JUNE: I did the only thing I could do: defend myself with the tool I had. I was 5′ 5″ and 145 pounds. My husband stood 6′ 6″ and weighed 220 pounds. My physical stature wasn’t that tool. My instinct was.
I want to share a personal story that highlights my concerns about outsiders offering action advice to victims of domestic violence. Generally, outsiders don’t fully understand the plight of victims, no matter how connected their lives seem to be to the victim.
When the abuse started in my marriage, there was a lot of physical intimidation going on, and it quickly turned into physical abuse. One night, he ran up the stairs after me in a rage, trying to get my phone, because I was calling the police. He shoved me into a wall and, in my defense, I clawed and bit him. He took my phone, and I ran out of the house in the middle of the night (wearing next to nothing) to a neighbor’s house to call the police.
A male officer came and, because my husband had visible injuries on him and my bruises were not yet showing up, he took me away. It was the most awful night of my life.
I quickly learned that all this would be used against me as leverage. My husband would say, “You’ll never get the kids if you divorce me now.” For a period of time, while I was waiting to go to court and get things cleared up, I needed to make sure my husband would not testify against me.
So I played very, very nice for the few months that I needed to. I didn’t poke the bear, and I laid in waiting. I said what he wanted me to say, and I did what he wanted me to do for months. I was the wife he always wanted. It was hell for me to be so inauthentic. But I had to be for my own safety and for my future.
I also did a lot of research and learned that this exact situation happens to 40% of women who are in abusive relationships. I was not alone, and I did not have to feel shame.
Eventually, research led me to Julie Owens, a Violence Against Women Consultant. She points out that encouraging a victim to go against their instincts increases their risks:
Victims are often told, “Just leave!” although leaving their abuser is undoubtedly the most dangerous thing they will ever do. This is when the worst violence, and almost all DV homicides, occur. Victims need to leave only when and if they are ready to do so. (Ideally this is once they have a safety plan in place, but this isn’t always possible.) Advising someone to “Just leave” and suggesting that things will be better if she does is just irresponsible.
I followed my instinct and, because I did, I soon saw the charges against me dismissed. My husband didn’t testify against me. So it had worked. But I know many would’ve advised me to get out at the first violent episode. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wrestle with bad advice in addition to protecting myself and my children.
There were literally only two people outside my marriage who knew what had happened that night. Never once did they pressure me to do anything besides what I knew I needed and wanted to do. They never questioned me staying and playing nice with my husband during this time. They trusted me, and this meant the world to me because ultimately I was the one living my life; I had to live with the decisions. No one else. The safety of my children and me had to be my first consideration. It was safer at that time to do the opposite of what most would have thought, which was to leave. Unsolicited advice, I did NOT need.
I bought what little time I had, while setting boundaries and ensuring my safety. The work of Betrayal Trauma Recovery helped me to sort through the gas-lighting, the manipulation and re-grooming process that was so normalized within my marriage. I needed that time to be able to identify those things and to build my own strength and awareness.
I’m telling this personal story today because so often I hear people urge victims of abuse to go file a report, to leave, or do all of sorts of things that they think the victim should do. These outsiders don’t understand why their friend or family member doesn’t make any of these “obvious” steps. In reality, every situation is different, and nobody else is living that situation. Often the situations are so complex its hard–and exhausting–for victims to explain. As lonely as it is, only the victim truly knows what can and can’t be done. It’s an individual’s choice.
Owens also writes:
To some extent victims are “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” They will suffer whether they leave or they stay, so whatever they do, it needs to be their decision. Many survivors have told me that they’d never have left their abuser if they’d known they would lose custody and not be able to protect their children. While no one wants to see a victim to stay with an abuser, the fact is it’s her choice to make, not ours. Who are we to say that her children will be more adversely affected if she stays than if she leaves and they never see her again?
Victims need support in the form of patient understanding, not for others to tell them what they should do. Chances are they already know deep down what they must do. Trusting and empowering women to make their choices at the time that is right for them is vital. That’s how outsiders can support victims of domestic violence.
If you are an outsider, looking in at a domestic violence situation of a person you care about, I strongly recommend you research on your own the best ways to support victims and then follow them. They need you, but maybe not in the way you think.
Sisters Quorum exists to give voice to those who are not being heard and is seeking submissions. If you have a story to tell, SQ invites you to visit our submission page for guidelines.
For more information on this topic, SQ recommends you follow Julie Owens Violence Against Women Consultant by clicking here.