This is Part 4 in a week-long series of posts written by a Wheelock College Social Work faculty member and two Masters in Social Work graduate students in recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. View previous posts in this series – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
*Trigger warning: some of this article may include descriptions of domestic violence that could be distressing for some readers
The stories that we have shared this week reveal the methods and manipulation that an abuser uses to maintain a deep-rooted control over the victim. It also illuminates the systemic barriers such as housing and employment issues that make it difficult for a woman to exit. Finally it demonstrates the major loss not only of a familiar home but also of a relationship that is connected to their identity. Acknowledging these dynamics, it is important to stop asking people why they stay, or stay for so long, and begin asking, “What can I do to help?”
In closing we will share our perspectives of DV and how you may help. I will always remember my encounter with a patient in the emergency room. I was paged to rule out any trauma as she disclosed to the physician that she was assaulted in a local urban park walking her dog. She had visible physical injuries and during my assessment seemed to not be emotionally distraught over the experience. This was an unusual presentation in my clinical experience but I did not want to press the patient so I provided emotional support in the therapeutic relationship regarding the incident. Several months later I saw her after her labor and delivery. She revealed to me that she had left her abusive partner and was healing emotionally from an abusive relationship. I confronted her if the assault in the park was her abuser rather than a stranger. She confirmed my assumption to be true. Immediately I felt disappointed in myself for not probing further in the emergency room about the assault and not listening to my clinical judgment that her affect and mood did not align with the traumatic experience. I was upset with myself for knowing that she returned to the person who had physically harmed her. I decided to apologize to her for not discussing DV issues with her in the emergency room. She looked at me and told me, “I was not ready to share at that time. I would not have told you anyway. If you had pushed me I may not have left.” I reflected on this interaction for a long time. I realized that in discussing the “assault” in the park, the emotions around that, such as feeling vulnerable, used, and afraid, I was actually validating and normalizing her feelings around living with an abuser. She processed with me indirectly that her life was not safe. I learned that my role is not to protect, save, and indirectly “control” the victim’s decisions, but instead to listen and validate and hopefully empower someone to believe in their capabilities and uniqueness as a human being.
Another survivor came to me in her third session of support and we had reached a point in our relationship of establishing trust and rapport where I was able to start talking about the cycle of violence, as well as the different types of abusive behaviors one may exert that may be prevalent in domestic violence. As we were going through explaining the emotional and verbal examples she said to me “Wow. That is exactly what he did to me. I cannot believe it, he was abusing me and I did not even realize it.” She began to tell me how strong she felt that she was recognizing what had happened and all of the steps she had taken to keep herself safe. She was able to understand the measurements of safety she encountered to keep her and her daughter safe while he continued to abuse her. She also stated “I finally feel like this wasn’t my fault. It was him, not me. I am a good mom and I have always put myself first. I really cannot believe it.” When measuring success of a survivor of domestic violence it is important to define success by not if they left the relationship, but did they feel empowered and validated in sharing their experience, and how have they been able to use tools on their own to continue staying safe.
When a survivor shares their story, the most important thing one can do is to listen to them, believe them, and validate their feelings. Although our instincts as human beings may make us want to save them from their situation, it is so important that we do not tell them what to do. Abusers have taken complete control of their partners life, so the last thing we want to do is add to this experience by telling a survivor what to do. Just being there for a survivor is important, especially when the survivor’s other social supports have grown so frustrated with the survivor’s decisions that they stop listening. Being there for a survivor, and allowing them to make their own choices is empowering for them when they have been living in an environment where they have no control. It is important to work with survivors in a supportive way that promotes self-determination, but in a way that also reflects concerns for safety to make sure survivors are staying as safe as possible in the decisions that they make.
Heather Howard, Ph.D.(c), LICSW,MSW
Wheelock College Social Work Instructor
Wheelock College MSW Candidate
Wheelock College MSW Candidate
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