For Friends and Family of Domestic Violence Survivors

For Friends and Family of Domestic Violence Survivors

In order to truly comprehend the prevalence of domestic violence (DV) and sexual violence (SV) in our nation, you have to spend some time as an advocate. Once you are in the trenches, so to speak, not only do you have people you know disclose to you about themselves and their loved ones, but every news story, magazine article, biography of a celebrity/politician/athlete containing a hint of abuse catches your eye or is sent to you by someone with the tag line: “I saw this and thought of you.” It surrounds us, yet we seem to be unaware of it until it touches our lives or the lives of someone we love.

Here are some numbers for you: 1 in 4 women will experience intimate partner violence (IPV) in her lifetime. 30-60% of perpetrators of IPV also abuse the children in the home. 1 in 6 women will experience an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. 15% of sexual assault or rape victims are under the age of 12. These numbers should be sobering.

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The most common question I am asked to this day (even though years have passed since I stepped away from my role as a paid DV/SV advocate) is surprisingly not “why does she stay?” Believe me, this is a question that my four years of experience and training prepared me to answer. I could write you a novel on why she stays! Rather, the most common question goes something like this: “My friend/sister/mother is in a bad relationship/was assaulted and I am unsure of what I can do to help. Any suggestions?”

It’s a little refreshing that I’m asked to help someone on such a regular basis. Even if it is one of the few minor silver linings in a terrible situation, this question restores my faith in humanity because it means people care about others.

Start by listening and withholding judgement

The most important things that you can do for a loved one that experiences domestic violence in their intimate relationship are to listen and provide nonjudgmental support. Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive behavior. It is thorough. It often involves more than merely physical violence, including (but not limited to) psychological abuse, sexual abuse, isolation,continuous threats and financial control. This is not a complete list by any means, but you can see how far and wide that control can reach.

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To make matters worse, your survivor has at some point loved the individual doing them harm (and might still love them). This can be an incredibly difficult bond to break, and if there are children included…to say the least, domestic violence consumes.  Choosing to leave the relationship is a dangerous time for a survivor because the batterer is facing losing control. A loss of control can cause an escalation of behavior that can mean an increase in lethality for the survivor. When the time comes and they are ready to leave the relationship behind for good (we know survivors can leave multiple times before cutting ties permanently), your loved one needs to know that they have your support. Perpetrators of domestic violence seek control over the other person,and this is achieved by chipping away at the self worth of the victim as well as any outside support system that exists. Ultimately, the survivor must make the decision to leave for themselves and their children, if children are involved.

Validate and support survivors

While every survivor and DV relationship is different, gentle and constant reminders of your love and support for them can go such a long way. Plant the seed that, when the time comes that they are ready to leave the relationship, they know they are loved and do have outside support. Show them love is unconditional and love does not seek to control or harm. Validate their feelings, thoughts and emotions.

I encourage you to contact the local domestic violence shelter if you need further information on helping to keep your loved one safe. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has a national hotline that can connect you to your local shelter, listings for international and state coalitions (that then link you to locations in your state) as well as many other tips for survivors, DV statistics and information about the cycle of violence.

Sexual violence in relationships

Many of the concepts above can be applied for both friends and family of domestic and sexual violence survivors, but it is important to note that sexual violence is perpetrated within relationships as well as outside of relationships.

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Sexual assault has many faces, and survivors handle the experience in a variety of ways, but your support is still vital. SA survivors again need you to listen and validate. They need nonjudgmental support and encouragement.  RAINN can help provide additional information specific to the situation your loved one has experienced. There is a hotline number to call, additional information for friends and family of survivors, and links to your local sexual assault center.

Remember your own needs matter

My experience as a paid advocate, as well as friend and family to survivors, has been that there are times they need you to listen, and there are times they will push you away. Sometimes they hate you and press your buttons, sometimes they need your comfort and support, and other times they go silent and shut you out. Remind yourself not to take it personally. They are used to navigating the chaos that has consumed their lives, but you are not. This doesn’t mean that they are purposely trying to hurt you.

Remember that support systems need to take care of themselves, as well. To be a stable force in your survivor’s life, you must take care of yourself so that when they are ready to lean on you, you are there. It is not so much what you say to them or feel for them, more than what you give them space to say or feel that matters.

Posted originally here, republished with author’s permission and edited for clarity.


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