Addendum: It was brought to my attention this evening that there may have been some confusion about my post and why I wrote it. Because of this, I have made a small change to the below information. The core of the post is still the same, I am just hoping to clear up any misunderstanding. The issues here are widely discussed among victims and advocates alike. My goal is to help provide victims with tangible, usable information that will help them feel empowered enough to leave, and to help them do so in a way that gives them at least some form of protection against their abuser once they do make it out. It is not my intention to criticize or single out any person, group, site, or source of information.
For quite some time now, I have wanted to discuss some of the control tactics that abusers often use when a victim tries to escape because it is one of the main issues that the protagonist in my upcoming novel deals with. But the approach I take to discussing this may be a little different from what is often out there. Quite often, the victim is basically stripped of all control. She is portrayed as…well…a victim. Certainly, battered women are victims, but I feel that this type of thinking feeds entirely too much into the victim mentality. Because her abuser has too much power, because the system is entirely too screwed up to protect her, because she will lose her children or be forced to continue contact with her abuser, she has no choice in the matter; she is forever the victim. The problem with this? As long as you’re a victim in your head, you will never be anything but. There are stories of success, stories where women have made it out, changed the laws, kept custody, and made a new life free of violence. I get it; it’s important to highlight where the system is lacking, where women go unheard because it happens. Too much. My concern is that there is so much focus on the negative that we’re forgetting a very important part of helping victims – empowering them.
Here are my thoughts: (If I ramble a bit, please forgive me; this is a pretty emotional post.)
One of my biggest concerns is that domestic violence support groups, meetings and even shelters are sometimes slighted for the work they do. Maybe the negative talk is coming from groups that are actually against helping victims (I literally just learned of these groups of people and am appalled). Maybe it’s because it takes the average woman 7 times of leaving to finally leave her abuser for good (which has nothing to do with the shelters, support groups or meetings…at least not in my experience). Or maybe the work they do and what they are is misunderstood. I know that when I first went, I had no idea what I was stepping into. In my head, I pictured a big cafeteria-like room full of cots and pallets made on the floor. I imagined people telling me how horrible of a mother I was for allowing my children to be in an abusive situation. I was deathly afraid of having people look down their noses at me because I was a victim, because I was homeless, because I needed help. Most of all, I feared that these resources wouldn’t be anything more than a place to stay for a while, and that I would have to figure it all out on my own. I found quite the contrary.
Since being there, I’ve heard a few discussions (both online and in person) where it was said that these resources actually push the victim back to the abuser. That, by discussing the abuse and the abuser, and by asking the victim to take responsibility for the reason she was in or stayed in the relationship, they are guilting her into going back, excusing the abuser’s actions and behaviors, and advocating for the abuser. Personally, I have never, not once, ever, been to a domestic violence meeting, class or other function that advocated for the abuser. The abuser IS addressed. But in my own experience, the purpose of addressing the abuser’s issue was about education – not to help the victim understand or excuse the actions of the abuser. Instead, it was designed to help the victim better understand how she ended up in an abusive situation in the first place and how she can better SPOT an abuser in the future. Why is this important?
If you don’t understand how you ended up in an abusive relationship, you can’t avoid them in the future. There are clear instances and moments in an abusive relationship (these are generally early on) that emotionally healthy women would walk away from. Women that end up in abusive relationships make excuses; they may even see these acts as endearing or sweet. They internalize the blame, long before the abuser starts to transfer blame. And even after the abuse starts, many victims rationalize the behavior. This is just one scenario – there are many, many more. But the point is that it’s important to understand why YOU ended up in the relationship in the first place, why you didn’t see the signs early on in the relationship, why you continued to raise the bar on what’s considered okay and safe. Which brings me to my next point…
Another reason that abuser education is important is that, until you can recognize the commonalities between abusers, you cannot avoid getting into abusive relationships. For example, potentially abusive individuals are more likely to talk negatively about their childhood and their parents (particularly their fathers) than non-abusers. Since talks about childhood and parents often occur early on in a relationship, this is a key point for former victims to know. Is this trying to understand the abuser that you’ve already left? It can be interpreted that way by some, but I would hope not. Is this helping a victim spot the next potentially abusive guy that walks into her life? That is the goal.
I refuse, and I do mean REFUSE to accept the whole mentality of “Well, what is she supposed to do when the entire system is against her and her abuser is out to get her?” Is it difficult to get away from an abuser and win? Yes, without a doubt. But is it possible to get away and win? Absolutely. But it all starts with keeping the control where it belongs. Victims already have so much control taken away from them while they are in the relationship; don’t take away what control they do have when they leave the abuser by telling them that the system is so screwed that their situation is hopeless. Sure, I agree that the system could be better. But there are options for victims, and the second you lead them to believe that there aren’t, you strip them of all the control that could help them get out. Here are just a few examples in which the victim is led to believe that they have to submit to the abuser:
Religion: I could rant for days on this one, so I’m just going to leave it at this: I’m 100% certain that abuse does not fall under the whole “women should be submissive to their husbands” clause. This applies, no matter what religion/doctrine you believe in.
Custody of children: Abusers will threaten to take full custody, but rarely do abusers get full custody. Does it happen? Yes, but it’s not an easy thing to accomplish. Abusers may be given residential custody (where the child resides primarily with the abuser) if they can “prove” that the victim is unable to provide a safe and stable environment (there are many ways that abusers may try to do this), but more and more states are moving towards providing both parents with equal parenting rights. But victims can fight it. Victims have the power to request that all visits are supervised while custody proceedings are pending (the victim does NOT have to be the supervisor). Or, if the abuser does not pose a threat to the child, the victim has the right to request neutral pick up and drop offs of the children. (It should be duly noted, however, that if the victim provides proof of abuse, it is highly unlikely that a child will be left unsupervised in the care of the abuser. And it should also be mentioned that, if an abuser is able and willing to abuse a partner, they are quite capable, and often do, abuse their children at some point.) That means filing police reports. It means pressing charges. It means filing an order of protection the DAY she leaves. It means going to a place that can help with all the legalities (think police station, Child Protective Services and domestic violence shelters), and it requires her to think ahead. Certainly, there are times in which thinking ahead is practically impossible because the situation suddenly turns beyond dangerous, but even in these instances, there are options. Go to the police station first. Then go to a domestic violence shelter. I recommend this to ALL victims, for a variety of reasons, but namely because they are a victim’s biggest resource.
Can you still lose? Yes. It’s possible, and it does happen. The results can be tragic. And yes, there are worst case scenario situations. And while it is true that leaving can actually cause violence to escalate, there are no guarantees that staying will keep you or your children safe of alive. Remember, the second you stop fighting, the second that you give up your control, you become the victim again. Also in some cases where custody losses have happened, the victim failed to fight for herself, failed to speak out because she was afraid, or simply wasn’t educated on the resources that do exist. She gave in to the abuser’s requests, pressuring, ploys, etc. Or she allowed an attorney to convince her that it would be in her best interest to keep quiet and play cooperative. None of this is true, and none of this should ever happen.
The fight has to start the second she leaves, and if at all possible, before she actually leaves. Start talking to someone, anyone. Call the domestic violence hotline. Talk to a friend or family member. Seek out a domestic violence support group; other victims (many of which have successfully left abusive relationships) can provide you with a plethora of knowledge and experience. Do whatever you can to start making steps in the right direction before you leave. Just be cautious and careful. Never use a phone that can be checked by your abuser – the hotline number is free, so you can even make the call from a payphone. If you start attending a support group, attend only if you know he will be gone or busy, and never take the same route twice, just in case he follows you for a while. If you ever suspect that you are in immediate danger, do not wait to leave. Leave NOW. Go to a safe place – a police station, a public place, and call the domestic violence hotline. And never, I mean NEVER, leave your children home alone with your abuser.
Lawyers: In any case where criminal charges are involved, the court can APPOINT you an attorney. For non-criminal cases, seek out an attorney. You should never, ever, EVER go up against an abuser without one. For any reason. If finances are an issue, contact your local legal aide. And be sure to have all your ducks in a row. Get copies of all police reports and give them to your lawyer. Get letters from the shelter, if at all possible. Gather statements from family and friends. If you’ve ever been treated for breaks, concussions or any other injuries relating to the abuse, get copies and give them to your lawyer.
Abuser pushing family and friends out of your corner and into his: Generally, family and friends will take your side – at least REAL friends and family members. Be honest with them about the situation. Explain to them what has happened and what’s been going on in your life. Do this immediately. Family and friends are smart; they suspected something all along. I promise. They saw how you stopped making contact with them. They wondered why you stopped visiting or calling. And at least one person suspected that you were being abused. Though you may feel ashamed, like you are weak, you have to stand up for yourself now – and that starts with being open about the abuse. This also helps start the healing process.
Claims of mental instability: Go to a counselor. You can see a counselor through the shelter, but I recommend additional therapy. If you have no income, then you can usually qualify for state insurance. This will give you access to mental health services at no cost. Provide any and all mental health records to your attorney prior to your first court date.
Claims of drug abuse: Get a drug test. On your own. Provide the results to your attorney.
Lack of funds: This is a key area that abusers use to keep victims within their control. But it doesn’t have to be. There is state funding – food stamps, cash assistance and medical care. If you go to a domestic violence shelter, you can usually get approved within 10 days of your application because you are considered “homeless.” Remind yourself that it’s temporary, and that eventually, you will get back on your feet; you will have a job and a place of your own eventually. But for now, there’s nothing wrong with accepting help.
School for the kids: Change the kids’ school. Do NOT take them to the school they were attending while you were with your abuser. Provide the new school with a copy of your order of protection so that they know the abuser cannot pick up the children from school, for any reason.
Victim or survivor – the real truth: I can’t tell you how many women I watched go back. It was never the same reason. Some went back because they felt guilty; the kids would say how much they missed their Daddy or the women would worry that they would look like the bad guy. Some went back because they felt they couldn’t survive alone (financially, emotionally, or otherwise). To be honest, there are almost as many reasons to go back as there are victims. But there is always a core issue – an issue that goes much deeper than what most people can see.
Very rarely does the core issue come down to a fear of the abuser; if that were the case, the victim would continue to run in the other direction. However, there may be other fears, such as being afraid they can’t parent alone or that they can’t survive on their own. There are sometimes fears that the abuser can take the children, and that does happen on occasion. If, however, the victim takes the appropriate steps, gets enough people in her corner (people with authority) and speaks quite plainly and honestly (note I did not say maliciously or out of anger) about her situation, many people will listen. The problem comes when the victim doesn’t speak about the issue until the court date comes – when she stands in front of a judge and announces that she was abused when there is no documentation to back her story up. That’s why police reports, Child Protective Services, domestic violence shelters, and protective orders are so very important. These things and organizations serve as documentation.
Now, there is a real issue here, and that is, where custody situations arise, the batterer may be permitted to attend a support group or classes to obtain visitation (or in some cases, custody) of the child/ren. This is something that really needs to be addressed in the family court system because, not only are these classes/groups ineffective at treating the abuser (unless, of course, the abuser is actually interested in changing), these systems are easily manipulated. And it puts the battered woman and her children at further risk. What’s more, there are rarely follow-ups on custody cases where these types of arrangements have been made. Because of this, the abuser may (and often does) return to his abusive/stalking/threatening, and the children and the victim are left without any form of recourse.
I can’t tell you, for certain, what makes the difference between someone leaving an abusive situation for good and why it is that so many women go back; I don’t have that answer, but I will tell you what was different for me. From the day I stepped into the shelter, I refused to accept the word victim. I wasn’t a victim and I didn’t believe that I ever had been. We victims tend think we have no choice but to be the victim, after all, our abuser has spent quite a bit of time and energy convincing us that we’ll never make it out or survive without them. But as long as you ARE a victim, you have no control. That lack of control is pretty scary, and it feeds into the thought that you can’t make it, that you can’t win, that you’ll never be able to get away from him. I was a survivor, even before I left. In my personal opinion, the only real victims are those that die while with their abusers because they never make it out. All other “victims” have the chance to leave. As hard as it may be, as scary as it is, there is always that chance. And only when the victim realizes that she doesn’t have to be a victim anymore will she truly be ready to leave the situation for good. Certainly there are challenges, and the entire thing feels insurmountable. But focusing on what can be done, by taking one small step after another, the victim can reach a healthier, violence free life.
All of this may just be my own opinion, but I am a survivor. Having survived and having put my life back together, I feel I do have a bit of authority to speak on this issue that so very few truly and honestly understand. Don’t mistake me for high and mighty or uppity; I just know that, in the shelters I stayed at, most of the women that worked there had been victims themselves at one time. I believe there really is a reason for that – because unless you’ve been a victim, you can never really understand what it’s like to be a victim or what it’s like to try and leave the abuse behind for good. It’s like trying to understand what it’s like to be blind. You can empathize, but until you’ve been blind, you’ll never fully understand.
Additional note: Oddly enough, I decided to do some additional research after writing this post. I found this resource which provides much of the same information listed above, but also some additional tips for battered women facing custody issues. The statistics are scary and alarming, and almost disheartening. But remember, there are things you can do. Do not give up. Do not let anyone take away your hope for a safe home environment. Above all, do not continue to live a life in which you must feel fear each and every day. There are ways to fight back, and you can start today.
Much love and support to all my fellow victims and survivors,