Survival Stages – Part II

Hello friends!

There is much to cover on this next installment of how to support people who may be experiencing domestic abuse, so I will hold back from my regular greetings and simply refer to the first segment of this post, in case anyone missed it.

The 5 common stages of domestic abuse that I identified are: Denial, Dysfunction, Defending, Dichotomy, and Destruction. I ran out of space to expand on a sixth stage, Deliverance, which may have to wait for a third installment in this ‘survival’ series.

There are many reasons why people stay in any type of unhealthy relationship. I believe as humans we are hard-wired to love and trust, almost like a DNA survival requirement that needs us to depend on one another for ensuring our species will continue. It also can give our lives enjoyment, feeling good to belong to each other.

I recently read the memoir of Maya Angelou’s, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, (such a fitting read for Finding 52 type reflections) and her heroic description as a survivor of sexual abuse is the most raw and respectful truth I have encountered on the subject to date. (I am so convinced of her delicately woven recount of how an eight year old experiences the affections of an abuser, that I will be giving copies of her book away at my BOOK LAUNCH of Finding HER Stuff, planned for APRIL… more details to come on that!)

While there are similar reasons a person will stay tangled in a relationship that is not good for their health, the reasons are never identical.

Fear is a victim’s greatest opponent in gaining freedom, not only afraid of what an abuser may do to them, but they may also fear that this is how they deserve to be treated, no matter where they go. Even though I grew up believing I was loved, he wore my defenses down, creating a scared and lonely outcast that he alone ‘benevolently’ loved.

Directly below fear, is Sin. Why? Because for me and many others – from a cultural and religious point of view, leaving a marriage is not condoned or entertained as an option – ever. Thoughts of going against that custom frequently found their way to the front of my attention, then faded just as fast with a guilt of somehow disappointing my family, my community and my own idyllic expectations of how righteous women behave.

Well meaning people gave unwitting advice to stay and obey when the evidence of a troubled marriage began to spill into public awareness. Instead of seeing him as the problem, I was lectured on my faith faltering and told it was my sin causing the dysfunctional relationship. Very few voices defied the norms of that belief system to bravely suggest I flee the menace who manipulated my desire for harmony as a way to dull my instinct to get away.

The rest of the factors are listed in no particular order:

Children – Whether they are biological or not, when kids are in the picture, everything is more complex. Obstacles are increased and extra resources are required when considering the needs of children. In all the failed escape attempts I made, either with or without children at my side, my return was almost completely due to a reason that was connected to parenting.

FinancesNot having control of a bank account or access to money is a huge hurdle! Whether someone in the name of trust and love allows a partner to control all the finances, or are convinced they lack the competency for these matters, if access to money is absent, so is a victim’s best chance for gaining independence.

BelongingsThis will come as no surprise to readers of Finding 52, but people do not like leaving their stuff, especially if items have a sentimental value. I had the hardest time imagining what my ex would do to my mum’s precious antiques if I slipped away into the night with only a bag on my shoulder. If someone does not care about destroying you, they certainly will not care if the stuff you love is destroyed.

EducationThis fits alongside finances, although it is a complete myth that victims are uneducated. In fact, sometimes being academic works against the victim, as they can be embarrassed or ashamed, thinking they should know better than to succumb to any foul dealings of the heart. Non-academic victims are likely to adopt a stigma of being ‘less than’ and therefore undervaluing their intelligence and ability to survive on their own.

Isolation – This gets talked about a lot, as observant people seem to naturally recognize this as a signal that something is not right. But then we get uncomfortable and don’t want to ask (it’s probably none of our business – if they wanted to talk, they would). We also do not like the awkwardness of pretending we do not sense a problem. So, we avoid these feelings, by avoiding the person. This is isolation. Even if abusers do not directly attempt to stop contact between a victim and their family and friends (which they almost always try to stop), the victim themselves will chase others away in order to maintain some control or avoid more conflict with the abuser.

Guilt – For everything. Literally.

Pets – People chuckle when I mention this factor, but try convincing a pet owner they need to leave, even temporarily, the only thing that has offered warmth and affection. It is almost always a deal breaker. Animals are furry children to pet owners, so yes… they are a big deal!

Business Ties – Sometimes families work together in business and breaking up at home means ripping apart their working world as well. Ending a toxic relationship is hard enough without having the stress of drastic changes in a persons work environment simultaneously.

Depression – Another myth about victimized people is they come from dysfunctional families or have a contributing mental illness. Of course, the onset of mental illness can be the result of ongoing abuse, causing not only depression, but other forms of physiological and psychological distress. I believe minds and bodies store toxic memories as a way to help identify when life is a threat. Sometimes the mind has to block and blank out the things that are too threatening to process. If the threats are constant and occurring within family settings where safety should be the norm, our danger detectors get dulled. For these reasons, enduring abuse has many of the same symptoms as experiencing depression.

Interdependence – If co-depending on another person is based on mutual love and respect, and both partners benefit in a positive manner, this factor can be part of a healthy relationship. But when this ideal gets twisted with self serving agendas or a has any negative motivated goals, the good that can be gained, is corrupted. If left uninterrupted, each person eventually sinks deeper into their role of victim or abuser, in an infinite downward cycle.

Love – Whether it is the healthy kind or not, love keeps many harmful things and people in our lives. Loyalty is closely connected to love, and it made me try harder to fix the broken bits and jagged edges of an ill-fated partnership. When all my other virtues were being attacked as fake, the one characteristic I could hold up as true, was my loyalty to a man who did little to earn it.

So, how do we wrap up this session of the survival series? With two pivotal things I believe will make a lasting impact for victims of abuse:

If they do not already have one, give victims of domestic abuse a job.

Their confidence and perspective will grow without any prodding, when interacting with other healthy adults. Even if they cannot initially secure their own paycheck from entering the hands of the abuser, it alters the victims perception of power. Employment organically removes or reduces many of the factors discussed above. All that is necessary in this environment, is the presence of healthy adults willing to have healthy conversations, to show healthy boundaries, and model healthy vulnerability.

In keeping with my belief that there really is no right or wrong way to respond to folks living in domestic abuse – except to be authentic and brave in whatever your response will be – the second point is:

Do not give up on them.

Yes, we can draw lines in the sand… yes, we can walk away if we need… yes, we can do whatever we must to remain a healthy model of human existence, but leave one string of hope open to the person, should they choose to use it. The door can be closed, but not locked for when they need to walk through it. This is not the same as enabling the person to remain victimized. Being available, should their situation change, is a good option for victims to know exists.

If you want to become more comfortable with the topic of abuse, sign up for an advocacy workshop in your community where they are supporting victims. I will be part of a discussion at my church in a couple weeks, that helps hone advocacy skills. (Click on the link for more info if you want to join us!)

How to Journey with Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse

Above all, let kindness guide your actions and words. It may not appear to have much effect immediately, but people remember the feeling of being seen and heard, which is what they desperately need.

See them. Hear them. Keep hope for them. Always.

AJ