12 Things You Should Understand about Helping Survivors of Domestic Violence

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If you work in social service or customer service for any length of time, sooner or later someone will walk through that door and, in a very short time, you will realize she (or he) is in an abusive relationship (also called intimate partner violence or IPV).

Your instinct will probably be to jump right in and start helping (after all, that’s what you do!) but here are some things you need to know in order to be more effective at helping. (Because 70-80% of survivors are female, I will be using the pronoun ‘she’. If you are helping a male survivor, consider him included).

Helping Survivors of Domestic Violence

  1. She is unlikely to leave today, right now, just because you said she should. There are a lot of considerations in her life (unique to her) as to whether at this time she both wants to and feels she can leave.
  2. Statistically, the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when the survivor makes plans to leave and begins carrying them out. Help your survivor develop a safety plan (if she is at this point) and walk through it with her to iron out problems. She may not use it today, but she’ll have it if she needs it.
  3. The physical abuse is only the tip of the iceberg. Many survivors of IPV have been isolated and emotionally abused for years and may be hostile or withdrawn. It will take time, patience and consistency to achieve any kind of rapport.
  4. Abusers often hold children, pets, or other cherished people or things hostage to control a survivor. If you are getting nowhere with the survivor, try addressing this gently to get her to open up. If you are able to help her build a safety plan to include these endangered people and things, it will help.
  5. On that note, never dismiss a survivor’s attachment to an animal or object as unimportant. Sometimes these attachments are very valuable to the survivor’s mental well-being. When making your plan, if you cannot figure out away to include the animal or object, help the survivor think it out herself as to what she needs to do.
  6. For your own safety, never agree to be the mediator between the abuser and the survivor in any situation that isn’t thoroughly controlled at an agency level. Domestic violence situations are inherently volatile, which means that you could get hurt, or cause the survivor to be hurt.
  7. The stories that survivors tell can be horrific, and very difficult to hear. If you find that you are having trouble with your own emotions, excuse yourself for a moment and get yourself under control, if necessary asking a co-worker or boss for help. If it is bothering you after the survivor leaves, make sure to talk to someone (respecting confidentiality, of course!) about your problem.
  8. The survivor in front of you might not see what is being done to her as abuse, even if you can see it. In addition to cultural and religious influences, abusers work very hard to minimize and shift blame for what they do on to their victims. Don’t argue with her about whether or not what she is going through is abuse. Give her facts, and ask her questions, to help her figure it out herself.
  9. The definition of domestic violence is ‘power and control’. Many people who are abused fight back, but true ‘mutual abuse’ is very rare. Who makes the decisions? Who lives in fear? Whose actions are controlled and who is doing the controlling? Who uses guilt as a weapon? The general direction of most of these questions, combined, will help to identify the abuser in a complicated situation.
  10. There is a myth that domestic violence survivors ‘asked for it’ or that they stay because they like it. Neither is true. In IPV situations, sometimes the only control a survivor has is to determine when she is going to be abused (and thus have a bruise, miss work or school or church), so it is true that sometimes survivors will instigate an escalating abuser in order to get it over with. This does not mean she likes it. It means she is trying to survive. She may need help understanding this, herself.
  11. Gay couples have IPV violence in almost the same proportions as straight couples. In these situations as in others, it is important to recognize that the largest and most physically imposing person in the relationship is not necessarily the abuser. Keep your mind open, observe and ask questions, and don’t assume.
  12. One of the hallmarks of intimate partner violence is isolation. The abuser isolates the victim both to make it harder for the victim to get away, and to shield the abuse from prying eyes. One of the best things you can do for the survivor as she is getting ready to leave or leaving her abuser is to help her rebuild her social network. Help her find a support group, help her make those (scary!) first calls to friends and family she has been isolated from, etc.

Intimate partner violence in all its variations is a challenging situation to deal with as a helper. If this is something that you encounter frequently in your workplace, you might want to consider getting additional training from a local DV shelter or educate yourself using online resources. Here are a few resources you might find helpful.

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s Infographic
The Center for Disease Control’s Intimate Partner Violence Page
The National Coalition for the Homeless’ Fact Sheet on Domestic Violence and Homelessness
A very interesting study on the psychology of two types of abusers from a criminology perspective
A Scholarly Article on the Cult of “Blaming the Victim”


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