I’m in a Domestic Violence Situation. What Should I Do?
A while back I received an email from my client X:
During our recent session, you asked me when was the first time I feared not being heard or being mocked. I’m currently introspecting about this.
There’s a moment from my past that I don’t know if I experienced it or not… I wonder if I had witnessed my father beating up my mother before.
This morning, when I was in the shower, I got my answer. I did witness it (this was many years ago). However, I did/said nothing to help my mom at that time. I wanted to tell my dad to stop but I couldn’t speak up because I felt that I wouldn’t be heard and also, I was too small then. I think this is the root cause of my fear. Realizing this made me feel guilty for not helping her. I felt so helpless that I cried.
This is a terrible memory. What should I do? I’m afraid of situations of violence towards women and I think it’s too much for me to handle.
Do you have some precious advice for me?
Subsequently I had a few exchanges with X which gave me more insight into the situation. Apparently her dad had been hitting her mom since X was a kid (it’s not clear whether it’s still going on since she no longer lives with her parents), and she witnessed many of these incidents. X never told anyone about this nor interjected except for one time. However, this did not solve the problem as the abuse continued after that.
When X told me this, I immediately empathized with her. This is not an easy situation to be in. On one hand, she loves her mom and wants to stand up for her. On the other hand, there is her dad, whom she cares about too, but who had been harming her mom. And then there are other struggles and considerations on what to do. Call the police? But what if others get wind of this shameful incident? Stop my dad? But what if he hits me too? Talk to my mom? But what if she denies it? But what if this continues?
These didn’t change my advice for her though, which is that domestic abuse should never be tolerated or allowed to continue in any form.
Domestic Violence Statistics
Domestic violence (also domestic abuse, spousal abuse, family violence) is a pattern of violent or abusive behavior by one person against another in a domestic context, such as in a marriage or during cohabitation. Allow me to share some stats on domestic violence from National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:
- Every minute, nearly 20 people are victims of physical violence by a partner in the United States. This equates to more than 10 million women and men a year.
- 85% of domestic violence victims are women.
- Historically, females are most often victimized by someone they knew.
- Nearly 7.8 million women have been raped by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. And this is a figure from 2003. An estimated 201,394 women are raped by an intimate partner each year.
- On a typical day, more than 20,000 phone calls are made to domestic violence hotlines in U.S.
- Sexual assault or forced sex occurs in approximately 40-45% of battering relationships.
- Intimate partner violence (i.e., abuse by a significant other) accounts for 15% of all violent crimes.
- Almost one-third of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner.
- One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
- Last but not least… most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police.
While these stats apply to the U.S., they give you an idea of how widespread domestic violence is.
As a woman, domestic violence has an emotional place in my heart. It’s not because domestic violence tends to happen to women (I imagine I’d be equally passionate even if I were male), but because (a) I dislike people who abuse their strength to harm the weak, and (b) physical violence goes beyond what we should do as conscious beings; it’s inexcusable.
I’ve never been in domestic violence situations, but I have heard of stories from my clients and a friend who grew up in abusive households. For them, it was their dads who hit their moms. When they tried to intercept, their dads would beat them up too. And my friend is a girl. The abuse decreased as they grew up, probably because they are now adults who can fend for themselves. But there’s no telling when their dads would flare up again.
Signs of Domestic Abuse
We hear of people dealing with abuse and we get outraged, wondering why these people put up with the situation. But for the person in the abusive relationship/household, it’s not always clear-cut because you see both the good and bad sides of the person. Things can get blurred. The abuser can be nice to you but abusive to your family member. The abuser may make you think it’s your fault. Your culture may normalize abuse and make it seem like it’s normal (it’s not). Or you may be traumatized by the ordeal and block it off mentally, like what happened to my client X.
Here are some signs that you are facing domestic abuse:
- The clearest sign is of course, violence. Hitting, slapping, punching, pushing, or any violent physical contact is abuse. No one has the right to hit you, not even your parent. This line gets blurred in the Chinese/Indian culture, because harshly caning or hitting your children is considered normal in the name of discipline. This is something I disagree with after growing up and learning more about human rights. Light discipline at home, coupled with proper explanation and counseling is different from publicly hitting your child and screaming at him/her, or repeated physical discipline.
- Abuse can also happen through words. Threats, shaming, and intimidation are abuse. No one should make you feel less as a person. If your parent/partner shames or threatens you repeatedly, this is emotional abuse. Constant hurling of vulgarities is also a form of abuse.
- Disregard of the abuse. The person denies the abuse is happening, or even blames it on you. He/She may normalize the behavior and make you think that the abuse is normal.
- Control of your actions. The person controls your behavior to a large degree. For example controlling who you can see, what you can do, where you can go. Isolating you from others. Demanding that you do certain things. The abuser’s goal is be the center of your universe and gain dominance over your life.
- Threats. The person threatens to leave you, hurt him/herself, or kill him/herself or you if you don’t comply with his/her demands. If you have children, he/she may also threaten the safety of your children.
- Addiction. While addiction to alcohol or drugs doesn’t mean the person is an abuser, these behaviors often go hand in hand. Alcohol and drugs alter a person’s mood and makes someone more prone to violence.
- Frequent anger outbursts. The person gets angry so easily that you worry about what you say, do, in order not to trigger him/her. You constantly “walk on eggshells,” doing everything you can not to trigger him/her.
It doesn’t matter if the person exhibits the above 1% or 10% of the time. Abuse is abuse, and justifying it with the person’s good side (which I’m sure is true) downplays the gravity of the situation.
How to Deal with Domestic Violence
If you are dealing with abuse or witnessing abuse in your household, please don’t ignore it. Here are my recommendations:
- It’s not your fault. People who are abused often downplay the situation. They “normalize” the abuse and think that their experience is normal, or that it’s their fault. Well it is not your fault. Do not accept, deny, normalize the situation, or blame yourself.
- “It only happened once” is not an excuse. Once is one time too many. When someone becomes abusive, that means he/she has lost control of his/her better senses. There’s no telling when he/she will flare up again. If you witnessed an abusive act, this is worse as it means that the abuse has probably been going on for a while. Report it right away.
- Stop wearing a mask. Tell someone. A domestic violence victim is often living in a bubble. This bubble could be self-created (the victim cuts him/herself off from others to normalize the abuse) or created by the abuser. This first step to get out of the bubble is to tell someone about your pain. This person can be anyone you trust — your friend, relative, colleague, neighbor, family. Just talking to someone can give you clarity and the power to act on the situation. Be wary of bad advice, such as if your confidant tries to downplay the abuse or convince you that it’s okay. It is not okay and it’s not normal. Speak to those who can give you sound advice and a good listening ear.
- Talk to the victim. If you witnessed abuse, talk to the victim asap. Several reasons: (a) The victim may feel trapped, with no one else knowing about this. While you may think that you are invading his/her privacy, chances are he/she will feel relieved as he/she is no longer alone in the problem. (b) You help the victim realize that the abuse is wrong, something he/she may be normalizing. (c) You can help the victim identify practical next steps. Do not wait as this only perpetuates the abuse.
- Call the police. Domestic violence is illegal in many countries, and new laws are drawn up to protect the victims. In the UK, a new law targeting people who psychologically and emotionally abuse their partners, spouses, or family members came into force in 2015. Instead of taking matters into your own hands, call the police and let them know that you are in danger. The police would have a process for handling abuse. For example, helping women to get an injunction, and serving as referral agents to other professionals, such as a domestic violence and abuse agency, a woman’s refuge, and family justice center.
- Document the abuse. This is important to make your case later in a police report or for child custody. Get as much evidence as you can of the abuse. Keep a diary and note down the dates/times of the abuse, get videos/pictures of the abuse, get pictures of any injury, and get pictures of weapons used if any. Read: Building Your Case: How to Document Abuse
- Call a domestic abuse helpline. The people at a domestic abuse helpline are equipped to advise you and provide remedies based on your local laws. (See the end of the post for helpline numbers.) If you can’t find a helpline in your country, talk to a healthcare professional, such as a doctor, therapist, or counselor. If there’s a woman’s shelter, seek help there.
- Leave the relationship. I understand for some women who are locked in abusive relationships (e.g., having no family in a foreign land, having financial struggles, having children in the same household with nowhere to go), it’s not possible to leave the relationship right away. It may also get you killed. I’d like to share some verbatims from domestic abuse survivors (who left their abusive relationship):
- ‘Do not put up with it. You are worth more… if someone is making your life hell and miserable, don’t put up with it, there is no excuse at all… and you will be happier… I can promise you, you will be happier.’ (Jacqui)
- ‘You don’t have to be hit to be abused ….ring a helpline.’ (Sarah)
- ‘…Tell somebody you trust …there’s help out there, whether it’s a GP, a parent, or a trusted friend, even just somebody at work, they can see it from another perspective. [My counsellor] opened my eyes to what was actually going on.’ (Mandy)
- ‘Get help even if you have the slightest inkling.’ (Catherine)
- To quote domestic abuse survivor Tina, things will get ‘worse and worse and worse.’ You may not be able to leave the relationship now, but it doesn’t change the fact that you need to leave. If you can’t leave right now, plan for a time when it is safe to do so. Call the helplines, talk to professionals, talk to friends who can provide good support, and work out an escape plan.
- Create a safety plan. A safety plan is your plan to remain safe at all times. Have a survival bag — with copies of important documents, an extra set of keys, clothes, some money — that you can grab and leave at any time. Have important contacts on speed dial. Set a code word with your neighbors/friends that you can use when in trouble. Have an escape route where you can easily get out of the house. Keep weapons and dangerous objects inaccessible. Read: Create a Safety Plan
Resources for domestic abuse:
- Women’s Experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse [Health Talk]
- Getting Out of An Abusive Relationship [Help Guide]
- Is This Abuse? Abuse Defined [National Domestic Violence Hotline]
- Life after domestic violence and abuse: taking back control [Health Talk]
If you are an abuser, you need to stop what you are doing. Read: How to Stop Being Abusive to Your Partner