Editor’s Note: For those readers who recently watched the hit HBO series “Big Little Lies,” you may still be reeling from the shocking domestic violence scenes that revealed that domestic violence can be present where it is least suspected. Unfortunately domestic violence is a reality for all too many. The statistics are chilling: On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. And one in three women and one in four men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
-by Natalia Hughes
Most of us personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence. As a result, it may be difficult to know what to do. It may also be very upsetting that someone you care about is hurting.
Friends or loved ones who experience domestic violence may be feeling hopeless or experience overwhelming fear and or guilt. They may also feel conflicting emotions about the abuser. Our instincts make us believe that we need to protect our friends or loved ones. However this can become dangerous because we are not part of the abusive relationship and as outsiders looking in, we can potentially cause more harm. For example, telling our friends or loved ones to leave a relationship when it is abusive can cause more harm for victim who may later chose to return to the abuser and be punished for leaving. Other times, someone who goes back to an abusive relationship may be pushed away from family and friends, and become even more isolated.
What, therefore, should you do if someone you know is in this situation? I am a firm believer that knowledge holds power. In my field of work as a marriage family therapist, many of my clients present with current domestic violence or have a history of it in their relationships. Oftentimes, my client report feeling unheard, lost in the navigation as to where to turn for help, and devalued as a human. Gaining knowledge and information is often the turning point and pathway to getting out of an abusive relationship. Many of my clients have said that they would have left sooner if they’d known what resources were available for them.
Here are tips on how to be supportive, mindful and empowering to someone who may be experiencing domestic violence.
Be available if the person wants to open up to discuss their abuse. For an abuse victim, it takes great courage to begin to talk about what is going on. Lending your ear can empower them to eventually seek a safe and caring environment.
Don’t judge. It’s human to want to judge others; however, this has the power to take away a victim’s confidence and therefore lessen the drive to leave an abusive relationship. Often we don’t even mean to judge, but it comes through in what we say, for example when you ask, “Why haven’t you left the relationship already?” Keep in mind that there may be several reasons why the individual feels they cannot leave (the spouse is the primary wage earner, for example), even if it is difficult for others to understand.
Believe what is being shared with you. Sometimes we may question what a person is telling us. However, no one knows what a relationship is like except for the people living it. Showing or expressing doubts about what you are being told can cause the other person to feel devalued and to stop confiding in you. Instead, try to listen with an open mind.
Don’t suggest or push suggestions of what you think the person should do (i.e. leave the abuser). This only adds pressure, and does not empower the individual to learn, grow or decide on their own. Instead, reassure the person that the abuse is not their fault and that nothing they have done justifies violence against them.
Make it your focus to support the person and build their confidence and resource base. The more victims of abuse know, the more empowered they become. Often, the abuser tries to manipulate the victim by telling them that if they leave, they’ll be on their own and no one can help them or that they will get their children taken away. Knowledge helps victims see they do have options and that the abuser is wrong. Two resources to share: 1) LA County. Dialing 211 for LA County provides everything from domestic violence emergency shelters to local agencies that can help with food restraining orders, babysitting, and transportation. LA County also has a toll- free 24- hour hotline: 1-800-978-3600. 2) House of Ruth, a domestic violence agency in the San Gabriel Valley at 909-988-5559. This number will connect people to a crisis hotline.
Recognize that it takes a while to help someone understand what they are going through and even longer to decide what to do about it. It is very difficult for victims to find the strength and courage to navigate away from their abuser. Coming to terms with the abuse and how to handle it is a long process.
Lastly, don’t blame yourself for not being able to help a loved one or family. What keeps someone in an abusive relationship is strong and complex and sometimes we do not have the understanding or tools to break this cycle. Sometimes knowledge and empowerment can be enough to help someone escape abuse, but other times, no matter how hard you try or how present you are for that person, it is just a decision the individual is not ready to make.
As a therapist, understanding human behavior is my profession. However, even I cannot understand how experiences and situations such as abuse is hard-wired in the human mind. In the end, what I do know, however, is that abusive relationships are proof of the incredible power people can have over each other.
–Natalia, who received a master’s degree in Marriage Family Therapy from the University of Phoenix, is a CalWORKs therapist intern with Hillsides in our Family Resource Centers, Pomona. CalWORKs is a state-wide program that provides employment services and other benefits to families in need.
Natalia is a firm believer that the more we strive to learn, the more we will grow individually and as a culture. Her greatest passion is to teach others to continue to grow on their self-journey of discovery. “I enjoy helping my clients find healthy perceptions of themselves, fortify their loving relationships, and apply self-growth in order to be balanced individuals,” she says.