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The Behaviors We Fail to Define as Domestic Violence

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Remember that the primary strategy of domestic violence is to control; to establish control; to maintain control; to exert control over another human being, in this case a partner.  This is the fundamental premise of domestic abuse: to control a domestic partner in order to preserve and perpetuate one’s identity, agenda & existence.

Theorists debate the reasons for domestic violence.  Why do people domestically abuse?  Feminists believe that it is due to the overarching patriarchal constructs in society that value the male experience over that of female experience.  In patriarchal societies male dominance, which lead to abuse is viewed as acceptable aspects of masculinity.  Family system therapists have questioned if it is an issue of learned behavior.  Do abusers learn to abuse by what is modeled in their home?  Ecological psychologists consider environmental systems.  Are those who are exposed to the stressors of poverty more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors under the pressure of extreme stress?

I get it– in identifying root causes perhaps we can predict and prevent (this is especially important for legislative and policy making purposes).  What we’re finding in the domestic violence literature is these root causes are complex and there can be overlapping contributing factors to abusive behaviors.  From an individual perspective, we can’t always identify someone as an abuser based on these variables alone.  In fact, sometimes reviewing these variables alone can be problematic, as some will utilize justifications for someone’s abusive behaviors when they can’t simply place the person or his/her abusive behaviors into a categorical box.

Whatever the cause/reason for domestic abuse the outcome remain: a domestically violent individual uses abusive behaviors and strategies to produce fear, submission and oppression of their partner in order to control.

Let’s talk behaviors.  For the majority of us physical aggression and violence in a relationship is recognized as domestic abuse.  Although, you will find people creating justifications for physical abuse, especially when they are having difficulty believing that a family member or friend could act abusively.  Research shows that only half of those who are exposed to domestic violence report it.  Statistically speaking between 25-34% of women are domestically abused (1 in 3 or 4 women; 1 in 7 men) and only half of these survivors will report.  The reasons for this include: 1) they fear retaliation from their abuser, 2) they believe they will not be able to access help (i.e. police won’t help, will not be able to access resources needed like housing, financial assistance, etc.), 3) they have had family and friends tell them that the partner’s behaviors are not abuse and that perhaps they are making a big deal out of nothing.  This is why advocacy and education is tremendously important because those that justify are complicit to the harm that domestic violence produces for the survivor.

Now imagine– if it is easy to justify or ignore an individual’s experience with physical violence– when there are physical representations of domestic abuse on the individual’s person– how easy is it deny a person’s disclosure and experience with psychological and emotional abuse?

Yes, domestic violence occurs in many different forms.  One form of domestic violence that researchers are documenting have to do with abusers using a partner’s credit and ruining their credit to make it difficult for the survivor to leave or to obtain housing on their own.  Some abusers use contraception as a form of control by poking holes in their condoms to increase the chances of the survivor getting pregnant.  The belief for the abuser is if she gets pregnant then 1) they will be linked permanently and 2) having a child makes it more difficult to leave and to live independently.  These are strategies of control and more often than not there are multiple strategies that are being used to control another person.  In times of domestic violence where the abuse is more subtle or difficult to quantify survivors are less understood or believed.

Psychological and emotional forms of domestic violence occur.  At times, these forms are difficult to identify for the survivor and that is why it’s important we talk about it.  These forms of abuse are often ignored by family and friends, which further isolates and makes confusing the process of identifying emotional abuse for the survivor.  We all need more education around this so that we can support survivors’ agency and human right to do what is in her best overall health and interest.

Survivors need this information to alleviate the isolation one feels when being emotionally abused.  Survivors need to hear that you are not alone and that you are not crazy.  The abuse is meant to make you feel crazy and to make you doubt your own inner voice, but you are not crazy.  Survivors need to hear that the pain you feel is legitimate and real and although you don’t carry visible physical signs of your wounds the pain is excruciating and can lead to many complex feelings of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Psychological/Emotional abuse:

Character Assassination: When an abuser picks apart the character or personality of their partner by stating that their character/personality differences are wrong or weird or unacceptable.  We all are different.  We all have different ways of navigating the world.  We all think and process things differently.  An abuser who uses this tactic views the difference of their partner as less than.  The abuser will see their way of being or character as superior to the other person and will make comments or emotionally sabotage the other person by planting seeds of doubt about what the other person does or thinks.  Abusers who sabotage their partner’s character do this in private, as well as by demeaning them in public or putting them down in front of family or friends.

Name Call: Emotional abusers verbally put down their partner.  They may yell at them and call them names and make them feel less valued or dumb or insignificant in the world.

Emotional Manipulation: Abusers typically know triggers and areas that are sensitive to their partners.  They know what kind of emotional dynamic or language to use to get a certain kind of outcome from their partner.  The survivor may have even said, “no” or “I’m not comfortable with this or that” and the abuser may use previous information or knowledge about the survivor to derive guilt or shame in order to get the outcome that they wanted in the situation.

Gaslight: Emotional gas lighting is a recent term that refers to the absolute denial and displacement of emotional abuse/manipulation by the abuser.  In other words, the survivor at some point may call out these behaviors and how it creates feelings of hurt and pain and the abuser will deny the behavior.  Additionally, they will use this opportunity to question the survivor’s emotional stability and acuity.  “Are you okay”?  “Why don’t you see that I just love you”?  “You know you’ve always had trust issues”.  “Why can’t you assume the best of me”?

Insistence that they are the Experts in your life/experience: Psychological abusers believe that they know the survivor’s experience better than the survivor.   They believe that they know what the survivor needs and what they need to be doing.  A survivor may try to explain that this or that doesn’t work the same in their experience and the abuser is convinced that they know the situation better.  They undermine the survivor’s experience by saying things like, “you know you have this habit of…” They will insist that the survivor submit to their perspective and opinion on the situation.

Emotionally Withholding and Angry: When the survivor is unable or unwilling to go along with (fill in the blank) the abuser will be emotionally withholding, cold, distant and pout.  The cold stance may shift to anger over time and will manifest in putting pressure on the survivor to do what it is the abuser wants.

What happens to the Survivor?

The emotional and psychological consequences of this sort of abuse is extensive.  Survivors describe everything from depression to anxiety to feelings of inadequacy.  Survivors talk about how they have difficulty trusting their judgement.  They struggle to identify their own needs or desires because they hear the voice of their abuser overriding their own.  I’ve had survivors describe to me a sort of brain fog where they had difficulty thinking or focusing on anything.  When they did feel that they had an idea or opinion on a matter they weren’t sure if they could trust the new information.  Survivors describe feelings of doubt and self-blame about their situation.  I’ve heard women describe a somatic pressure on their chest or abdomen that are associated with exposure to emotional oppression and suppression.  For some the pain is indescribable– it is difficult to find language to describe the invisible pain.  Still others describe feeling completely isolated– left to navigate this emotional landscape on their own while in incredible pain and confusion.

I think one thing this blog can provide is a place to affirm that this suffering is real.

The suffering is real and survivors must not endure this suffering alone.  As one sojourner, I know the benefits of community and advocacy support.  There are no easy or quick solutions but I can’t leave this entry without giving some information to those who may need to reach out for assistance.  You can find that information below and know that I believe you and I hope for you– safety & relief from this pain.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE

Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence: https://wscadv.org

LifeWire: http://www.lifewire.org // 800-827-8840

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You’re the Good news

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Yesterday I had the distinct privilege of talking with domestic violence advocates about a cross-cultural approach to research.  It turned into this incredible brainstorm session complete with tons of energy and passion and grit.  I was blown away in the best of ways!  And when the session starting winding down an advocate looked at me and said, “Uggghhh this is so hard.  There are so many hurting.  Please tell me there is good news”.  I sat there for a moment I looked her straight in the eyes and I said, “Yes indeed there is good news—that good news is you—all of you and these women and the communities being built despite limited resources and broken systems—The good news is you”.  And then I said, “here’s the context”:

A few weeks prior I met with a survivor to interview her for a study.  This woman shared the barriers she faced with unwavering integrity.  Her husband had stolen her children and taken them to another country.  He left her destitute—not knowing the language or the housing system—she was evicted in a few weeks’ time.  Every-single-aspect of life was stacked against her but she persevered.  She, with the help of friends and advocates, got her children back, learned English and secured a three-bedroom permanent housing apartment.  When I looked at her I said, “if you hadn’t met your advocate where would you be or what do you think would have happened”?  And without hesitation she said, “I’d be dead”.

 

“I’d be dead”.

 

So you see, this is the good news—the good news is women showing up to do the gritty work; to stand in the gap with one another; to build cities out of dust; to shout at the top of their lungs that anything less than human rights will not be accepted; to demand justice and fairness and equitable communities for all; to sweat and toil on hands and knees; to cry, to laugh, to dance and to weep in all that life serves; to be alive for and in all of it.  On International Day of Women we celebrate the literal blood, sweat and tears of women who have been doing this throughout history to ensure a better future for our daughters and our sons.

 

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What I wish I would have told the church (where I pastored for 10 years) to help other women

The life that I had known for all of my existence came to a screeching halt in the same year.  It was the year that I resigned from my position as a pastor at a local church, while simultaneously ending my marriage of fifteen years.  I didn’t tell anyone about my marriage (with the exception of a few close friends and my family).  I feared that sharing the demise of my marriage would just lead to more pain and scrutiny so I focused on what I could– the good that came out of serving the church.  But more pointedly, I chose not to share about my marriage because it was in keeping with what I had been shown and told while growing up in the church and then even more so while I was a minister—to keep the broken to myself.  There is a model of ‘keeping secrets’ that the church has become effective in teaching through strategies of shaming and an over reliance on church leadership.

I wish I’d had the courage and the vehicle to have told people about my marriage.  If I could go back I would— if for no other reason than for the sake of other women who hold their own shame & secrets of domestic violence to themselves.

In the second year of serving the church, the lead pastor learned of the circumstances of my marriage.  He sat us down for a talk to confront us on the matter.  I was choked with fear and then with shame.  I remember feeling the need to not only preserve my marriage but also to preserve my job at the church and so I swallowed my shame and I promised that my marriage would not come before my role at the church.

After that conversation, the relationship with the lead pastor never was the same.  We (my family) were never regarded in the same manner.  The relationship between myself and the lead pastor became more and more distant over time.  I learned from these cues to not bother him with my worries or concerns and maintained this status quo.

Shame became such a familiar cloud.  I learned how to be available for others while also hiding my own pain and my own face.  I became incredibly adept at this skill.  My availability was completely sincere, but my insides were melting.

One night things got out of hand at home.  I remember so little of the circumstances other than the fear and shock.  What I do remember is that I grabbed my two and half year-old daughter and with no shoes ran out of our apartment to a friend’s apartment.  My friend took my daughter and I to a hotel for the night.  The next day we returned to her studio apartment and I took refuge in her bed for a week while she helped look after my child.  When Sunday rolled around I emotionally, mentally, & physically dusted myself off—returned home to the huge hole in the wall and showed up to my pastoral duties at church that morning.

 

No one ever knew about that week with the exception of that one friend.

 

The roller coasters of instability would continue throughout my marriage and I would do what I learned to do keep it to myself, show up for others and never complain.  I was wracked not only with incredible waves of shame, but isolation.

My story is not really all that special or unique.  It is an unfortunate thing to realize that between 25-33% of women (in the U.S.) are dealing with domestic abuse in all forms of physical aggression, financial deprivation, emotional battering and psychological warfare.  Think about it church and church leaders—that means that every 3rd or 4th female and every 10th male is dealing with some form of domestic violence while showing up to church every Sunday and maybe never telling a soul of the pain that they are in.

There are certain aspects of pain that the church is willing to do deal with that involve: biological illness and disease or a loss of a loved one through death, but the more sticky areas of pain having to do with mental illness or domestic abuse are overlooked—never to be spoken of.  In part, I believe it’s because the church doesn’t know how to respond.  They get so mired in the awkwardness and discomfort that it becomes easier to distant oneself from it then learn about appropriate ways to respond to not only the survivor, but the entire family system.  And so whether they mean to or not their distance communicates to the survivor and the entire family that something is fundamentally wrong with them and that they are not worthy of engagement.

For many survivors, who already have frail and shattered identities, they take that message to mean this is the best that they are gonna get—so they take it.  Community is incredibly important to survivors—a sense of being connected—even if it is not authentic is important and meaningful and gives even the smallest sliver of hope.

But you know what?  This-is-not-okay.  It is not okay for the church to slough off the awkwardness of domestic pain—maybe with the hope that someone else (a social worker, family member or government program) will intervene.  It’s not acceptable for the church not to learn culturally sensitive ways to interact, support and engage survivors who are experiencing DV.  It is not okay for the church to think that there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach that will be adequate for how it supports partnerships and families.

And so church leaders, you have some work cut out for you and one place you can start is by telling people that you believe them and that the circumstances do not change how you love them, embrace them or continue connection with them.

And then go get some training on domestic violence as well as a multi-cultural/inclusive approach to family systems.

New Beginnings is offering community-wide trainings and something they call courageous conversations: http://www.newbegin.org/courageous

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCDV) offers trainings and online courses: http://wscadv.org

Most importantly, Dear Survivor: you are not alone.  Your story, your experience… well it is real and valid and true.  You may question whether or not there is anyone that could understand or accept your experience.  You may even blame yourself.  You may be in a community or in a family where the norm is to keep secrets and you don’t think anyone would believe you if you came out and shared.  You may feel all kinds of love and confusion about the relationship and unsure of what the choices or options are.  You may be hearing all kinds of voices of judgement about why you stay or why you don’t leave or that it is immoral for you to end a marriage.  You may be feeling scared for your children and their futures.  You may be fearful about where you would live or how you could financially sustain.  You may be struggling with the belief that this is the norm in relationships.  You may be scared to your very core.  You are right there are no easy answers.  One blog entry and a few words are not going to be a balm for all you’re feeling and experiencing.  But I want you to know that I believe you.  I believe all of it and I know that there are others out there that do, too.  You are worth working through the hesitation to reach out.  Here are some safe places where you can do that:

New Beginnings: http://www.newbegin.org // 24-hour helpline 206.522.9472

DAWN: http://dawnrising.org // 24-hour helpline 425.656.7867

Lifewire: https://www.lifewire.org // 24-hour helpline 800.827.8840

 

 

 

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When all the signs are there… (reflections on Domestic Violence)

Domestic Violence

It was almost exactly a month to our wedding day when my then fiancé was arrested for domestic violence.

During the same time, I was being trained to be an advocate at a local program called Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault.  This was the same program I was referred to (as a client) after this incident.

The initial feelings were shame, panic and fear.

How could this happen to me?

How could I keep others from ever finding out about this?

What do we do now?  We couldn’t possibly cancel a wedding– what would people think?

And so just as planned we married each other and the problems in our relationship persisted and escalated over the years.

The second wave of feelings were ones of resolve.

I convinced myself that because I knew about the cycle of escalation and violence then I could change the dynamics in the relationship.  

I also compared myself to other women’s situation and felt that my situation wasn’t that bad.  

The cycle in this relationship was normative for me.

I grew up in a home that was regularly violent– cups flying, parents cursing, slapping, punching, pushing, yelling…  This was normal.  Although, I didn’t want to replicate this example of relationship I believed I (on my own) could change it.

Yet, the cycle persisted complicated with mental illness…  Fast forward many more years and the shame was compounded…

Who would believe me now?

Yes, all the signs were there.  On top of it, I knew all the signs from an advocate’s perspective and I knew what one was ‘supposed’ to do– How could I be so stupid– so naive?

The stay-leave decisions for women in domestic violent relationships is incredibly complex.  There are no two stories exactly the same.  The process of making the decision to leave is mired with shame and fear.

The process is isolating and confusing.  Sometimes there are people out there to help– to offer compassion and understanding.  Most times, there is not.

Domestic violence takes on many forms and configurations– physical aggression, sexual assault, economic deprivation, verbal and psychological abuse.  The underlying characteristics in DV relationships are constant fear, terror and isolation.

There is not one typology of domestic violence.  There are many diverse stories of trauma and no one person or institution can tell anyone what constitutes abuse.

Because I couldn’t place my story nicely and neatly in the cycle of domestic violence wheel then I convinced myself that my fears, my isolation, my terror wasn’t real– just figments of my imagination– over exaggerations– dramatic at best.

My decision more complicated with feelings of love and children.

In the end, I decided that I would choose to break the familial cycle of violence by leaving and modeling for my daughters that violence in an intimate relationship is not normal– it is not okay.  I decided to own my shame… the consequences of staying and the consequences of leaving and model for my daughters what it looks like to be authentic, messy and real.  Shame had messed up our family for a really long time– I wasn’t going to give it or anyone/thing else the power.

Friends,

1) Domestic violence is real.  The impacts on the individual and family is complex.  Don’t try to put people’s situation in a box.  Believe.  Listen.  Educate yourself.

2) Stay-Leave decisions are hard and complicated and isolating.  Let’s not heap on more burden and complication by judging women for their process and choice.

We need more compassion (try to empathically understand someone from their vantage point).

We need to be truth tellers.  We need places where we can tell our stories free of judgement or oversimplified responses like, “why did you stay” or “why did you leave”?

We need community who will stand with courage (have some conviction, stand up for what is right and stop blaming the victim).

Video

We should all be taking this stand

We should all believe unequivocally what Patrick Stewart articulates so strongly and passionately in this video: Violence is never, ever a choice that a man should make.

The more I participate in trauma work and listen to women’s stories of abuse and violence I swing on this pendulum of anger– anger at the person who chooses to make violence an option and anger at the institutions and people groups who are passive in speaking out against this behavior.  I’ve heard from more women who have been told by their families, their doctors, their pastors, their friends that their victimization is somehow their own fault.  And if people aren’t dumb enough to say such ridiculous things– then they just sit by silently and idly and they don’t take a stand against those that harm through violence. More and more people do not want to be bothered with the complexity of human suffering.  So today I reflect on Patrick Stewarts stand– it’s a no brainer this should be all of our positions on the matter.

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The courage to live

From the very start I had a desire to create a private practice which would engage and intersect my passions for justice & compassion and therapy.  This past year has been an additional step in that direction, as I have freed up X amount of hours toward pro-bono work with women who are homeless due to domestic violence.  As much as I’d like to think that I’ve had some profound impact or influence on these women’s lives– the reality is that being in relationship has found me profoundly moved, changed and influenced by their stories and their courage.  The fact that they look at each day as a new opportunity to begin again despite the burden of their traumas and the present reality of not having a home to call their own astounds me every time.

When a woman leaves her last tier of material security in order to escape the physical and mental violence she endures each day it takes courage that is unknown to most of us.  It seems like a crapshoot of a deal– stay in your home and continue to get the crap beat out of you day-in & day-out or leave the violence and go– where? It’s not an easy decision when the supports seem no where in sight.  I have had women share stories in which they lived with guns to their heads, bodies thrown through doors, threats of death & estrangement,  ridicule and a barrage of insults on a daily basis.  Despite the ability to hold high esteem for self or see their own value due to the abuse– they muster up the strength that resides within and leave.  But it doesn’t mean that today is still not difficult– all kinds of self doubt comes up when sometimes it feels like the alternative to staying offers very little.

All this to say, there is so much need.  I want to do more, but I recognize I am one person.  What would it look like to create a network where we pool our professional resources and offer the skills we’ve been trained with to provide a level of support to those who do not have the means to access those resources?  Do you have any ideas on this subject?  I find myself muttering under my breath (often) that we have to do more.  We do have to do more, don’t we?