You may have heard that one out of every four women — and one out of every seven men — has been a victim of severe physical violence from a partner. These stats are so staggeringly high, they’re almost incomprehensible — especially when you apply them to your group of friends in a terrifying rendition of eeny-meeny-miney-moe. Another aspect of domestic violence that feels equally unbelievable is the fact — highlighted by the Ray Rice scandal this past fall — that many people in violent relationships stay with their abuser. But, before #WhyIStayed started trending on Twitter, the concept was already transforming the approach taken by service providers. No longer do they encourage domestic violence survivors to “leave, no matter what.” Now, the advocacy community is moving towards a client-centered practice with a radical idea: Domestic violence survivors are the experts on their own cases, and service providers should respect their decisions.
“By the time I realized what was happening,” says Laurie Sandow, a 33-year-old engineer living in Virginia, “my relationship was 500 miles away from anything normal.” Over their first six months together, Laurie’s boyfriend’s jealousy and nit-picking led to his pushing her down the stairs and choking her nearly unconscious. After two years together, he started waving around a loaded shotgun — you know, for punctuation.
Laurie stayed in this abusive relationship long after the first incident of severe physical abuse. In cases like this, it’s common for friends or family to want to spring to action and get the victim out of there. But, trying to force someone to leave is exactly what service providers for domestic violence victims are not doing. Instead, they’re listening to the victim, providing options, and letting the victim call the shots.
Kenya Fairley, MSEd, senior director at the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, explains that “Historically, when a survivor sought out DV services, they were met with a portfolio [that] centered around how you leave. Now, we’re...acknowledging there are no one-size-fits-all approaches, honoring what survivors want, and helping them meet their goals.”
Those goals can be complicated. Ana Andrew, a 25-year-old housing counselor from the Bronx, was pregnant and head-over-heels for her boyfriend. But, by her third trimester, he became controlling and manipulative. He put parental-control locks and GPS tracking on Ana’s phone. He wouldn’t let her wear makeup, heels, or even clothes that fit her. And, although Ana worked, her boyfriend didn’t allow her to keep her own money; he had to approve everything she bought. “I wanted to leave,” says Ana, “But, I was scared, embarrassed, and hated myself so much… I didn’t have the strength. And, having grown up without a father, I wanted to keep my family together.” So, for many years, she stayed.
This feeling of powerlessness is common in domestic violence survivors — which is why advocates must act as their counselors, not dictators. “Survivors have been controlled in every way you can imagine,” explains Juanito Vargas, Associate Vice President at Safe Horizon, a service provider in New York City. “When someone comes to get help, we don’t want to say, ‘We’re going to tell you what to do and how to do it.’ That would just be going from one controlling relationship to another.” So, while advocates will alert victims when they feel their safety is at risk, they will never tell anyone he or she needs to leave. “From the outside, it can seem so inconceivable that someone would stay, but there may be things from that relationship a person needs...finances, childcare, or even being loved,” Vargas adds. “There are people who go to jobs that are horrible, terrifying, and demoralizing — but they go back because there are things there they need.”
Another reason advocates never tell survivors they need to leave is because unless a woman decides to leave herself, for herself, she won’t. And, when she doesn’t, she’ll feel she’s let people down — which only further isolates her. “You can’t pressure a person to leave, because the second you start pressuring, they will run back to the abuser.” explains Laurie. “Leaving is tricky, both for safety reasons and because you’re so mentally fucked-up at that point, you can’t make rational decisions.” Survivor-centered advocacy is based heavily on motivational interviewing, which empowers clients to think for themselves and make their own choices. “The idea [is] that change is more likely if it originates from the individual,” says Vargas. “This is absolutely true when it comes to domestic violence survivors.”
When someone does decide to leave an abusive relationship, that is when he or she faces the greatest physical risk. One study found that 75% of women who were murdered by their partners had either left or tried to leave in the previous year. Victims struggle with the idea of leaving because of this fear, as well as the fear of “failing” or being “alone forever.” The latter is particularly insidious, since many abusers isolate their victims from friends and family over time, warping their perceptions of reality and stripping them of their confidence. Even victims who are able to remain close to others often don’t feel comfortable talking to those people about what’s happening in their relationship. “We live in a society that blames the victim, and the message that it’s the victim’s fault gets further ingrained by the abuser,” says Vargas. “Family and friends will often...take a hard stance: ‘Leave, or I don’t want to talk about it anymore.’” Many see domestic abuse in such black-and-white terms that it’s hard to listen without immediately judging.
That, however, is exactly what survivors need: someone who will listen — openly, without judgment, and without expectation. “Even positive judgments have the potential to get in the way,” warns Vargas. “If someone is talking about leaving and you say, ‘Good for you, you’re so courageous,’ what happens if that person doesn’t leave? They wonder, Does this mean I’m a coward?” So, listen. Many survivors just want to talk; they need someone to validate their experiences, but not pressure them in any way. “Let them know you’ll sit with them and support them unconditionally — and that they’re not alone,” says Fairley. “Even just giving them a ride to a program or staying by their side if they want to call a hotline will help."
“Be a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, and stay patient,” adds Laurie. If you know someone in an abusive relationship, maybe one day that person will end up like Laurie — happily living hundreds of miles from her old life. Maybe the decision to take that first step — talking to a domestic violence counselor — won’t happen for many months. Maybe the decision to actually leave never happens at all. But, to be truly supportive, we have to be okay with all of these options. We have to trust that every individual is the expert in his or her own life, and everyone has the right to make their own relationship decisions — even if those decisions make us uncomfortable.
For more information, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline to speak, text, or chat online with an advocate.