(Artwork from a WDVCAS pamphlet)
Imagine feeling like your entire world is falling apart around you.
Your partner emotionally and psychologically degrades you on a daily basis. Your partner calls you names and he/she knows exactly what to say in order to tear you apart on the inside. But those are just words-you think to yourself. So you stay.
As time goes by, your partner starts to escalate. Once in a while when your partner drinks enough and you said something you “shouldn’t have said” or did something you “shouldn’t have done”, you get struck in the face.
You have experienced this for years. This is normal to you. Your father treated you like this, your father treated your mother like this, and your past partners would also act this way.
Then one moment changed it all. Your beautiful baby girl was born.
Your partner envied your relationship with your child. After all, your partner was no longer the most important person in your life. You loved someone else and put someone else’s needs in front of those of your partner.
This jealousy increased your partner’s rage to the point that once day your partner struck you while you were holding your precious baby girl. You fell to the ground but managed to still keep your daughter within your grasp so that she wouldn’t feel the force of the fall.
Just as you started to collect yourself, you see the familiar red and blue lights swirling through your window. With a million thoughts clouding your mind, you question whether you should cooperate with the police this time or simply deny the incident as always.
Now, a few days later, here you are sitting in a court safe room with the domestic violence women’s service while your infant child rests in her carriage next to you. Not many people understand what is going on. You feel embarrassed. You don’t want your parents, your sister, or your friends to know that you are here or that your partner has been charged for assaulting you.
You are not sure what to do. The police have filed a protection order on your behalf against your current partner. Part of you knows that you need that protection. At the same time you fear that a protection order may not be enough or may incite your partner to be more violent.
Your partner told you last night that if you didn’t make this go away that “you’d be sorry”.
At the same time, another part of you remembers the positive qualities of your partner. How he makes you laugh. How he gives you his coat when you are cold or wipes the hair out of your face just before he kisses you.
You really wish that you can just be a family. At the same time you wonder how realistic leaving is for you. Since he controls all of the money and you already can hardly make ends meet with two incomes you may not be able to financially survive on your own.
To add to the stress of the relationship with your partner, you also know that if you do not leave and do not access different support services, you run the risk of losing your baby girl. Family and Community Services have been referred to your case and you know that domestic violence is enough of a reason to warrant the removal of your beautiful infant daughter.
Tears stream down your face as you think about the possibility of losing your daughter, your world, your family, your love, and your life.
This is a real story of one Australian woman’s recent experience with domestic violence. I encounter stories like these everyday as I work with different family violence services in the Sydney area local courts.
As a domestic violence survivor, a domestic violence counselor, and a domestic violence court advocate I am often disturbed by the general societal attitudes around domestic violence.
Some of the most disturbing commentary that I have heard in both the U.S. and in Australia come from police officers, prosecutors, attorneys, civilian commentators, and even magistrates/judges.
As someone who has intimate knowledge of the devastating power and control cycle of domestic violence, I would like to try to dispel several stereotypes and misunderstandings of domestic violence.
Here are some key lessons and themes that I have learned from my experiences as a Watson Fellow spending time in family violence proceedings in Australia, my time as a domestic violence counselor and court advocate in the U.S., and as a survivor of domestic violence.
1. Domestic violence is more than JUST physical abuse.
Domestic Violence is NEVER justifiable. Domestic Violence is NOT self defense. Domestic violence is not one isolated violent incident. Domestic violence is a cycle of power and control that often involves much more than physical violence. Domestic violence is also emotional abuse, psychological abuse, and financial abuse. Domestic violence can include name-calling, degradation and belittling, and isolation from family members and friends.
2. Every individual’s experience of domestic violence is unique.
Even though I strongly believe that domestic violence is centered around a devastating power and control dynamic, I also see everyday how each survivor has his or her own story and unique set of circumstances. Knowing that, we should not assume that we know what is best for her. We should be careful to not make assumptions or rash judgments about a victim’s decisions as this can deter her from seeking help and accessing needed services.
Also, it is wrong for us to assume that some types of abuse may be “worse” than others. A common theme that I have heard many times, even recently in the “safe room” at a local Sydney area court, is that the experience of emotional and psychological abuse can be just as damaging if not more damaging than physical violence. As explained to me by an older woman who was in the safe room helping her daughter through the protection order process: “For me, the emotional stuff has stuck with me. My bruises would fade and my cuts healed, but those words that he said and those names that he called me are still with me in my heart today, even 15 years later.”
3. Leaving is a process.
“I can’t believe she stayed for so long!” “How could she stay?” “I’m sorry, but she is dumb to stay with him; I just don’t get it.” I hear comments like these too often. If someone chooses to stay, she is not weak. She is not “dumb”. Her choice to leave or to stay is just that; it is HER choice. Since each individual experience of domestic violence is unique, we cannot truly understand the different decisions and different concerns that she is balancing when making a decision about her relationship. We have to remember that she could be feeling like her entire world is falling apart. It is not a simple decision to leave or to stay. These decisions have a major impact on incredibly important aspects of her life: her family, her home, her loved ones.
She may not be ready to leave at this exact moment. Leaving may result in her being homeless. Leaving may result in her kids being removed from her care since she may not be able to provide adequate housing and she may not be able to support her children by herself. Leaving may be too much to handle at the current moment. She may not have the social support or help for her to leave.
It is important to note that her choosing to stay at this exact moment does not mean that she will not choose to leave eventually. I have seen cases where it took some people thirty years to choose to finally leave a violent, unhealthy relationship.
Personally, it took me almost a year and a half to leave my domestic violence relationship. Many people didn’t understand how someone like me, someone who appeared to be so strong and so confident could choose to stay in such an unhealthy relationship. My friends and family became worried, upset, discouraged, and ultimately impatient as I would choose to stay with him each time. Ultimately, for me, I needed to make the realization that my relationship was unhealthy, I needed to see and acknowledge how the relationship was negatively affecting me, and I needed to make the decision to leave.
What can we do to help?
We can help domestic violence victims and survivors by being understanding, loving, supportive, and patient.
If we provide unwavering love and support to victims and survivors of family violence, I believe that we can truly make a difference in their lives. As they navigate the leaving process, they may choose to return to the relationships only one time or dozens of times. Providing support and being patient and understanding of her choices no matter what they are can really make a difference in her journey to acknowledge and address the abuse.
If we are too judgmental or too critical of her choices, we can actually discourage her from utilizing different services and we then are ultimately encouraging her to further isolate herself. By avoiding assumptions and avoiding rash judgments about a domestic violence victim and her situation, we can provide the support that she needs at whatever stage she is currently at.
We can also dispel the myth that domestic and family violence is the “victim’s fault”. We can empower victims to understand that their abusers made the choice to be abusive and that no one “deserves” to be treated in an abusive way.
Ultimately, we can change the current discourse around domestic and family violence. We can start a conversation about how our societies approaches domestic violence we work together to improve our approach.
We can put an end to the victim-shaming. We can put an end to the rude and ignorant comments that perpetuate an inaccurate portrayal of domestic violence. By changing the discourse around family violence we can help victims feel supported. We can inspire victims and survivors to reach out for help. Ultimately, we can provided the support, understanding, and love that can save lives.