Over the years, the focus of this column has been on technology, with healthy family engagement at the center of that orbit. We turn from technology this month, and place our focus squarely on family — specifically, those survivors who find themselves in the throes of domestic violence.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Just to say those words is a somber admission that our society, as advanced as we may be, shoulders a heavy burden. It is so incredibly heartbreaking that this vile behavior lurks so stealthily and ominously around us. But it does. And we must not be silent as those we care about are victimized.
While we grimace that there’s such a need for awareness, we also have to be thankful that awareness and responsiveness are growing. Too many times in the so-called “good ole days,” many blindly, stubbornly or callously looked the other way. No longer. The hidden villainy of the past must never be allowed to slink around, wreaking havoc while eyes are averted in the shadows of aloof disregard.
We all likely know someone who has suffered the ravages of domestic violence. According to best-selling author and respected TED Talk presenter Leslie Morgan Steiner, 1 in 3 women are survivors. What a shocking statistic. At some point then, we all will come face-to-face with the devastating stare of secrecy, shame and quiet suffering.
Are there warning signs that might help alert us or our loved ones to the onset of abuse? According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline – thehotline.org – these are among the many behaviors that signal danger ahead: extreme jealously; isolation from others; insults and demeaning/shaming behavior; control of money, friends, time and decisions; and intimidation with weapons.
These experiences are happening near us all. Steiner’s personal story told in her book “Crazy Love” demonstrates that domestic violence doesn’t discriminate. The least expected person in your family, neighborhood or workplace might just be the person suffering in the shadows, right before your eyes.
We all instinctively ask the “why” question. Steiner understands and addresses the age-old ache. Why do people stay in such acrid, corrosive, deadly relationships? From Steiner’s own reservoir of experience with abuse, she notes that survivors don’t think of themselves as being abused. She doesn’t mean that those suffering abuse are dense, duplicitous or in denial. Rather, their experience is stultifyingly surreal. It’s terrifying to be abused. And Steiner reminds us that 70 percent of domestic violence murders happen when the victim ends the relationship.
Consequently, one should never assume to know fully why someone would stay in an abusive situation, and we must be careful to not shame and blame them. Rather, we need to knowingly empathize. In the context of abuse, the Reticular Activating System (RAS) is toggled on. “Fight, flight, or freeze” is almost the only software running. And freeze is not an uncommon response. Obviously, it’s sometimes the most common response. Survivors should never feel that they’ve done anything to deserve or prolong abuse. It is never the survivor’s fault that a predator has abused them. And it’s never right to beleaguer someone with questions about why they stayed.
Empathy is a must, but awareness doesn’t stop there. Awareness empowers help. And help is available. Increasingly, our communities are grasping at least the basics of how to help those who’ve experienced abuse. And increasingly, expertise is arriving. As noted above, a fantastic resource is the National Domestic Abuse Hotline and website. Wisely, thehotline.org has built in strategies that allow those experiencing abuse to quickly exit the website in the event that the abuser enters the room.
Closer to home, the Texas Council on Family Violence has an array of member agencies that address family violence with substantive and helpful resources. Its website (tcfv.org) is a great place to find help and explore avenues for volunteering to stand against the scourge of violence.
How can you personally help family and friends who are experiencing abuse? Since abuse is about power and control, redeeming relationships are ones that empower others and imbue fellow human beings with freedom. Engage with those you love in ways that demonstrate their value and empower their voice. In this way, you can be a refuge for those looking for a glimmer of trust and a spark of hope.
Richard Singleton, MACE, MAMFC,LPC, is the president of STARRY in Round Rock.