I never considered myself a domestic violence victim until this last year. I knew my first high school romance had been a bad relationship. I knew it hadn’t been healthy, but I always thought of DV as physical abuse. Broken noses. Black eyes. If there wasn’t an injury, then it wasn’t DV.
The realization came to me by accident. I had just began my final internship for graduate school and I was offered the opportunity to co-faciliate one of the therapy groups at my new agency. One of the options was a DV group.
In that first session I heard all of the stories from the women in the group, and they all resonated with me. Everything those women described was exactly how I had felt when I was with my ex; walking on egg shells, never knowing when something I did would set him off. Blaming myself for upsetting him, for not being a good enough girlfriend. Hoping that the last time, was actually the last time. Thinking I could fix him, if I was just good enough.
That relationship is now far back in my past, I have graduated with my Masters of Social Work and now work at that same agency, as the DV case manager; helping DV victims leave abusive relationships and rebuild their lives. I didn’t get into this work because of my abusive relationship, but that experience gives me an insight that is almost a necessity in working with this population.
Many of my family and friends ask me about my work with DV victims. They are curious and they ask questions out of genuine interest and with no intent to be rude, but I find myself getting riled up when people ask “why don’t domestic violence victims just leave?” and “if a man put his hands on me I would be gone”
I know that those comments come from a lack of knowledge and experience, but they rile me up because in an unintentional way, they are putting down victims.
These statements imply that the person making the judgements would have the confidence/self-worth to do the right thing and leave, and clearly these victims don’t if they aren’t leaving. And maybe they don’t really want to leave, otherwise they would have left already. They are saying victims should have made a different choice, that I should have made a better choice.
This type of victim blaming, this judgement, is a major barrier that I feel our society needs to overcome if we want to begin to put an end to DV.
Victims blaming is a complex subject; it’s not something that can be broken down and resolved in one post. However, I believe that there is one simple thing that we can all do to start helping victims. It’s something that I do everyday in my work with DV victims. Something that my clients frequently thank me for. Something that I know is so meaningful because I experienced it personally when I spoke out about my DV:
Don’t be judgmental. Seems simple enough, right?
Unconditional positive regard is one of the first things I was taught in graduate school, and it has become the tool that I use most often in my work. Don’t judge the victim. Don’t judge her choices. Don’t judge the abuser. Provide unconditional support by listening and reaffirming her feelings and validating her experiences. Don’t underestimate the power of listening.
It takes an average of eight times before a woman leaves an abusive relationship for good. So if a friend comes to you at attempt number two and then eventually takes him back and is met with judgement, it’s unlikely she will turn to you next time. It makes complete sense for you to feel upset if you spent time and effort into helping a friend and then she goes back into the same situation. Which is why unconditional positive regards is a skill; it’s not something that always comes naturally, it’s something that has to be developed and worked on.
I often speak to women who are still in their abusive relationships or end up going back. I know that it can be hard to speak with someone about the violence she is experiencing, and then let her walk back into it year after year. But I also know that it takes time for women to actually leave the relationship.
In Psychology there is a model called the Stages of Change: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.
You might have a friend in the contemplation stage, where she is thinking about leaving and exploring her options and beginning to speak about the abuse to those she trust. She might not be ready for the preparation or action stage, it takes time to get there.
Be the person they want to come to when they are finally at the action stage.
You become that person by listening and providing unconditional positive regard. Don’t judge them if they go back to the relationship. Don’t judge them for not leaving sooner.
Don’t judge them.
It seems like such a simple thing, to offer unconditional positive regard; but don’t underestimate its power. Its power to build trust. Its power to create a safe place for victims to share their experiences and ask for help. Its power to create the venue for positive change.
Alison V., MSW
*my personal blog is not a DV blog nor a social work blog. Although I do sometimes post about my work, it is mostly a blog about my life as a military wife.