life. Who married this blowhard, and has she told him he’s a total jackass? I finally got the answer from Ann Simpson. She let her husband know what she thought of his performance at the hearings, and it’s still a sore spot for them.

 

Among the many historic moments of the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas debacle: the first time Ann Simpson tells her husband to shut up.

 

Nonetheless, after 50 years of marriage, Al and Ann Simpson have a lot of things figured out. They are sweet together. They are clearly proud of their marriage and have worked hard at making it a good one. For me, the heart of the story is in this apparent contradiction: how could this woman be married to the ranting bully I watched on C-SPAN, yet not be bullied herself?

Ann and Al talk very frankly about struggling to find a balance of power in their relationship. They describe a defining moment, one night early in their marriage.

Al was furious with Ann after she spent the evening dancing with another man at a political event. He recalls how self-righteous he was, how sure he was that she would be wracked with guilt, and how Ann was having none of it:

Al: “She said ‘Look…I’m not going to be under a glass lid just because of your jealousy. And I love to dance. And I will do that. And I’m not going to jump in the sack with somebody, so I think you better get over it.’ Which really pissed me off.”

Al goes on to describe how the shock of realizing that Ann did not feel the least bit guilty led to a critical moment of clarity. Still stewing, he stayed up late into the night, reading Shakespeare, and suddenly recognized his own jealousy in Othello’s murderous rage.

“I thought, Jesus, this is one sick son-of-a-bitch. This is not me. This is totally destructive and has nothing to do with her.”

There are moments in this story that we might recognize as “red flags,” warning signs that point toward domestic violence. But the story does not take that path. A red flag marks one moment in time. What happens in the next moment makes a difference in how the story turns out.

Surely Al could have done a lot of damage if he had chosen to tighten his grip on control, if he had resented Ann’s resistance to his demands instead of admiring her for it. And if Ann had molded herself to accommodate his ego, he may have been another man who bullies everyone in his life because bullying has always worked.

Instead, when he tries to control her, it doesn’t work. And they each play an equally important part in that:

  1. Ann stands her own ground, and does not shape her behavior around Al’s attempt to shame or control her.
  2. When Al’s bullying doesn’t get him what he wants, he decides to do something different. Ann doesn’t make him stop. He decides for himself that is not the way to get the relationship he wants. Looking back, he recognizes Ann standing up to him for the gift that it was. One piece of marriage advice he has sums this up: “The secret is, you both try to control each other, and you both fail. And it’s critical that you both fail.”

We often say we want to stop domestic violence before it starts, but what does that moment look like? The stories we most often hear take place much farther downstream, when the course is set and the stakes are high. Much earlier, somewhere around the first red flag, there are many possible endings.

There’s much more from Al and Ann. Listen to the whole podcast here.

 

From there to here

here-there-signpostI started doing domestic violence advocacy in 1994. It is 2015. Wow. Just wow. But this post isn’t about feeling old. Instead it’s about how amazing this work to end violence and support survivors is. One of the things I love most is how I am continually changing my mind about things. Here are just a few examples of where I was (and maybe you were too) 21 years ago and where we are today.

From beds to bedrooms

We used to focus on how many beds we had, stuffing survivors and their children into all the nooks and crannies of our shelters with that elusive goal of “safety” looming over our heads. Now we’ve realized that dignity is actually what we are looking for. We are working to create empowering spaces where survivors get their needs for self-determination, security, and connection met. And we’re doing things to support families, like creating quiet spaces where kids can do their homework. Keeping families together and supporting survivors to get what they need is what matters most, not how many beds our overflowing shelter can hold.

From safety to safer

I have learned so much from Jill Davies’ and Eleanor Lyon’s new book. They argue that while safety from an abuser is critical, to be truly safe “requires more than the absence of physical violence. A victim who is no longer hit by a partner but has no way to feed her children or pay the rent is not safe.…Victims are safe when there is no violence, their basic human needs are met, and they experience social and emotional well-being.” So that means helping survivors experience less violence, more economic stability, and greater well-being is the true heart of meaningful advocacy.

From intervention to prevention

OK, let’s be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about prevention in 1994. In fact it hadn’t yet occurred to me that domestic violence was preventable. But guess what, it is! As critical as it is to help people in need, we also need to spend energy on stopping the violence before it starts. And this is an exciting time as we are figuring out how to actually do that. We’re creating a whole new language to help us get to a world where beloved community and better relationships exist—it is all so exciting! I can’t wait to see how many more things I change my mind about in the future.

Being grateful for chosen family

We bring you this post from Penny Lipsou, our Policy and Economic Justice intern.

However you observe the holiday season, this time of year is traditionally designed for family togetherness over delicious food. Holidays can be a beautiful time to connect with our loved ones, but they can also be overwhelmingly stressful and anxiety-provoking. In this emotional maze of expectations and celebrations, I want to express my gratitude for non-traditional support networks, specifically for my chosen family.

There are many outrageous wrongdoings we simply do not have control over. Whether it’s violence against people for loving a person of the same sex, hate crimes against people who dress outside of their assigned gender, cyberbullying against people who don’t fit a certain standard of beauty, or other kinds of abuse, there are cultural norms that pressure us to not show up as our true selves in the world. This is certainly an issue survivors face as they struggle to safely gain some control over their own lives. In an emotionally abusive relationship, this can look like a change in focus from your partner’s needs to standing by your own emotional boundaries.

There’s a quote that has stuck with me since I first read it: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” When you think about this quote, you can go many ways with it. From discussing how social environments can normalize unhealthy behaviors to noticing how friends can help us feel confident—the people who surround us matter.

Friends are the family you choose.” And when it comes to living from a value-centered place versus living from a place of fear and anxiety, our chosen family is critical in helping us cultivate power and staying true to our inner voice. In my life, I’ve been both intentional and lucky to have a chosen family who loves, supports, and doesn’t give up on me through all the highs and lows. I’m the average of their fierceness, emotional brilliance, wit, and wisdom. They are my lifeblood and I’m eternally thankful that they have chosen to share their life with me. During this holiday season, it is my hope that all people, especially survivors, find the empowering support they deserve.

chosen-family

To see, to speak, to persuade

Last week I was sitting through the jury selection process for a domestic violence related-crime. Day one: I was questioned alone about where I worked (spoiler alert—the Washington State juryCoalition Against Domestic Violence). Do I know prosecutors? Do we work together? Yes, and yet I am not dismissed. Day two: I realize I am intentionally being kept on by both the prosecution and defense. They ask me questions and see how others react. My role is either educator or provocateur. At first I’m annoyed, but then I realize I’m in a focus group I could never assemble. I get to listen to a group of random adults talking about domestic violence.

I watched how easily the entire group was swayed by the person leading the conversation. The defense attorney told a story about his young children fighting. It is patronizing to suggest that kids’ fights are comparable to one adult using coercion against another to control them. Yet nods of understanding and a feeling of concurrence with the defense swept the room. Throughout the day the defense attorney kept referring back to this story. Each time enforcing the idea of domestic violence as a simple fight rather than the complex reality of how fear and power dynamics affect a person’s options, autonomy, and safety.

When it was the prosecutor’s turn, he asked why someone who experienced abuse might stay in a relationship. The responses felt like a psycho-analysis of the alleged victim’s behavior. She is co-dependent, in a love/hate relationship, grew up in an abusive home. I spoke up, suggesting that she may have tried to leave and was not able to get help, or her partner threatened to hurt her or her family unless she returned home, or she did not have enough cash immediately available for an apartment. The room is with me now, heads nodding.

In the end, no surprise, I am not picked to be on the jury. I think everyone there would agree that violence against your intimate partner is unacceptable—but everyone had a different understanding of what that actually looked like and who should be held accountable. It was too easy to judge the victim’s behavior and too hard to understand all the ways an abuser’s tactics can impact their partner.

Depression in the news

Photo by Eva Rinaldi
Photo by Eva Rinaldi

The death of Robin Williams has hit me hard. I share the collective sadness and shock of it. I also feel overwhelmed by the myriad of reactions in the media and on Facebook—all this commentary about depression front and center. It’s a bit strange to have something you’ve been trying to manage for over 20 years suddenly on everyone’s lips. All I can say is: ooof.

People have got some serious misunderstandings about depression. From well-meaning folk who offer every idea under the sun as a solution with zero understanding that depression isn’t just feeling bummed or being in a rut, to those who wish depressed people would just snap out of it and move on. Here’s the thing: depression can look different for different people. It can ebb and flow, go from manageable to not in an inexplicable instant. And it can profoundly affect relationships—with ourselves, our partners, our children, our friends.

Many survivors of abuse experience depression, and regardless of if the disease was something they were dealing with before the abuse, or something that was brought on by it, survivors encounter these same misunderstandings. For those of us doing domestic violence work, we think a lot about how to stay safe from the external threat of an abusive partner. But the risk of suicide for survivors dealing with abuse and depression is real and scary too.

So, since knowledge is power, please take a moment to check out the following links. Let’s get a more well-rounded perspective on depression so that we can better support those around us.

  • Learning is fun! Especially when it’s in cartoon form. Check out this comic about depression. Yep, you read that right. (explicit language)
  • Some have said that suicide is a selfish act. I get how someone who has never experienced depression might feel that way, but here’s a different perspective.
  • And this video is about one person’s experience with depression, and his ideas for supporting someone you love who is also dealing with the disease.

Onward. Forward. Every day.

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