I’ve been privileged to be gifted with the stories of survivors of domestic violence for nearly 20 years. I consider it a privilege, because for many of the women that shared their stories with me, it was often the first time they shared the story in such great detail. Almost exclusively, it was the first time they shared what was happening in their home and didn’t receive any judgement about staying as long as they had.

In this country, we have one month for Domestic Violence awareness. October is the month, apparently the only one, in which we’re supposed to give attention to the epidemic that is domestic violence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful we have the month, but at the same time I’m also perplexed about how little folks know about domestic violence. I’ve often heard from people when I tell them that I work with survivors “but why do they stay?” If I’m hearing that once removed, I can’t help but wonder how often the survivor hears it and what it must be like for her to be inadvertently blamed for her situation. Those kinds of judgements and misunderstandings are the very bonds that keep survivors trapped.

There’s a hormone that many of us, especially those of us that have had babies, are familiar with. It is oxytocin. Oxytocin is the hormone that is secreted during labor and afterwards, first to induce labor, and then after the birth of the baby it is secreted to bond mother and baby. Bonding is critical for the baby, because if the mother isn’t bonded to the baby she can’t or won’t feed the baby, hold the baby or care for the baby and the baby can’t do this on his or her own. The baby will die, or fail to thrive as the doctors call it. The really interesting thing about this particular hormone is that it is the same hormone that is secreted when we fall in love. It’s the hormone that doesn’t allow us to notice that our partner left the toilet seat up or that he farts in bed or even that he gets indescribably jealous for no reason. For the baby this hormone situation works out perfectly. The mother bonds to the baby so strongly that they are bound for life. Even when that baby grows up and into an ungrateful teenager, the mother is trapped in a sense because of that hormonal bond that was created 13 – 19 years prior. Leaving is so hard for the victim in a domestically abusive relationship for similar reasons, she is connected to the abuser not only through this hormonal bond, but also by some of the tactics he has used to make that connection.

Abusive partners are quite crafty. I often will ask a survivor how good she is at her job. She’ll go on to explain how much training she’s had and how respected she is by her coworkers and management and how successful she is at getting the job done. The abusive partner has honed his or her skills just as carefully. Actually, even more skillfully because the abusive partner has been working on these skills since childhood. How many of us start our training for our careers in the 2nd grade, or earlier? None, I would imagine. He or she looked at the world at some point and decided that they were gonna be on top. And they were gonna get to the top by exploiting those that they found to be somehow susceptible. That susceptibility isn’t a victim blaming comment. We are all susceptible. Remember, the baby wants to survive. No one is exempt from the survival instinct. I think of abusive partners sort of like sleazy salespeople or the guy on the street in Manhattan that fools the tourist with his walnut trick. They have a goal in mind and they will do and say whatever they have to in an effort to achieve that goal. The sleazy part is that they bend ethics and morals and even the law in an effort to reach that goal. I know that I have fallen prey to sleazy tactics. I wonder if any of us can say that they haven’t’?

The Domestic Violence Wheel is a tool used to educate survivors about the dynamics of power and control within an abusive relationship. There are 8 spokes upon the wheel and each spoke categorizes a different strategy the abuser uses to maintain power within the relationship. The spokes are: 1- using intimidation, 2- using emotional abuse, 3 – using isolation, 4 – minimizing, denying and blaming, 5 – using children, 6 – using male privilege, 7 – using economic abuse and 8 – using coercion and threats. Most often the abuser is successful at maintaining the power imbalance by using any one of the tactics of the spokes. However, when those tactics don’t work the abuser can, and often does, resort to violence. The spoke that chills me the most is number 3 – using isolation. Let me paint a scenario: You’ve fallen in love with this smart, handsome charismatic guy that everyone, including your own family, adores. You can’t believe how lucky you’ve gotten that a guy that’s this much of a catch would be interested in you. It is too good to be true! You begin to spend so much time with him that you lose contact with your friends. He wants to move to another part of the country to focus on just the two of you. He doesn’t think it’s a good idea to visit your family on the holidays because they didn’t treat you right when you were a kid. Before you know it, you’re getting fewer and fewer calls and you haven’t made any new friends because your partner seems to disapprove or have negative things to say about all the people you bring around. When you start to open up to your family, they tell you what an amazing guy he is and how you should be so grateful that he chose you.

I don’t know about you, but that scenario gives me a stomachache. This is why number 3 chills me. The survivor has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. It seems to me this tactic may be the most calculated of all the strategies an abusive person can affect. The kind of change it takes to leave a scary relationship such as this one is a big, major change. Some of us can’t even change our hairstyle without consulting all 15 of our best friends and putting a poll on Facebook. Imagine what it would be like to try and walk, no run, away from this kind of terrorism without support. I honestly can’t imagine it. And yet, we still ask the question, “why didn’t she just leave?”

Let’s make a Girl Scout pledge to judge less. Let’s make a universal pact that we will listen to survivors before we say anything. Let the change begin with me and with you to enter the world and our interactions fearlessly. Funny thing to say that we have to be fearless, right? What I mean by that is that when we give survivors or anyone else our judgements, it is just our fear jumping up and out and saying “I don’t want to believe this could happen in the world and I certainly don’t want to believe it could happen to me.” Let’s park the fear and introduce the compassion, because truly it could happen to any of us. UNLESS and this is a big unless (note the caps), we start to use honest language and use our ears more than our mouths and let the survivor be our guide.

In the Asheville area, Helpmate is the local organization for survivors of domestic violence seeking shelter, support or education.

Lydia Kickliter, LPC

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